Hurricanes have "eyes." Like humans, they often engage in erratic behaviors. They make "landfalls," like invading forces.
Thus naming them seems like a natural exercise in personification. But the naming also has a practical purpose.
As has happened this year and in other seasons, multiple tropical storms have swirled simultaneously in the Atlantic Basin, and pinning names on them helps keep them straight in the public consciousness.
But does it make sense to name winter storms, as the Weather Channel decided to do five winters ago, generating howls of protest from rivals and what amounted to disdain from the government.
Accuweather founder Joel Myers immediately denounced the move as a stunt that would confuse, and perhaps even endanger the public, arguing that winter storms are wholly different in how they form and that they produce a wider variety of impacts.
But just what effect do winter-storm names really have on public awareness and perception of the hazards? Social-science issues are of growing interest in the meteorological community these days — how people interpret forecasts and how they act on them.
Thus a group of researchers at the University of Connecticut took considerable trouble to arrive at a disinterested finding about the impacts of naming winter storms. Their conclusion in a nutshell: Not much.
In a study involving over 400 students and that 21st Century paragon of truth, Twitter, they presented the subjects with three mock Tweets reading: "Up to 1 FOOT of #SNOW for parts of New England. … "
For one group, the winter-storm name "Bill," one typical of a tropical storm, was included in the Tweet; for another, a Weather Channel-like "Zelus," and for the third, the storm was nameless.
In the study, to be published in the journal Weather, Climate, and Society, whether "Bill," "Zelus," or no name made little differences in terms of the participants' perceptions of the storm's potential severity.
For better, worse, or utter lack of consequence, the names are back. The list unveiled earlier this month starts with Aiden, Benji, and Chloe an empties into Uma, Xanto, and Zoey.
The National Hurricane Center has clear metrics for naming tropical cyclones – observed peak winds of 39 mph for tropical storms, and 74 mph for hurricanes.
The Weather Channel's naming criteria for winter storms is trickier. Rather than observations, the system is based on forecasts, with a name bestowed on storms expected to affect at least two million people and/or an area of 240,000 square miles.
Naturally, the Weather Channel thinks it would be just swell if all its commercial competitors got on board with its naming program.