This week’s blizzard is the real deal, but most of the named winter storms so far have been just … winter. (More)

I spent most of my childhood in the Northeast, in upstate New York and then in central Massachusetts. The worst blizzard I’ve ever seen hit in the late 1960s, when we lived near Syracuse. When we went to bed there was an inch of snow on the ground and it was snowing hard. The next morning we woke to 40 inches with drifts up to eight feet. We had a tiny Opel station wagon parked at the end of our sidewalk, but we couldn’t see it that morning. There wasn’t even a hump. It took us all day to dig out our front door and the next day the families in our neighborhood teamed up to clear our gravel road up to the paved street at the top of the hill.

That was long before I ever heard the term “lake-effect snow,” which has now found its way into the weather lexicon. Then came “nowcasts” and “events” and lots of other catchy jargon like “during the overnight.” That last one one is, shall we say, repetitively redundant.

The Weather Channel now has “TOR:CON” and “STORM:CON” indices, rating the local likelihood of a tornado or severe winter storm on a 1-10 scale. If accurate, those could be more useful than less specific tornado or winter storm alerts issued by the National Weather Service.

And then there are the Weather Channel’s named winter storms, which they say they introduced to help communicate weather information on social media:

Winter weather can bring freezing temperatures, flooding, power outages, travel disruptions and other inconveniences caused by snow and ice storms. These can be life-threatening situations if the proper precautions are not taken in the hours and days leading up to a winter storm’s arrival.

The decision to begin naming storms came about as part of The Weather Channel’s program to find the best possible ways to communicate severe weather information on all distribution platforms, including social media.

Hashtags are an intrinsic part of social media, and a storm name proved to be the best way to efficiently and systematically convey storm information. Storm-name hashtags have been used with tropical storms and hurricanes for years, and Winter Storm Nemo’s billion-plus impressions on Twitter last winter demonstrated that the same system is ideal for winter storms as well.

The National Weather Service disagrees, and for good reason. First, winter storms are not like hurricanes, as AccuWeather’s Joel Myers explained when the plan was first announced:

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. Winter storms are very different from hurricanes.

Hurricanes are well-defined storms following a path that can be tracked. Winter storms are often erratic, affecting different areas unevenly. Their centers may not be well-defined. There may be multiple centers and they often shift. One area may get a blizzard, while places not too far away may experience rain or fog, or nothing at all. Naming a winter storm that may deliver such varied weather will create more confusion in the public and the emergency management community.

Second, and more importantly, the Weather Channel did this unilaterally and without any published guidelines for which storms get named, as meteorologist Dan Satterfield wrote last year:

I’m not saying that it is an absolutely bad idea, but TWC doing it unilaterally is not really the way to go here IMHO. Talking with NOAA and the American Meteorological Society (AMS) might have been a good idea first. The AMS Board of Broadcast Meteorology, and others at the society would have been at least a good starting point. Talks between NOAA and the broadcast community could be facilitated by the AMS ,and the idea considered.

They could also submit a paper ( my preference) to one of the peer-reviewed journals outlining the idea and stating the criteria for using it. That would begin a constructive feedback process (one hopes) that could lead to perhaps an informal adoption and perhaps a more formal adoption later on. The Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale and the Fujita tornado intensity scale began just this way.

Unlike a tropical system, which moves from depression to a named tropical storm when winds reach 39mph, the Weather Channel has no clear, measurable threshold for winter storms. And many of the “winter storms” they’ve named so far have been … what we used to call “winter.”

Blizzards, Nor’easters, ice storms, and other winter systems can be deadly. But naming them arbitrarily is less about science than the Weather Channel’s “nuclear bomb of marketing,” or so says the Digital Meteorologist’s Nate Johnson.

I guess when it comes to hyperbole, like snow, weather folk like it piled higher and deeper.


Happy Friday!