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The Winter Storm Name Game

Naming winter storms isn't some fancy new idea...but is it the right idea? Phillyweather.net's Tom Thunstrom talks about naming storms and just who should be doing the naming.

Last Tuesday's news by The Weather Channel (TWC) announcing its intention to name winter storms across the United States this coming winter came with varied amounts of criticism from the meteorological community.

The criticism is partly due to TWC's criteria (secretive but part of it is subjective) and partly due to the lack of coordination within the meteorological community overall.

The idea of naming winter storms isn't new.  NBC 10 tried it fifteen or so years ago and was ridiculed for it, quickly putting the kibosh on the idea.  Naming winter storms is commonplace in Europe and has been done for decades, but winter storms there are generally more similar to those that impact our west coast in that they have a lot of wind associated with them. 

Lake effect snowfalls that impact the Buffalo area are named by the local National Weather Service office up there. The meteorologist behind that is now part of the braintrust responsible for the new naming system at TWC.  

The idea of naming winter storms isn't a wholly bad idea, but it's how and who does it that is definitely up for debate.

TWC is treading into slippery territory with its decision to name storms based partly on societal and also potential impact and not so much based on the strength of the actual storm. 

This is where naming winter storms gets to be rather tricky — a six inch snowfall in Buffalo isn't a huge deal, but in St. Louis it would be more substantial.  An Alberta Clipper diving through the Midwest isn't a big deal in Iowa, but in Southern Virginia, it might produce more substantive impact, even if both states get just three inches of snow.  This is where naming winter storms becomes a rather dicey proposition and subject to criticism. 

Think of the "bust storm" from March 2001 where one meteorologist infamously predicted a major winter storm.

Such a scenario may result in a name being "exhausted" off of the list when, in the end, the final result is one inch of slop accumulation on your lawn. Some winter storm, eh? 

To me, keying in on the potential impact makes the naming process on TWC's end seem like a ratings and webhit ploy that would make marketing gurus and SEO types giddy with excitement. 

While the drums of hype are banged loudly, the reality of winter weather and its fickle nature will lead to howls when a potential Winter Storm Brutus ends up packing no punch despite hype three days ahead of a supposedly "massive" hit.

Leaving the naming process unilaterally to a private forecasting entity is also treading onto the slippery slope in some meteorologists' eyes.  Nate Johnson, a meteorologist in Raleigh, stated on his blog that "in making this change unilaterally, The Weather Channel has essentially tossed effective risk communication out the window and their partners in the National Weather Service and other corners of the 'weather community' under the bus."

Johnson adds:

"One of the tenets of good risk and emergency communication is that communicators speak with 'one voice...That doesn’t mean everyone says the same thing; rather, it means those involved should speak in harmony with others. That’s hard to do when one member of the choir is singing their own song and won’t share the sheet music with everyone else. That’s essentially what TWC is doing here: By setting their own standards and making their own categorizations of winter storms behind closed doors, away from peer review and scientific scrutiny, they are jumping out and expecting the rest of the weather community to follow along: 'Coordination and information sharing should improve between government organizations as well as the media, leading to less ambiguity and confusion when assessing big storms that affect multiple states.' In other words, they’re telling the NWS, local TV stations, and local officials that 'we will name the storms, and the rest of you should speak our language or you’ll be the one causing confusion.'"

It wouldn't surprise me this winter if a chunk of the NBC-owned TV stations adopt TWC's naming practice on winter storms, although I can see some individual NBC-owned local stations hold off on following what TWC does. 

As practice, my site and my columns here will not utilize TWC's naming system this winter due to the lack of a meteorological agency's involvement (public or a coalition of public-private forecasting) to put some publicly released and known scientific meat behind the naming process. 

Tropical storms and hurricanes, which are named, must meet scientific critieria to earn their status and their name, all of which are publicly accessible.  Not knowing what is or is not worthy of a name other than potential impact or some secret blend of 11 ingredients that only a few meteorologists in Atlanta know about isn't beneficial to the scientific end of the meteorological community.

TWC's actions may ultimately lead to the naming of winter storms by the National Weather Service at some point down the line, with established criteria defining what earns a name and what does not. 

Knowing that winter weather impacts vary widely over the country may lead to a broad naming system with more loosely defined criteria. If we only name the "big storms" that impact large parts of the country (as with the "Superstorm of `93"), the criteria may be much more strict. 

Whatever course of action ultimately comes about, I do think the name game is on and that at some point the meteorological community as a whole will be naming storms...hopefully with better names than Luna, Nemo, and Ukko.

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Tom Thunstrom is the editor and publisher of Phillyweather.net. You can also follow Phillyweather.net on twitter at @phillywx or on Facebook.

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