On commercialization of the naming of blizzards: the Weather Channel and Minnesota tradition


Several Facebook friends first raised the objection today: what’s up with giving winter storms names?

Some outlets were calling the generous but not especially scary snowstorm that dumped about an inch of much needed moisture across the state “Winter Storm Caesar,” and folks were rightly calling foul.

Blizzards aren’t named beforehand like hurricanes for those wusses who’ve fled our winters for the retired sunshine of Florida–or those hipsteric East Coast elites who didn’t have the sense to come in out of Sandy’s paths. Those folks need a weatherman to tell them which way the wind blows.

Rather, our grand old Minnesota tradition is to have our storms earn their names. Think of the Halloween Blizzard of 1991. The Armstice Day Blizzard of 1940. The Thanksgiving Day Blizzard of 1896 (okay if you don’t remember that one). The State Basketball Tournament Blizzards. The St. Patrick’s Day Blizzard of 1965, which set up the Minnesota River Valley for such horrific flooding.

Or the Super Bowl Blizzard of 1975, which shut the state down, just as the Pittsburgh Steelers held the Vikes to a mere 6 points on the killing fields of Tulane.

Note how Minnesotans give names associated with a holiday or an event, not some “organized naming system for these storms before they impact population centers” selected by idle marketing hands at “a world-class organization such as The Weather Channel.”

These blizzards aren’t pets.

No: the naming of significant blizzards isn’t an act of charity for a corporation to bestow on us in benevolent concern for our safety, nor an exercise in branding (or brand extension). Blizzards earn their names in the shared memory of those who plowed the snow, who waited in hotel rooms and remote farmhouses, who packed storm kits for their cars and so shook off hyperthermia and frostbite when their wheels simply could go no farther.

Great winter storms on the northern prairies are named by those who remember the hunters who huddled in their duck blinds with good dogs and never made it.

It’s not a list brainstormed by people who aren’t from around here.

And so it is with this storm. Newly engaged lovers in Clara City will remember making bacon and potato soup while one cleaned closets. A now-young boy may recall going out to feed his ponies in Pine County. A senate aide in Kandiyohi County will laugh about how he suddenly didn’t have enough ruler to measure the snow. A young girl in Minneapolis will recall baking M & M cookies with her immigrant mother while the snow fell outside the kitchen window. Football fans will remember clearing snow, then settling in to watch a team that finally recalled the glory days of Bud Grant, Fran Tarkenton, and the Purple People Eaters, then heading out to deal with more snow.

But these will not be memories of a singular storm that earned a name. They will simply be the first storm of a winter, remarkable only in its novelty for the season.

So, no thank you, Weather Channel. We understand our winter storms here in Minnesota and don’t need a list of names to tell us which way the wind blows. (By the way, the guy who came up with the original version of that line is from around here; take the hint).

The National Weather Service hasn’t embraced your scheme. It:

issued a statement saying it would not offer an opinion on the decision by a private enterprise to name storms. However the service said, “A winter storm’s impact can vary from one location to another, and storms can weaken and redevelop, making it difficult to define where one ends and another begins.”

It’s certainly not calling this storm tonight “Caesar.”

Even the word “blizzard” itself, my Oxford English Dictionary tells me, has a nearly local origin, a name given to our fierce prairie storms by the Northern Vindicator of Estherville, Iowa, between 1860 and 1870. Like so many of our blizzards here in Minnesota, the colloquialism itself might have blown in from the West.

So please, corporate media Weather Channel people, just stop with the naming of our snowstorms. You mean well. Fine. But good intentions don’t give you naming rights. Those who shovel the walks and bury the dead already have them, and we’ll pick which storm we’ll name, and what that name will be.