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Is “bomb cyclone” even a real thing? The origin of the scariest term in weather

Is “bomb cyclone” even a real thing? The origin of the scariest term in weather
[Photo: Emanuel Hahn/Unsplash]

If you live on the East Coast of the United States, you are likely bracing for a massive winter storm expected to bring rain, snow, and ice from Florida to New England this week. You’re probably also shivering–not just from the bone-chilling temperatures we’ve all been experiencing, but because forecasters and the media have been using frightening terms like “bomb cyclone” and “bombogenesis.”

Are these even real things? In a word, yes. According to the Weather Channel, “bombogenesis” refers to a “rapidly intensifying area of low pressure.” It comes from the term “weather bomb.” To classify as a weather bomb, “the central pressure of a low pressure system must drop at least 24 millibars within 24 hours,” TWC wrote in December. So there is real methodology behind it.

In the last day or so, a flood of articles have used the term “bomb cyclone” to refer to the storm affecting the East Coast. Many of those articles cite the same tweet from Ryan Maue, a meteorologist with Weather.us, who predicted that the storm will fill up the entire Western Atlantic, have hurricane-strength winds, and pressure as low as Hurricane Sandy. So we can probably thank Maue for sparking the hashtag #BombCylcone, which was trending on Twitter the last time I checked.

In fact, the origin of these terms dates back decades. In a 2005 article for USA Today, Jack Williams explained that meteorologists started referring informally to sudden, intense storms as “bombs” in the 1940s. He also credited Fred Sanders, a pioneering weather forecaster with MIT, for popularizing the term weather bomb. Sanders, who passed away in 2006, described the phenomenon in a 1980 article for Monthly Weather Review, according to Williams.

To summarize: “Bomb cyclone” and “bombogenesis” are terms that sound scary because they are. If you’re interested in learning more, there’s lots of good info here and here.

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