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Please begin with an informative title:

The Blizzard of 2013, or, Winter Storm Nemo.
Now that “Nemo” is here and gone, I thought I’d offer up a contrary opinion.

I like the names. I think they should be used. I think NOAA and NWS (who, incidentally, gave responsibility for naming tropical cyclones over to a UN-related organization in the 70s  ) should buy in. I think everyone involved should come up with criteria that isn’t arbitrary and is at least scientific. Kinda like the Free University of Berlin already does.

Yes, I said it.

I suppose at this point I should state the following for those incapable of any type of nuance: No, I do not work for the Weather Channel. No, I’m not a fan of the Weather  Channel’s current style. No, I do not work for NBC Universal. No, I do not work for Bain. No, I’m not being paid to “defend their names.”  No, I don’t attend the Free University of Berlin and in fact I’ve never left North America. Yes, it’s sad I have to actually state this to have an opinion, but things have gotten rather binary here over the last four years or so, and why be subtle when you can just be blunt, eh?


You must enter an Intro for your Diary Entry between 300 and 1150 characters long (that's approximately 50-175 words without any html or formatting markup).

The “naming” of cyclones goes back a long, long way.

Cyclones both extratropical and tropical, prior to the 19th century, were named for whatever feast day they fell near or on. Generally. Thus, the St. Lucia Storm, the St. Elizabeth Storm, and others, which had significant effects on the European coasts, and several hurricanes in the Caribbean.

Or, they were named for whatever town they destroyed.  Sort of. Or, they were named for whatever thing. So there are “Nights of the Big Wind” (an actual storm that hit Ireland in 1838) and Grote Mandrenke (a storm that roared through the North Sea in 1362, killing tens of thousands). The Grote Mandrenke is also known as the 2nd St. Marcellus Day Flood (the first occuring in 1219.)

In the late 19th century and early part of the 20th Century, a meteorologist in Australia   named storms after people who irritated him. When he retired, the practice ended until the 1960s.

In the 1940s, US Naval meteorologists began naming the typhoons that roared through the Western Pacific. They had to, as there are often quite a few in action during the peak of the WestPac Typhoon season and there was a war on. A storm that snuck up on a Naval task force (as one did—see Bull Halsey) would mean death to hundreds or thousands of sailors and would have put a great crimp in the war effort. This effort soon was used in the Atlantic.

In 1950, hurricanes were named with the phonetic alphabet, and finally in 1953, women’s names were used.  The public was receptive to the idea and 1954-1955 seasons both bought blockbuster storms to the US East Coast. In 1977, control was turned over to the WMO, who used a regional committee to select the names that alternate male/female.  We’ve basically been using the same lists that rotate every 6 years ever since (with retirements).

Most basins have their own lists, based on regional languages, and coordinated by the WMO with regional authorities to an extent (The Philippines still give separate names to the typhoons that strike the island chain, so a given typhoon can have 2 different names). The South Atlantic is an area that doesn’t, as tropical cyclones are very rare there. I’m not sure what will happen when science finally recognizes tropical cyclones happen in the Mediterranean although they’re generally rare and short-lived and seem to occur at times of year much different from the rest of the North Atlantic Hurricane Season.

Almost no governmental authority officially names extratropical storms (Finland and Norway’s weather services names notable storms that affect their nations), even though they can and often do have distinct low pressure centers and other associated weather. But they do get names in part of the world.

In 1954, Dr. Karla Wege suggested that both highs and lows that affected Central Europe get names. A list was drawn up of 260 male names (for highs) and 260 female names (for lows). All features get names, not just the ones that are threatening. Until the 1990s, the practice was used mainly in and around Berlin, but severe storms began to get wider notice and now the practice is very common and popular across Germany and the rest of Europe. The names for highs and lows now alternate between male/female, a change that occurred in 1998.  As a university is responsible for maintaining the lists, they chose a novel way to fund it: Adopt-A-Vortex.

Storms may still be named differently in other nations outside of Germany. Norway names notable storms that affect their nation; however the list maintained by the FU is quite popular among the public and media.

I find it interesting that Wikipedia seems to have adopted the practice as well, for European extratropical cyclones. While they don’t obviously list the storms that occur in every season (remember, they’re all named regardless), they do for the ones that are severe. At present they’re resisting for North American storms.

Enter the Weather Channel.

Now, it’s already been stated that the practice of naming extratropical storms (winter storms) is not an outlier. The public has given names to various storms (which the media has picked up) for decades as well. Mention “The Blizzards of ’93, ’96, ’78, or ‘03” and people will know exactly what you’re talking about (sort of, depending on where one lives in the US).   Or, recently, “Snowtober, Snowmaggedon, Snowmaggedon II”, and so on. Even among media some stations already do name storms. NBC10 in Philadelphia experimented with it in the 1990s (it lasted a season), and a station in Connecticut has been naming them for decades. These are admittedly marketing experiments. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. It’s very clear that on the Weather Channel’s end, they want to gain viewers for their rather crappy channel. I’m pretty sad about their crapitude, given there are some great scientists who work for them even among their on-air talent. I think if they got back to their original format and stopped airing these dumbass reality shows, they’d be back to being great.

Some of their rationale:

The question then begs to ask “Why aren’t winter storms named?”  In fact, in Europe the naming of weather systems has been going on for a long time.  Here in the U.S., summer time storms including thunderstorms and tornadoes occur on such a small time and space scale that there would be little benefit and much confusion trying to attach names to them. However, winter weather is different. Winter storms occur on a time and space scale that is similar to tropical systems.

In fact, historically many major winter storms have been named during or after the event has occurred. Examples include “The President’s Day Storm” and “Snowmageddon.” Yet, until now, there has been no organized naming system for these storms before they impact population centers.

One of the reasons this may be true is that there is no national center, such as the National Hurricane Center, to coordinate and communicate information on a multi-state scale to cover such big events. The National Centers for Environmental Prediction’s Hydrometeorological Prediction Center (HPC) does issue discussions and snowfall forecasts on a national scale but it does not fill the same role as the NHC in naming storms. Therefore, it would be a great benefit for a partner in the weather industry to take on the responsibility of developing a new concept.  

This is where a world-class organization such as The Weather Channel will play a significant role. We have the meteorological ability, support and technology to provide the same level of reporting for winter storms that we have done for years with tropical weather systems.

Makes perfect sense to me. I’m okay with that. TWC was always for-profit. If they want to make money,  go right ahead.

Now, their criteria is arbitrary and silly. It’s based on impacts to population, rather than anything scientific. I think their methodology needs considerable work with a lot of collaboration between many different entities, even though I think the idea of names is a great one.

But some of your reactions are rather ridiculous. Let’s address some of the ones I’ve seen across the entire internet.

“They’re doing it to usurp the Weather Service’s authority!”

Are they? This criticism is very common and yet I don’t see any evidence of that. It certainly is true that there have been several attempts to privatize the weather service, most notably led by Accuweather and former Senator Santorum. It should be noted here that Accuweather is against the idea of naming winter storms. The idea is not popular amongst the private weather services at all, and I frequent the sites and blogs of several meteorologists in the private sector.

“It’ll confuse the public! And that will cause danger!”

Will it? Again, evidence is not in hand. When you want weather news, assuming you’re not a “Weather Weenie” like me, where do you go? Most likely, your local media. Perhaps you have a favorite station.  Where I live (Harrisburg TV Market), I very much prefer ABC 27. Harrisburg’s TV Market is rather huge, and we can have remarkably different weather impacts across the area. ABC27 focuses on Harrisburg and its immediate suburbs, generally. WGAL Channel 8 is good for the southern part of the TV market. When I lived near Lancaster, I relied on their weather forecasts. In addition, I grew up in suburban Philadelphia and always used WCAU Channel 10, even after they switched from a CBS station to an NBC station in 1995. Some people in Philly swear by Channel 6 (who got their weather info from Accuweather and who didn’t have a meteorologist until recently. Dave Roberts? He was good, great even, but he wasn’t a met.) At any rate different stations may have different forecasts. ABC27 was remarkably wrong with “Nemo.” Channel 8 rather nailed it. In 1996 Channel 6 totally bombed the Blizzard of ’96. Channel 10 did a lot better. We won’t discuss the great fizzle of March, 2001, though. Everyone sucked in that case.

(Okay, I confess a little here, I stuck with WCAU because I had a crush on John Bolaris. No, I’m snarking. Or am I?)

As for the “confuse the public” part of the criticism, watch what comes out of NOAA’s Hurricane Sandy post-operational assessment. There’s been a significant amount of conversation and debate over the National Weather Service’s actions regarding the warning around that storm. You all may recall the National Hurricane Center issued no official hurricane warnings for any point north of the NC/VA border. It has been argued that they should have issued official hurricane warnings for the coast all the way through Maine.

I’ve read rumors that they really wanted to but didn’t because the Forecast Offices didn’t want to—precisely for the “confuse the public reason.” Sandy was not tropical at landfall, and was forecast to be post-tropical by the Forecast Offices and the NHC for almost a full week in advance, and it probably wasn’t tropical for most of the day before it made landfall in New Jersey, but an argument has been made that people heard the forecasts about the storm not being a tropical one and discounted its strength. It seems they did with Mayor Bloomberg’s first announcements Saturday before the storm, causing Governor Cumuo to step in to shut down the mass-transit system. We’ll see if the argument holds up, but it’s worth noting some forecast offices were remarkably vociferous with their warnings (the office that serves most of the Philadelphia region, for example) and some were not (the office that serves New York City).  If the argument holds up, then who confused the public? The media (who screamed their fool heads off for several days before Sandy, the Weather Channel and members of this site included) or the Weather Service?

“It isn’t science based!”

Well, you’re right there. It really isn’t. I really would like to see more science based rubrics. Or, conversely, simply name all the low features like they do in Europe. At any rate, I’d love to see collaboration between everyone on this. The ball for this is entirely in the Weather Channel’s court, in my opinion.

“Winter storms can’t be tracked!”
Obviously not true, if Europeans have been doing so for decades. Fronts aren’t just lines on the map. They’re attached to distinct, discrete low pressure centers. They may be fairly diffuse, but they exist. Now, with events like lake-effect snows, it might be a bit tough there.

And obviously, “It’s just marketing.” It sure is. As I’ve said, I’ve no problem with them making money.

At any rate, this is just what I think. I hope this isn’t construed as a defense of corporatism. I grew up watching the Weather Channel for fun. I miss the old guard like John Hope. A lot of the faces I grew up with are still there, however (Mike Seidel, Jim Cantore and Vivian Brown, for example) and they’ve added faces I know from other media like Bryan Norcross. But the channel is a shell of its former self. They somehow made money being science-based in the 80s and 90s. I hope they try to go back to that.

I feel the names are a good idea and I think, long term, they’ll catch on with good, solid scientific criteria for naming. For simple ease of tracking, I've got no problem with it. After all, we name tropical cyclones. That’s what I want to see.

Floor’s yours, y’all.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to SciTech on Mon Feb 11, 2013 at 09:43 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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