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January 1, 2013

Winter Storm Names: Public Service or Just Hot Air?

WASHINGTON — That wasn't just snow burying a swath of the nation from the Ohio Valley to southern New England over the weekend, no, sir. And that wasn't just sleet and rain in Boston.

That was Freyr.

Freyr, as in "Winter Storm Freyr," the Nordic-centric name bestowed by the Weather Channel on an icy band of precipitation that moved like spilled milk from west to east starting on Friday night.

See, the Weather Channel thinks names aren't just for your well-defined tropical systems like hurricanes and cyclones anymore. And it isn't waiting for the National Weather Service's National Hurricane Center — the official namer of tropical storms — to start naming this winter's blizzards and such. In a confluence of marketing hot air and a ridge of cool calculation, the cable channel has started pumping out its own storm names.

So, it was Freyr the other day (and Athena, Brutus, Caesar, Draco and Euclid before that). The channel says it will name each subsequent storm in alphabetical succession, until we get to Khan, Q, Yogi and Xerxes, among others. Weather permitting, of course.

Give the Atlanta-based Weather Channel credit for packaging and branding what Nature dishes up for free. By naming the storms, it gives its TV coverage a unifying identity ("Coming up: More on the wrath of Khan . . ."). It also creates a Twitter rallying point and an Internet search term to direct people to such TWC-owned sites as Weather.com and Weather Underground.

All part of the plan, says Weather Channel spokesman David Blumenthal. But he also says the bigger reason for giving storms names is "to create better understanding and more awareness [of severe weather] so that people are better prepared."

The federal government has been naming warm-season storms for decades, but it's never done so for the cold variety. It has no plans to adopt the Weather Channel's names, either.

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