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28Jan 2013

Three months after Sandy: What are we supposed to call it?

Three months after Sandy: What are we supposed to call it?

Three months after Sandy, many of the news media have settled on Superstorm Sandy as the way to describe the storm that ravaged the Northeast and elsewhere in early November. 

I've had enough of "superstorm" and its tabloid connotations. What was the thing actually called? And what should the press call it? 

On January 15, 2010, the National Weather Service fell into line with other member countries of the World Meteorological Organization by agreeing to call such storms "post-tropical cyclones." And it defined the term, in a release in an all-caps text file that looks as though it came over an old AP teletype sometime around 1942:

A FORMER TROPICAL CYCLONE. THIS GENERIC TERM DESCRIBES A CYCLONE THAT NO LONGER POSSESSES SUFFICIENT TROPICAL CHARACTERISTICS TO BE CONSIDERED A TROPICAL CYCLONE. POST-TROPICAL CYCLONES CAN CONTINUE CARRYING HEAVY RAINS AND HIGH WINDS.

There are two kinds of post-tropical cyclones. A "remnant low" post-tropical cyclone is one "that no longer possesses the convective organization required of a tropical cyclone...and has maximum sustained windw of less than 34 knots." An "extratropical cyclone" is a cylone "of any intensity for which the primary energy source is baroclinic /that is...results from the temperature contrast between warm an cold air masses." (I'm using the National Weather Service punctuation.)

Clear?

So no more Superstorm Sandy, or doomsday meteorite, or monster squid. Please. The alternative? I suppose we could call it Hurricane Sandy, on the grounds that once it's been a hurricane, it never loses that courtesy title, as is the case with senators and presidents. But that wouldn't be quite right either. "Post-tropical cyclone" might not roll off the tongue, but it's accurate, and it avoids the tabloid tinge of "Superstorm Sandy." Not to mention the wrath of the Supercritic Tracker.

-Paul Raeburn

Comments

Seth,

Thanks for the informative comment; that lays out the storm and its constituents very nicely. Still, I'd argue that "superstorm" doesn't convey the subtleties you point out. Perhaps the best thing to do is to provide a little of this background parenthetically when writing about the storm.

I'm not sure I ever won a battle with the style mavens in my AP days, but I would try now and then.

As part of the AP team that decided on Superstorm Sandy _ that is the official AP style _ and a reporter who wrote about the storm more than 100 hours in advance (then using the name "Frankenstorm" which was coined by a NOAA meteorologist), let me explain my reasoning. It was more than a hurricane. As a hurricane Sandy was a category 1 with winds, but storm surge energy that was the highest ever using NOAA's Hurricane Research Division innovative Integrated Kinetic Energy index. More importantly, what made Sandy special and dangerous wasn't just its tropical characteristics. Sandy was a hybrid of three, count 'em three, storm systems that merged together. That's why you had a tropical system, snow, flooding and winds. If there were just Sandy, the name Hurricane Sandy would fit. But this included a nor'easter and a conventional cold front. Further, because of where it hit and how, it had super effects. So Hurricane Sandy while technically correct (and better than post-tropical cyclone Sandy) is not descriptive enough, not complete.

Interestingly, the first story I wrote, I used the terms Frankenstorm and hybrid storm, but the slug "Super storm" two words.
Seth Borenstein, science writer, The Associated Press

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