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'Bomb Cyclone' Is a Term Pulled From Deep in Meteorology Glossaries to Get Clicks

The National Weather Service says it's "solely a meteorological term" and doesn't describe the impacts of the storm.

Ashwin Rodrigues

Ashwin Rodrigues

Image: NWS / Remix: Jason Koebler

Interrupting your regularly scheduled scrolling through Twitter to hastily click on a post about “an extratropical surface cyclone whose central pressure fall averages at least 1 mb h−1 for 24 h” is a ridiculous proposal.

But terms like BOMB CYCLONES, BOMBOGENESIS, and a WICKED COLD POLAR VORTEX adds clickability to weather that might otherwise be described as “it’s going to be cold, windy, and snow a lot.”

“Bomb cyclone” may very well be the accurate meteorological term for what’s expected to happen later this week on the East Coast of the US, but the way it’s being used across the blogosphere to lead off headlines represents the latest in the fear mongerization of winter weather; from the quaint “Snowpocalypses” and “Snowmageddons” of yore to the more recent rash of polar vortexes we’ve soldiered through.

To be clear, the weather that is expected to hit is indeed frightening and in certain cases might be life threatening—the National Weather Service predicting blizzard conditions for parts of New England, and extremely cold temperatures and snowfall for much of the East Coast. But in its most recent 10 warnings, the NWS has not used the words “bomb cyclone” or “bombogenesis,” instead opting for much more run-of-the-mill and well-understood terms like “winter storm,” “snow,” and “damaging wind.”

When the NWS has used "bombogenesis" publicly, it's doing it to explain the term it to people who are "confused" about it, and describes bombogenesis as "solely a meteorological term."

The media, on the other hand, has chosen without fail to lead with “bomb cyclone” and “bombogenesis,” terms gifted to science in a 1980 paper published by Frederick Sanders and John R. Gyakum of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Meteorology Department, which states a bomb cyclone is a “predominantly maritime, cold-season event ... usually found ∼400 n mi downstream from a mobile 500 mb trough, within or poleward of the maximum westerlies, and within or ahead of the planetary-scale troughs.”

While scientifically accurate and likely of interest to meteorologists and weather nerds, the term “bomb cyclone” nor its unsexy definition means nothing to the average person, but likely conjures a misleading image. The “bomb” refers to the rapid drop in pressure and intensification of the storm. It does not refer to the actual effects of the system on the people, structures, and life that will experience it.

Terms like bomb cyclone and bombogenesis, then, are more suited for meteorology forums and scientific papers than headlines and local news chyrons (there’s a reason the NWS—an organization that is supposed to be of great utility to the masses—didn’t use the term). Indeed, a 2002 study found that there are 45 annual bomb cyclones in the northern hemisphere every year, but we only seem to care about them when the media puts the term in headlines, as it did in 2014.

Image: Google Trends

In a calmer news cycle, sensationalized weather terms might be a welcome diversion. However, this is not a good time for theatrics, especially when we have a president who casually tweets about dropping much more devastating bombs on foreign nations.

To be clear, the incoming storm may represent a threat to many people. But if the only way we can get people to pay attention to a storm is by pulling the scariest-sounding terms from the depths of meteorological glossaries and slapping them in all caps across Twitter feeds, then there is something wrong with the larger media landscape—which I guess is no surprise.