Forecasters are predicting that a so-called "Frankenstorm" will hit the Eastern Seaboard of the United States in coming days, but Environment Canada's chief climatologist says there are risks to labeling such powerful weather systems with scary-sounding names.
"There's so much competition for people's time," David Phillips said in a phone interview. "Naming like this is really trying to shake up the general public… that this is something to be concerned about and aware of."
Humanizing a powerful weather system — in this case by tying it to Halloween — can encourage people to prepare for it, he said. But there are dangers in the event that a weather system fails to pack as much of a punch as expected.
"If in fact these don't live up to their billing, then clearly there is a bit of egg on one's face and people mock those that tried to scare us skinny," he said.
'You don't want to be left out and not let people prepare. You tend to err on the side of caution.'—Environment Canada's chief climatologist David Phillips
One recent example was a 2011 blizzard dubbed "Snowmageddon" that caused significant disruptions in parts of the U.S. and Eastern Canada. But it failed to dump as much snow as expected north of the border.
"Instead of 'Snowmageddon' it was 'Snow Big Deal,'" Phillips recalled.
This time around, three large weather systems are expected to merge over the densely populated Eastern Seabord of the U.S. in coming days. "It's looking like a very serious storm that could be historic," said Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the forecasting service Weather Underground.
Masters is predicting that the weather system could inflict more than $1 billion in damage.
Impact north of the border
It's unclear how much Canadians will be affected. But Hurricane Sandy, one of the ingredients in the so-called "Frankenstorm," could track northeast into Ontario next week after sweeping across the Caribbean and northeastern U.S.
Sandy has already claimed at least 38 lives, and while it will have lost some of its force if it reaches Canadian airspace, CBC's senior meteorologist said it would still pose a hazard.
"The biggest issue is how much cold air is going to reenergize this storm," Claire Martin said.
Cold air tends to lift tropical air, making it "even more dangerous," she said.
If the weather systems meet Tuesday morning around New York or New Jersey, as forecasters predict, they could create a big, wet mess that settles over the most heavily populated corridor in the U.S. and reaches as far west as Ohio.
Some have compared the coming tempest to the so-called Perfect Storm that struck off the coast of New England in 1991, but that one hit a less populated area.
Phillips said each storm is unique, and should be treated accordingly.
"Every one has its own personality and characteristics, and sometimes these superlatives are all used up," he said.
"Really it comes down to trying to identify it and raise awareness," he added. "You don't want to be left out and not let people prepare. You tend to err on the side of caution."