What Is Bombogenesis and How Does a 'Bomb Cyclone' Become So Dangerous?

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New Yorkers make their way through a storm on January 8. Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Social media loves a hyperbolic storm name. Snowpocalypse? Snowmageddon? Snowtorious BIG? Keep them coming.

But if you've been seeing "bombogenesis" all over social media this week and thought it was just more of the same, get ready for a wild ride, because this one is the real deal.

Bombogenesis is the process that creates the type of super-severe storm—a bomb cyclone—that the East Coast is currently experiencing. Those terms have been in use by meteorologists since at least 1980, and despite the bombastic tone, the science behind them is real.

01_04_bombogenesis_winter_storm This gull knows bombogenesis is the real deal. Scott Eisen/Getty Images

The term has nothing to do with the immediate hazards of a storm, like cold temperatures, snow or wind; instead, it deals with a weather factor most of us never think about—air pressure. In order to qualify as a "bomb," a storm's pressure has to drop at least 24 millibars in less than 24 hours; it's actually a marker of how quickly a storm strengthens. This storm blew that standard away: One measurement found its pressure dropped 53 millibars in just 21 hours.

Storms are typically caused by knots of low pressure, where a mass of rising air leaves a sort of void, which pulls in neighboring air masses. The lower the pressure, the faster all that air moves. Although the mechanism is a little different, a strong enough bomb cyclone can cause hurricane-force winds, just like a tropical cyclone.

Read more: Are Bomb Cyclones Real? The Difference Between a Nor'Easter, Blizzard and a Winter Hurricane

Tropical cyclones feed off patches of warm ocean water, which is why this summer's warm temperatures nudged upward by El Nino conditions may have intensified the hurricane season. In contrast, a winter bomb cyclone is powered by colliding air masses. That's why the term "winter hurricane," which you may also be reading about, isn't popular with meteorologists, although it does seem to get a little traction among airport personnel, who have to deal with the messy consequences of these serious storms.

Last February saw a smaller, fast-moving bomb cyclone, although the term didn't get bandied about much then. This storm isn't the first big bomb cyclone to hit: One particularly notable winter storm in March 1993, nicknamed the Storm of the Century, was also a bomb cyclone—we just didn't have Twitter at the time to get the most out of the term.