September 22, 2023, by Brigitte Nerlich
From Omicron to Omega: What’s in a name?
The last few years have been years of planetary upheaval. We have all lived through a Covid-19 pandemic and are, in fact, still living with it, and we have all felt the effects of climate change. To deal with these planetary events, we had to invent and learn new concepts and new names.
Quite recently, I heard for example about Omega blocking and wondered what that meant. It makes perfect sense if you know what it means, but in the context of living through Alpha up to Omicron recently, it cognitively jarred a bit at first.
In this post, I’ll meander through some strange names that have been invented in these strange times and ask whether they help us make sense of the world or not. Or is it all Greek to us? As usual, more research is needed to answer that question!
I bet that everybody remembers Omicron. When the coronavirus brought us the Covid-19 pandemic, it arrived in different shades of grey, first Alpha, then Beta, then Gamma, then Delta …. all largely forgotten, then Omicron, named after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet… That was the variant to top them all… until now. Now there are other variants and the dominant one is possibly called Eris, a nickname for a new Omicron strain called EG.5. The name might refer to Eris, the Greek goddess of discord. I am not sure. But if it does, this name could readily apply to everything around us at the moment.
During the pandemic, there was quite a lot of debate about how to name variants and that debate still continues. Greek letters were chosen mainly to avoid stigma, as initially some variants were labelled after countries where the variant was first spotted.
Whether variants of the coronavirus ever get to Omega, the twenty-fourth and final letter in the Greek alphabet is a question I can’t answer. Interestingly, Omega literally means “great O”, as opposed to Omicron, which means “little O”. Anyway, meanwhile we have another Omega to deal with.
Omega is not only the name of a potential virus variant, but also the long-established name of a weather variant. Interestingly, names for coronavirus variants are arbitrary. We could have called them Pixie, Dixie and Mixie, if we had wanted to. By contrast, the Omega label I am talking about now is motivated, that is there is some reason why that name is used to refer to what it refers to. In this case, the reason behind the name choice lies in the fact that the Greek letter Ω looks like a specific weather pattern called an ‘omega block’.
As Alexander Roberts and John Marsham explain in a nice piece for The Conversation: “Western Europe’s weather is largely governed by the jet stream. This high-altitude, high-velocity river of air meanders around the globe and is constantly changing position. When an omega-shaped wave is present on the jet stream which arcs over Europe, warm dry air from southern Europe and Africa can be pulled north, pushing temperatures higher than normal. If this upper level feature coincides with high pressure at the surface with relatively low pressure to the east and west an omega block is formed.” The weather pattern gets stuck.
This means that heatwaves can develop inside the shape where there is high pressure and floods can develop outside, where there is low pressure. How and when that happens and how weather patterns form and shift in the context of climate change is still uncertain. But heatwaves are getting hotter and floods are getting worse…
This summer and early autumn ‘blocking patterns’ shaped the weather, with the September floods in Libya being an extreme example. In August there was another block of weather sitting over the Mediterranean causing severe heatwaves.
Cerberus and Charon
We are used to storms and hurricanes having names, such as hurricane Katrina, for example. However, heatwaves have only been named relatively recently. There was Lucifer in 2017 (a good name, I think) and then there were Zoe and Yago in 2022, both names a bit too tame for my liking. But then again storms have names like Daniel or, indeed Katrina, and are utterly destructive. And perhaps one shouldn’t be too alarming.
Interestingly, originally Greek letters were used to name hurricanes. However, in 2020, storm names included Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta and Iota. That was getting a bit much. The World Meteorological Organisation noted that this created a distraction from the communication of hazard and storm warnings and was potentially confusing. It therefore began to use names like Lee or Nigel, for example.
Back to heatwaves. In 2023, two heatwaves struck the Mediterranean. They became the fourth and fifth heatwaves to be named, and with these names we go back to the Greeks again; this time not the alphabet though, but mythical monsters – a bit in line with Lucifer.
First there was Cerberus, named after “a multi-headed dog that guards the gates of the Underworld to prevent the dead from leaving” which also “features in Dante’s Inferno”, as pointed out in a Guardian article. Shortly afterwards there was Charon, “who in Greek mythology was the ferryman of the dead”.
Is it a good idea to use Greek monsters as names for heatwaves? Is it too scary? There was quite a debate in the comments underneath the Guardian article reporting from Italy. One commenter, GoldenZen, jokingly proposed some Chinese names one could use. Again, they are quite scary, something that was discussed in the comments, but at least we get away from Eurocentric names!
“We’re making a hell on earth might as well get the names right. Chinese culture can be extremely helpful in this regard:
Heatwave 油鍋地獄 (yóu guō diyù) Hell of Cauldron of Burning Oil
Heatwave 火山地獄 (huo3shan diyù) Hell of Mountain of Flames
Heatwave 蒸籠地獄 (zhēnglóng diyù) Hell of Steam
and so on. As someone once said ‘Chinese have a lot of hells’ so it should keep us going for a while.”
Combine that with Dante and you get hot!
Naming: when, where, how and what?
I wonder what future heatwaves will be called. There is some research into the pros and cons of naming storms and now also heatwaves. Names are there to raise awareness, avoid confusion, focus coordination efforts and help memorise events, and, in doing so help, perhaps, preparedness. There are also cultural differences. In Asia for examples, heatwaves, which are much more common there, are not named.
Overall, it seems that ”there is little research on whether naming extreme weather events helps or not. ‘Partly this comes down to the nature of the work, a combination of meteorology, psychology and communication studies,’ says Dr Andrew Charlton-Perez, professor of meteorology at Reading University. ‘It can be quite hard to build teams that contain all of this expertise.’”
And I bet that’s the same for virology, epidemiology, psychology and communication when it comes to pandemic viruses. I’d love to hear of any research out there looking into these naming issues in science and society, especially from the perspective of communication science.
Image: Letter Omega, Wikimedia commons