Meet the Star Trek-loving meteorologist who named Winter Storm Khan

January 26, 2013

The first thing you should know about the man who named Winter Storm Khan – which is expected to leave 2 to 4 inches of snow between Ohio and the mid-Atlantic this weekend – is that he lives in Miami Beach, Fla.

When I reached Bryan Norcross, the Weather Channel’s Senior Executive Director of Weather Content and Senior Hurricane Specialist, at home Friday afternoon, he cheerfully reported that the weather there was a sunny 77 degrees.

So while much of the rest of the country shivers through single-digit temperatures, the man who helped spark the controversy over the Weather Channel’s move to start naming winter storms this past fall can walk around in shorts and flip-flops

If you'll recall, the cable channel's decision irritated critics who thought the task of naming storms should be reserved for some quasi-governmental agency, like the World Meteorological Organization, which names hurricanes in the Atlantic, or the National Weather Service, perhaps. Andrew Freiden, a Richmond, Va. meteorologist who was quoted in the Capital Weather Gang blog, put it this way: “Weather Channel to name Winter Storms! First Thought: “Who died and made them King?!”

Honestly, we here at the WBEZ web team weren’t all that interested in the controversy. We just wanted to know: Khan? Draco? Gandolf?! Who picked these names? And were they, like, mega sci-fi/fantasy buffs or what?

The answer, not surprisingly, is yes.

“Meteorologists tend to be – what would you call it – Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings enthusiasts,” Norcross said. “We’re more inclined towards sci-fi than the general population.” So much so that in addition to their choice of Khan, Norcross and company considered naming a storm after Lt. Uhura. “We thought about a bunch of Star Trek names,” he said. “But we didn’t want words that were hard to say or funny to read. It was a trial-and-error process.”

The Weather Channel considered superhero names, too. (My reaction: “You mean like Winter Storm Spider-Man?!” How amazing would that have been?) Their choice for “J” was almost Jor-El, Superman’s father.

Ultimately Norcross steered his team away from those choices. “I have a list of names that pulled directly out of popular culture in a variety of ways,” he said. “Then we got to thinking, is this going to cause any issue?” (You know, like, say, copyright infringement.) “Then it occurred to me that many of these [pop-culture names] are derived from something else. Why not avoid the issue, and then it makes a better story anyway?”

So those storm names that seem plucked directly from the comics? Draco may be Harry Potter’s snide classmate, but he is also, apparently, “the first legislator of Athens in Ancient Greece.” Norcross and company settled on Greek and Roman mythology for the public face of their inspiration, picking names like Athena, Brutus and Helen. (There is a smattering of other weather-related gods in there, too, like Orko, the Basque god of thunder.) When explaining the double meanings of some other names, Norcross now points to the more old-school usages and derivations in order to avoid any controversy or unwanted business attention.

For example, Winter Storm Gandolf – which brought blizzard conditions to the Rockies in early January – is spelled with an “o” while Tolkien’s gray wizard Gandalf spells his name with an “a.” Tolkien took inspiration for Gandalf’s name from a character in William Morris’ 1896 novel A Well at the World’s End; hence the Weather Channel’s citation for its winter storm name: “Gandolf: A character in a 1896 fantasy novel in a pseudo-medieval countryside.”

Norcross said he likes the alternative spelling because it gets people talking. “I’ve seen it on tweets – ‘Oh, they’ve misspelled Gandalf!’” he said. “Then I tell them the story behind the name and they say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ Now we’ve told a story that makes people have some kind of identification with the name.”

That desire for social media engagement, Norcross said, was ultimately the final motivation for the whole naming enterprise anyway. “The thing that ticked us over was Twitter, and the need for a hashtag for a storm,” he explained. “Anything of any consequence needs a hashtag. So what are you going to put? #Snow?”

Whatever names they choose down the road – they've yet to choose next year's names – they'll have their work cut out for them. Climatologists, including Norcross' former Weather Channel colleague Heidi Cullen, predict that global warming will increase the frequency and intensity of  storms, including the snowy kind. That means Norcross and his colleagues have a lot of new names to pick out.

You can check out more of what Cullen has to say about the impact of climate change on weather in the audio below.

Then, if you want to help the Weather Channel out, you can submit your suggestions for winter storm names at feedback.weather.com. Me? I suggest that in keeping with tradition, they name one of next year’s storms Storm. You know, like, "a disturbance of the normal condition of the atmosphere."

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Heidi Cullen spoke at an event presented by Elmhurst College in March of 2012 Click here to hear the event in its entirety.