What's In A Storm Name? Weather Channel Policy Draws Critics, But Catches On

on February 08 2013 3:03 PM
Winter Storm Nemo Meme
Among Internet meme-makers, the scales are decidedly tipped toward Pixar's fish tale, "Finding Nemo." heavy.com

First came Winter Storm Athena. Now it's Winter Storm Nemo. Soon it'll be Winter Storm Orko. Why are winter storms suddenly getting names?

 

The Weather Channel made the decision to start naming winter storms at the start of this winter season, citing a desire to increase public awareness of storms, especially for public safety reasons. This year's list runs from Athena to Zeus. Bryan Norcross, the Weather Channel meteorologist who came up with the names for this season's storms, says the channel went for a Greek and Latin-themed list after nixing other options, like the most popular baby names from previous decades.

 

"We needed something short, easy to remember and with some personality-- not just 'Bob' and 'Alice,'" Norcross said in a phone interview Friday.

 

The germ of the idea first arose in October 2011, when a surprising storm hit the Northeastern U.S. just around Halloween. The nickname "Snowtober" caught on in social media, and when TWC put that name on the air, it took off, according to Norcross.

 

TWC spokesman David Blumenthal said the reaction to the new naming scheme from viewers thus far has been positive. But the move has raised the eyebrows of some commentators and meteorologists that see storm naming as primarily a marketing ploy. Admittedly, some of the harshest criticisms have come from TWC's competitors.

 

“In unilaterally deciding to name winter storms, The Weather Channel has confused media spin with science and public safety,” Accuweather founder Joel N. Myers said in a statement last November.

 

The National Weather Service has refused to adopt TWC's naming convention thus far. In an internal memo sent around in November, the NWS reminded employees not to refer to storms by names. The agency has stopped short of offering an opinion on the virtues of naming winter storms, but notes that these types of weather systems are very different from hurricanes.

 

“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 NWS said in a November statement.

 

For a time, the Buffalo, N.Y., division of the NWS gave unofficial names to winter storms that came in over the Great Lakes, with each season's names based around a theme. The practice seems to have petered off though; the most recent names found on the division's website are the snake-themed ones recorded for the winter of 2008-2009, which ran from Anaconda in November to Mamba in mid-February. Tom Niziol, the former head meteorologist for the NWS Buffalo divsion, has been with TWC since January 2012.

 

Jeff Masters, a meteorologist for Weather Underground – which became part of TWC's network in July 2012 – says he supports the naming system.

 

“When I talk about, say, 'the February 10th snowstorm of 2011,' that's harder to picture in my mind compared to if it has a name,” Masters says.

 

Naming winter weather systems actually isn't a new move. European meteorologists have been naming their winter storms for nearly 60 years. The Institute for Meteorology at the Free University of Berlin assigns names to both high- and low- pressure systems that influence Central European weather throughout the year. In 2013, the lows get male names and the highs are female; next year it will be the reverse.

 

The convention does mean they usually have to repeat the alphabet a few times – in 2012, there were enough low-pressure systems alone to run through nearly five complete circuits, ending with 'Udine,' a low-pressure system spawned on Dec. 29.

 

“I would like to see it done the way the Free University of Berlin does it -- name every single low-pressure system,” Masters says. “Right now there's a bit of subjectivity” in deciding which storms get names.

 

That subjectivity has been a sticking point for critics of TWC. At the moment, TWC decides which systems get names based on certain geographical and population factors, which some critics have said favors the big cities on the East Coast. A strong storm affecting Minnesota might not get as much attention as a relatively light one hitting New York City. 

 

Actually, that scenario has already played out. In October, WRAL-TV meteorologist Nate Johnson pointed out that a Great Plains storm that ended up dumping more than a foot of snow on Minnesota was not named Athena, despite the fact that NWS had issued winter storm warnings for the system.

 

"TWC said they wanted to reduce confusion with naming winter storms, but how is this situation -- where the agency actually responsible for deciding whether something is a winter storm or not says it is but a large, national media outlet says it is not -- going to do anything but generate confusion?" Johnson wrote on the Digital Meteorologist blog.

 

The name Athena ended up being assigned to a November storm that swept through a Northeast already ravaged by Superstorm Sandy. TWC said the potential for post-Sandy impacts was the primary reason for naming that system.

 

Without more coordination and support from NWS, the naming scheme could get a bit confusing. Norcross says TWC isn't surprised that the government agency isn't leaping to immediately adopt the naming scheme, though -- "we can move faster, that's the difference between private industry and government." 

 

If the NWS does eventually decide to sign onto winter storm names, TWC would be happy to follow their lead and adopt the names the government uses, Norcross said.

 

In the meantime, TWC's names have gradually been catching on in the media and online, even if much of the discussion involves jokes about cartoon fish. Awareness is definitely being raised -- William Shatner tweeted about Winter Storm Khan in January, and Star Trek fans are sure to notice that another Starfleet adversary, Q, is on this year's storm list, after Orko and Plato. (Norcross says he named Q after the subway line that ran by his old apartment in New York City).

 

"It took really big storm like this for some folks to adopt it," Norcross said. But the plain truth in the age of Twitter is that “we need a name for a hashtag these days."

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