Friday, January 25, 2013

Apple #621: Naming Winter Storms

Questions about why winter storms are getting named first came up in November.  I found an article about it and posted it to the Daily Apple news feed on facebook.  It seemed like that article covered all the bases and a full Daily Apple would only be redundant, so I left it at that.

But I see that some people are still asking questions, and it seems that the controversy about this practice is continuing.  So I thought a full Daily Apple entry was in order after all.

The Weather Channel's list of names they plan to use for winter storms.  Won't winter storm Ukko be fun?
(Image from

  • The Weather Channel is the only weather service that is naming winter storms.  They came up with this idea in November 2012, and they're the ones deciding which winter storms get names and what to name them.
  • NOAA's National Weather Service (NWS), which is essentially the official weather service for this country, and the American Meteorological Society (AMS), which is the leading society of licensed meteorologists, are not participating in the TV channel's practice of naming winter storms.
  • The National Weather Service is the official meteorological body that names hurricanes and tropical storms.  Unlike hurricanes and tropical storms, the NWS has not named winter storms for several reasons:
    • winter storms can weaken and redevelop across a wide area, making it difficult to determine where one storm starts and another begins
    • a winter storm can be very erratic, with several centers that may not be well-defined, so it's difficult to determine who will be affected, and how, by a "single storm."
    • since the weather within a winter storm area can vary significantly (e.g., fog and rain in one area, heavy snowfall in another, wintry mix of ice and snow in still another), it may be confusing to call such a range of weather by a single name.

The radar maps below show what can happen with winter storms. In this system, there was a southern branch of this storm that was mainly freezing rain, though the northern swath also included freezing rain.  After a while, the southern branch broke away.  So was that 1 storm that became 2?  Would you then keep talking about the 2 branches with the same name?  Or were they really 2 storms that happened to be next to each other?

By the way, I deeply apologize for the use of Comic Sans in these images.  But they're from 2008, so hopefully the image creator knows better now.
(Weather radar maps from Chicago Area Weather Blog)

  • In spite of such scientifically-based reasons for not naming winter storms, the Weather Channel, a TV station, decided to start naming winter storms anyway.  They say they decided to do so because:
    • "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 find it interesting that when they say "raises awareness," they do not add "about the storm." I think they're hoping to raise awareness about The Weather Channel. 
  • I think I'm guessing accurately because they also list this as their final (and I think real) reason: "Finally, it might even be fun and entertaining and that in itself should breed interest from our viewing public and our digital users."
  • In other words, they're doing it for the ratings!  For the money!  They want to make it rain for TWC! 
  • I imagine somebody at TWC pitching the idea something like this:
    • Picture this: snow is forecast across several states a few days from now.  Everyone is waiting on tenterhooks to see what TWC will name the storm.  Everyone tunes in, and then when the storm is named, everyone uses TWC's storm-name and mentions The Weather Channel when they talk about how much snow is falling.  Think of the free publicity!  It'll be practically snowing mentions of TWC!   
  • Well, that's my fanciful idea.  But in practice, things haven't worked out like that for TWC at all.

Behind the scenes at The Weather Channel.  I see a lot of TV-related stuff.  Not much weather-related stuff.
(Photo from Inc.)

  • After TWC named the first winter storm Athena, the National Weather Service issued an internal memo, which said: "The NWS does not use named winter storms in our products. Please refrain from using the term Athena in any of our products."
  • Publicly, the NWS said they didn't care if any private businesses wanted to go around naming winter storms, but the NWS wouldn't be doing that. 
  • (Except they do name winter storms after the fact when they can tell exactly what happened where, and they can quantify the data.)

The NWS. Not afraid to zap bad ideas.
(Logo sourced from The Houston Chronicle)

  • Shortly after this, meteorologists, weather forecasters & broadcasters, and just plain weather buffs from around the country started to weigh in.  Pretty much universally, they hated it.  In a nutshell, here are the reasons they gave:
    • The TWC is doing this completely unilaterally.  They're not communicating with anyone else before they name the storms. Instead of fostering communication and awareness, by acting so independently from the rest of the weather community, they're actually creating disunity and fostering confusion. ("The Weather Channel has essentially tossed effective risk communication out the window"; "Who died and made them King?!")
    • By deciding on their own and in secret when and how to name the storms, they are closing the process to scientific input.  Maybe it really would be a good idea to name winter storms, but by not allowing any peer review to take place, they're keeping their decisions at the level of gimmick, rather than a meteorologically sound practice.
    • That said, naming winter storms as if they're one unified event really isn't accurate, and it is confusing, so they shouldn't be doing it. (“In unilaterally deciding to name winter storms, The Weather Channel has confused media spin with science and public safety. We have explored this issue for 20 years and have found that this is not good science and will mislead the public.")
    • The criteria that TWC are using are very closely tied to ratings.  One of their determining factors is the amount of "impact" it will have, and they're defining "impact" in terms of the number of viewers--er, people affected.  Time of day (e.g. prime time-- er, rush hour) and day of the week (e.g., Monday vs. Saturday) are also factors.  Thus, in the eyes of TWC, not all winter storms are created equal. ("A bad winter storm here in CNY could miss out on getting named. Big lake effect events wouldn't count.")
    • Compared to hurricanes whose effects are widespread, devastating, and deadly, while some winter storms can be severe, winter storms often do not approach the same level of threat.  Especially since winter storm "Athena" happened shortly on the heels of Hurricane Sandy, it was kind of laughable by comparison. ("TWC gimmick named it Athena today. Most mets [NYers] laughing at them.")

"Winter Storm Athena"
(Weather map from

Hurricane Sandy
(Weather GIF from Hurricane Season 2012)

  • So the upshot is, pretty much no weather service is joining in TWC's storm-naming games.  Instead of all kinds of happy bandwagon publicity, the real result seems to be that they've only created a vehicle that makes it all too obvious that very few people in the weather community take them seriously.  Call it Meteorology Freeze-Out Freddy. 
  • By the way, guess who are part-owners of The Weather Channel?  NBC and Bain Capital. Talk about strange bedfellows.

Tom Niziol,, Why The Weather Channel is Naming Winter Storms, November 11, 2012, Weather Channel naming system backfires when NWS rejects Athena, November 7, 2012
Rob Manker, Winter Storm Athena? National Weather Service tells its forecasters not to use The Weather Channel's name for storm, The Chicago Tribune, November 7, 2012
Jason Samenow, TV weathercasters criticize unilateral action by The Weather Channel on storm naming, Washington Post blog, October 3, 2012
American Geophysical Union Blogosphere, Weather Channel Plan To Name Winter Storms Gets Frosty Reception, October 3, 2012
Weather Underground, MAweatherboy's blog, Why TWC Is Wrong To Name Winter Storms, November 9, 2012
Matthew Kemeny, 'Khan' shows its wrath on midstate highways; Weather Channel names winter storms to 'raise awareness, The Patriot News, January 25, 2013
Michael de la Merced, Weather Channel Is Sold to NBC and Equity Firms, The New York Times, July 7, 2008

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