Posted by: bkivey | 10 February 2013

Finding Nemo

February_2013_Nor'easter_8_Feb_2245zOver that last couple of days a powerful winter storm has walloped the Northeast US and southeastern Canada, bringing high winds, upwards of 40″ of snow in some parts of the US and 30 centimeters in Canada, and a storm surge (!) of up to 4 feet in New England.  It was a nasty piece of work.

While once again making me appreciate the climate I live in, I was surprised to find out that this storm had a name: Nemo. I had thought that only large tropical storms were deserving of monikers, not events that, when I lived in New York, we called ‘winter’. Did I miss something?

Apparently, I have. The naming of the latest storm, and of winter storms in general, isn’t an official government convention, but an initiative of The Weather Channel. The latest event maintains a tradition of naming winter storms at The Weather Channel that dates all the way back to November 2012.

This practice is not without controversy. The National Weather Service wants nothing to do with naming winter storms, nor do The New York Times or Washington Post. However, CBS affiliate WFSB in Hartford, Connecticut called the storm ‘Blizzard Charlotte’, and it turns out they’ve been naming winter storms since the 1970’s. It would seem that precedent and US primacy would be on their side.

The official Weather Channel explanation for naming winter storms seems a bit forced. The tone comes off as trying to put a serious spin on a marketing gimmick. After noting that winter storms have been named in Europe since the 1950’s, they list five reasons for naming winter storms:

  • Naming a storm raises awareness.
  • Attaching a name makes it much easier to follow a weather system’s progress.
  • A storm with a name takes on a personality all its own, which adds to awareness.
  • In today’s social media world, a name makes it much easier to reference in communication.
  • A named storm is easier to remember and refer to in the future.

I’ll just start by observing that ‘raising awareness’ is such a hackneyed phrase that any time it’s used I pretty much stop paying attention.  But taking the first point (and the third point is essentially the same), I have difficulty imagining a scenario where a person in the affected area would be unaware of a storm. I suppose the thinking runs along the same lines as hurricanes: before naming, it’s just a storm, after naming, it’s a storm to take seriously.

The problem is that tropical weather systems must meet well-defined parameters to earn a name. Not so with the criteria for The Weather Channel naming of a winter storm. No definitive criteria are given for naming a storm, and the standards presented amount to ‘whenever we feel like it’.  This doesn’t inspire confidence.

As far as making a weather system easier to follow, the question is, easier than what? It’s quite common to have multiple tropical weather system churning around, but it’s rare to have more than one major winter storm at a time. I doubt that if anyone in the Northeast had mentioned the current storm, the response would have been “Which one?’

The fourth point actually has some value, and the fifth point may.  Most people living on the East Coast in 1993 remember the ‘Storm of the Century’ (named) in March of that year; conversely,  where I live the most significant winter storm in decades occurred in early January 2004, and most people refer to it as the ‘Storm of 2004’ (unnamed).

But the most damning evidence against naming winter storms is that this is the first ‘named’ storm that many people have heard of. The Weather Channel list of storm names indicates that the most recent storm is number 14 on the list. Admittedly, I don’t have TV, and so don’t watch The Weather Channel, but this storm’s name is all over the Internet, what happened to Athena through Magnus? Hell, even Category 1 hurricanes make the national news, why didn’t any of these ‘named’ winter storms? While I’m sure that the storms were of interest to the areas affected, I don’t recall hearing about any of them. On the other hand, although I live in a hurricane-free area, I am aware of every tropical storm that threatens the US, and quite a few that don’t.

I think The Weather Channel is fighting a losing battle on this idea. The whole idea of naming winter storms comes off as marketing spin, and they’re taking a lot of heat from the meteorological community over it. I’d think that any serious meteorologist employed by The Weather Channel who has career aspirations may well be re-thinking supporting this idea.




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