No, I Will Not Name Your Winter Storm

13 February 2013

Throughout my childhood I was always a fan of the Weather Channel. Back in the days when internet tied up your phone line, it was the Weather Channel that gave you local weather on the 8s and let me see how the weather was around the country (even if they only spend 1/5th of their time on the western US). However, between them gobbing up various media and weather companies, and most recently being purchased by NBC Universal, the happy world of Weather Channel has changed.

It first started with their storm/tornado ranking system that broke from nationally and internationally agreed upon precedences. It was then augmented by the crazy videos of their meteorologists throwing themselves at storms (sometimes literally) to make a point. The Weather Channel went from being the place where you could see information about an upcoming hurricane or severe weather event, to the place where you were supposed to watch some on-air anchor screaming into a microphone as 100mph winds buffeted them in a navy blue, Weather Channel-logoed rain jumper about how the world was coming to an end there. It has gotten bad.

Then they reached entirely new highs this winter with a new foray into my field, as they began naming winter storms. Unlike hurricane naming which can easily be done due to the isolation of a single storm, from a list created by a committee within the World Meteorological Organization made up of scientists, government, and media officials. The Weather Channel simply went at naming winter storms alone with their own set of names and the criteria of simply naming “high impact events”. Or in two simple terms: marketing ploy.

Unlike tropical systems, larger storm systems including winter storms have very little uniformity. A winter storm may pass through Colorado and dump 1-2 feet of snow in southwestern Colorado, but simply leave clouds and high winds over Denver (as is happening right now). Not only are mid-latitude storms nonuniform, they also move and shift much more erratically than tropical systems, causing localized impacts from a storm to vary greatly.

So far this year there have been 43 different mid-latitude troughs since mid-October (large storms that came across the United States) and the Weather Channel only decided to name 19 of them. Why these 19, really only they know, and even these 19 have been iffy. The storm-that-shall-not-be-named that dumped 2 feet of snow on Boston was not named until after crossed the entire country causing very little impacts elsewhere. While the storm that followed behind it caused much of the Dakotas and upper Midwest to shut down went unnamed (and mostly unnoticed) by the Weather Channel.

Yes, the Weather Channel has always had east coast bias. Being located in Atlanta and the number of massive media markets up and down the eastern seaboard will do that. However, creating unnecessary amounts of hype and panic by naming storms at your own leisure is a dangerous precedent. While many informed people will look past the name and hype, many others will ingest this media hype and will begin to only associate danger once a storm has been given a characterization.

Being a meteorologist, it bothers me to see a scientific corporation going for market share over a smart, effective, and scientific discussion among the entire community. I am not alone as many other media outlets, companies, and weather agencies have balked at this idea here, here, here, and here. One can only hope this is a one year trial that is canceled this summer. Then again, with the mayor of New York and many of my marketing friends already jumping onto the hashtag bandwagon, I am sure we will hear more winter storm names in years to come.