Jargon Watch: The Language Of Storms

Squall, bombogenesis, vortex, oh my.
lightning strikes a body of water illustrating weather terms

Just last month, New York City was hit by a snow squall that delivered breathtaking time lapse videos of the storm swallowing the city whole. Beyond the impressive nature of this visual spectacle, the most noteworthy thing about this storm was that most people didn’t seem to know what the heck a squall was. But hey, add it to the growing list of wonky-sounding weather terms we’ve gradually accepted into our vocabulary in these wonky weather times. Bombogenesis. Polar vortex. Thundersnow.

We’ve covered how to talk about the weather in many other languages, but to tell the truth, talking about the weather in English isn’t always as straightforward as you’d think, even for native speakers. Weather terms sometimes sound like a foreign language unto themselves that only meteorologists can understand.

To level the playing field, we’ve taken it upon us to define a few of the more interesting weather terms you’ll come across.

Bombogenesis — No, this isn’t the name of the next big Latin pop group. Bombogenesis, also known as a bomb cyclone, is the phenomenon that occurs when a storm’s barometric pressure bottoms out quickly, which causes intense winds and a winter weather explosion that feels like a bomb going off.

Derecho — For clues as to what a derecho could entail, consider that derecho means “straight” in Spanish. In weather terms, a derecho is basically a succession of rapidly moving thunderstorms or rains that follow each other in a line. They’re not unlike tornadoes, but the downward-sweeping cold winds from the thunderstorms are what cause the damage. To count as a derecho, it must involve wind gusts of at least 58 mph, with wind damage affecting a stretch of at least 240 miles.

Firenado — A Sharknado might be a fictional made-for-television film premise, but firenados are real, and they’re pretty much what you think they are. A firenado forms when hot, dry air rises quickly from the ground, creating a vortex of fire, smoke and debris.

Haboob — A ha-what now? A haboob is essentially a dust storm on steroids — as in “cover a whole city in mere minutes in zero-visibility conditions and winds over 40 mph.” It requires very dry conditions and a sandy, dusty environment, mixed with a thunderstorm to whip it all up. The word “haboob” itself comes from Arabic, and it means “blasting.”

Polar Vortex — A polar vortex is conceived of as an extreme weather event when it affects more temperate regions. But actually, it’s the status quo of climate near the poles. The polar vortex is a belt of low pressure that normally exists near the North and South Poles, though it typically makes headlines when the arctic air from the North Pole spreads south and creates extremely cold temperatures. This spread is being exacerbated by climate change, as warmer-than-usual air creates disturbances in the jet stream that skews normal weather patterns.

Squall — A squall is a very strong (and very sudden) gust of wind or storm that usually involves rain, snow or a combination of the two. To count as a squall, it has to involve a wind-speed increase of at least 18 mph for a minute or longer. To refer back to a term we’ve already covered, derechos typically form from squall lines.

Swullocking — This is an old term from the southeast of England that’s used to refer to the humidity that forms right before a thunderstorm rolls in.

Thundersnow — This doesn’t take much mental extrapolation to figure out. A thundersnow is a thunderstorm, except with snow in place of rain.

Toad Strangler — If you’re from the United States South, you might be familiar with this term. A toad strangler is an especially heavy rainstorm that can lead to flash flooding.

Learn to discuss the weather in a new language.