Calm Down, There’s No Impending ‘Winter Hurricane’

A meteorologist explains why this week’s winter storm is just a winter storm.

Everett Collection

For those hoping 2018 would turn out to be a bit gentler on our frayed 2017 nerves, nature has a news blast: It won’t, at least climatologically.

What’s being called a rare “winter hurricane” is expected to batter the East Coast this first week of the new year, making the brutal cold freezing the country look like a springy fever dream: several inches of snow dumped amid howling winds reaching 55 mph and subzero temperatures.

However, while “winter hurricane” sounds like a Hollywood natural disaster blockbuster in the making, it’s not a true hurricane, according to James Kossin, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Center for Weather and Climate. “This is really just a problem of using the word ‘hurricane’ to describe something that’s not a hurricane,” Kossin, who specializes in studying hurricanes and climate change, said.

That’s right: According to Kossin, the frightening weather situation that’s going to ram into the Northeast and has thus far inspired headlines warning us to “brace for the apocalypse” and keep an eye out for a “bomb cyclone” are kind of the weather version of the boy crying wolf.

“This is what we would call a winter storm or an extra tropical storm,” Kossin said, waving off the hysteria during a phone call with The Daily Beast. “It just means we have hurricane-force winds.”

A hurricane is a specific weather phenomenon that requires a set of conditions: formation in the tropical region (they can form in higher latitudes but require tropical conditions that are rarely found further north), wind shear (the velocity of wind and its direction from the ground to the troposhere, about 40,000 feet above sea level in the tropics), and a drastic pressure drop.

This week’s storm, on the other hand, is just “a fairly classic winter storm,” Kossin said.

That might sound dismissive of the apocalyptic headlines about the frigid temperatures and howling winds set to menace East Coasters this week, but Kossin said it’s the reality. It’s a storm, winter storms by nature tend to be “events” and anomalous, and winter storms tend to be really cold and really nasty.

Kossin also said it’s hard to blame this storm on climate change. “It’s a single event so it’s hard to attribute it to climate change,” he said, though it’s most definitely ridiculously cold.

So why is this particular winter storm getting so much attention? It’s a perfect storm, according to Kossin. “The best way to think of it is that it requires a certain combination of factors coming together,” he said. “It’s going to become very strong very quickly. If the model is correct in the forecasts, the pressure will drop quite a lot and with pressure comes winds.”

Those fancy terms being tossed around, like “bomb cyclone”? Kossin said that technically, this storm is one. But there’s a whole range of possibilities that Kossin threw out that make bomb cyclone seem rather tame.

“Something that gets very strong very quickly can be called an explosive intensification,” he offered. “Mid-latitude storm is another one. A bomb is used for the types of extra-tropical storms that strengthen so explosively so quickly, like this one.”

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But in the end, those terms are just used to rev up the descriptive power of a plain old winter storm. It’s going to suck, but for the love of the weather, don’t call it a hurricane.