Naming winter storms: Effective, or silly?

This morning, The Weather Channel announced that they would begin naming winter storms throughout the United States beginning during the Autumn and Winter of 2012-2013. For decades, hurricanes have been the only major weather events which have been given names, and they have been assigned by the government (The National Weather Service). Now, The Weather Channel is looking to change that, by naming winter storms that produce prolific snow or ice throughout the US this winter. There will be no set scale for a defined “named winter storm”, the main difference between The Weather Channel’s scale and the National Hurricane Center. Instead, The Weather Channel will decide which storms to name based on strength, snowfall totals, ice accretion, and population impact.  Such an announcement takes a while to process, and many throughout the meteorological community and even the general public are still reacting to the announcement.

Judging by various reactions on social networking sites (including Facebook, Twitter, and American Weather meteorology discussion community), the reaction to this announcement has been a mixed bag to say the least. In fact, one marketing company, MGH, buried TWC’s idea as a poor marketing scheme and a ratings-generator. In an article titled “At The Weather Channel it’s Marketing First, News Second“, and also discussed by our friends at Capital Weather Gang, Chris McCurry (Public Relations Director at MGH) writes..

“What makes this Weather Channel decision more about marketing than news is that it, as a ratings-generating television network, gets to set the parameters for what makes for a “name-worthy” winter storm.”

ABC 7 Senior Meteorologist Bob Ryan in New England shared his mixed thoughts on the decision. Conversely, other reputable names such as Dr. Ryan Maue support the decision.

The Boxing Day Blizzard of 2010 hammered New York and New Jersey with 25-30 inches of snow, but had no formal name.

To me the decision to name winter storms is one that comes off, at least initially, as amateur. Yes, he names are silly (Brutus, Q, Freyr ?). But the real problem, in my eyes, lies in the selection process. For meteorologists, winter storms are special. There are so many different types, each of varying strength and condition — and they are much more common than an Atlantic Hurricane. The Weather Channel says, in their press release, that the naming process will depend on the population affected and the severity of the storm. This means that a large, powerful, and textbook cyclone moving through the Rocky Mountains producing prolific snows in mountains with smaller populations probably wont be named — while a weak frontal wave that produces 1-2 inches of snow in Georgia will forever be remembered as “The Great Nemo Snowstorm of 2012”. From a meteorological perspective, the system is flawed.

This is not to say that the forecasters at The Weather Channel don’t know what they’re doing — because they do. They are, whether you like it or not, well versed in their profession. However, I think the exact implementation on the system will eventually decide how the public receives it. There is a good chance, in fact, that most of the general public will see it as a joke. The credibility of the organization could fall. Yet, it seems they are willing to take that risk, whether it be for more recognition and more website hits or not. We won’t dive into that. The issue is, with poor implementation the system won’t help anybody. It will become a game. If The Weather Channel doesn’t implement the naming system correctly, the names won’t help anyone prepare faster, spread the word of the storm, or forecast accurate accumulations for potential hazards. That’s what meteorologists are for.

If you ask me, winter storms don’t need names. You’ll always remember the Blizzard of ’96 and the Presidents Day Storm of 2003, not Nemo and Freyr of 2012. But hey, I guess the jury is still out on this one.