NewsOctober 2, 2012

Weather Channel Announces Plan to Name Winter Storms

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Andrew Freedman

By Andrew Freedman

The Weather Channel announced Tuesday that it is going to assign names to winter storms during the 2012-13 winter season, in much the same way tropical storms and hurricanes are named. Starting with Athena and ending with Zeus, the media company said the winter storm names will improve communications of storm warnings and help reduce storm impacts.

The effort is a first for TWC, and the move was not made in coordination with the National Weather Service (NWS), which is charged with protecting lives and property from severe weather and other natural hazards, or the World Meteorological Organization, which controls the naming convention for hurricanes. The announcement was met with social media backlash as a number of meteorologists and the public took to Twitter and Facebook, among other outlets, to question the move.

The Weather Channel's list of 2012-13 winter storm names.
Click on the image for a larger version. Credit: TWC.

The Weather Channel did not reveal any particular criteria or thresholds that would have to be met in order for a storm to merit a name, although the company’s press release said that naming will occur “no more than three days prior to a winter storm’s expected impact.” Presumably the size and population of the area that may be affected, as well as the magnitude of the predicted impacts would dictate whether a winter storm earns a name or not. This might mean that storms that strike the heavily populated Northeast Corridor will receive names more frequently than storms that affect more sparsely populated areas, even if the storms are similar in intensity and snowfall amounts.

Jeff Masters, chief meteorologist at WeatherUnderground, which was recently purchased by TWC, said forecasters will likely be cautious about assigning storm names this year. 

“. . . Only the very strongest winter storms will get named,” Masters said in a blog post. “For the eastern 2/3 of the country, storms that receive a ranking of 'notable' or higher on NOAA's Regional Snowfall Index (RSI) or Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale (NESIS) are the only ones fairly certain to get named this winter. We only had one such storm during the winter of 2011 - 2012 (Snowtober, on Oct. 29-31, 2011).”

Although it claims to be the “first national organization in North America” to proactively name winter storms, others have retroactively assigned storm names, and weather blogs and social media networks led to the proactive naming of the 2010 blockbuster East Coast snowstorm as “Snowmageddon.”

“Retrospectively naming lake effect storms has been a local success at The National Weather Service office in Buffalo, N.Y., as well as with Weather Services throughout Europe and we believe it can be a useful tool on a national scale in the U.S.,” said Tom Niziol, TWC's winter weather forecasting expert.

The “Snowmageddon” storm of February 2010 was named by weather blogs and social media users. This satellite image after the storm shows snow cover (in white) all across the Mid-Atlantic states.
Click on the image for a larger version. Credit: NASA.

The Weather Service released a statement saying that while it “has no opinion” on private forecasting initiatives like this one, “A winter storm's impact can vary from one location to another, and storms can weaken and redevelop, making it difficult to define where one ends and another begins.” The agency said it rates major Northeast winter storms after they occur, using NESIS.

The lack of clarity about the naming criteria and the absence of Weather Service participation has caused some weather professionals to give TWC's initiative an icy reception.

“[I am] Not a fan of a private company doing the naming without the oversight of the World Meteorological Organization (which oversees hurricane naming), for a whole host of reasons (i.e. population bias, potential to “sell” names to make money, inconsistency applying names without defined criteria, etc.). But the concept is interesting,” said Weather Service meteorologist Barb Mayes Boustead via Facebook. Boustead was not stating NOAA’s official view, but rather was speaking in a personal capacity.

AccuWeather, which after recent acquisitions is now TWC’s largest remaining rival in the private weather media sector, aired its views via Twitter, saying: “We are concerned about the lack of strict criteria with naming winter storms.” 

In addition, Marshall Shepherd, the president-elect of the American Meteorological Society, came out against the plan as well in comments on Facebook. “I suspect this is being driven more by marketing/economics than my meteorologist colleagues within The Weather Channel,” he said. “At a minimum, I would have liked to see more coordination with NOAA, AMS, or others. I would also like to see more science (physical and social) backing the motives.”

Meteorologist Ryan Maue of the private weather consulting firm WeatherBell Analytics, also took to Twitter to criticize what he sees as flaws with TWC’s plan. “I'm all for entertainment value — but TWC should have a “scientific” rubric or checklist,” he said.

The public has been weighing in on the names TWC should put on the list, via the hashtag #rejectedTWCnames, with numerous lighthearted suggestions that make fun of the NFL replacement referees, Lindsay Lohan and Apple's mapping woes.