Naming Winter Storms: Time for Community Cooperation

September 21, 2015 · 3 comments

by Mary M. Glackin, Senior Vice President, Public-Private Partnerships, The Weather Company

Forecasts of hazardous weather have continually improved, particularly over the past few decades. It is oft-cited fact that 5-day forecasts are now as good as 3-day forecasts were 20 years ago. At the same time, the public has more choices than ever in how it accesses weather information. In particular, we are seeing explosive growth in the web, apps, and social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter. Yet in the aftermath of a severe event, it is common to hear, “I didn’t know” either from public officials or the public at large.

It is this latter issue that the United Kingdom’s Met Office and the Irish Meteorological Service (Met Éireann) were seeking to address when they recently announced their plans to name storms this fall and winter. And to kick the campaign off, they are soliciting the public’s help in picking the names. After watching other country’s experiences, they believe naming significant storms will increase public awareness of severe weather and thus improve appropriate responses to warnings.

Several European countries name winter storms. For example, the Free University of Berlin’s meteorological institute has been naming them since the 1950s, and these names are adopted and used by the media and the German Met Service, Deutscher Wetterdienst. In the U.S. and elsewhere, very impactful storms become named by the media; think Snowmageddon in the Northeast (2010) and St. Jude Storm in the U.K. (2013). In the U.S., The Weather Company (TWC) began naming winter storms in 2012-13, citing the importance of communicating in social media–especially Twitter, which requires a hashtag. Rightly or wrongly, this effort was roundly criticized as having suspect science and for being a marketing ploy.

After three years experience at TWC, here is what we can report: Twitter alone provides an incredible reach where we routinely see more than one billion people receiving tweets using the storm name. Millions of tweets are sent using the hashtag from government agencies, school districts, utilities, businesses, and the general public. These hashtags also allow the NWS and others to find real-time weather data tweeted by citizens that can be used in nowcasts and other storm reports.

The criteria to name a storm are pretty simple: it must meet the National Weather Service winter-storm warning criteria, and it must be expected to impact at least two million people and/or 400,000 sq. km. We use a formal process and a committee of three meteorologists to review these criteria for each possible storm, and while we consider the criteria strict, the storm-naming committee still reserves the right to override the quantitative decision in certain circumstances. Some of the factors that may influence decisions to override the naming rules include the degree of historical significance of the event (e.g., accumulating snow in South Florida, a summer-season snowstorm, etc.); see more details here.  The U.K. is planning a similar system using their two highest warning levels, so names are only applied to the storms that present a significant threat.

What’s in a name? Well in this case, the name is the headline to attract attention to the threat. It is the beginning. It needs to be backed up with easy-to-understand information that details the threat to a specific locale and appropriate call-to-action statements. But, in this information-saturated world, this headline/hashtag is key. We need to recognize the importance of serving people in the way they find easiest to consume information vs. how we are most comfortable in delivering it.

Could we take this U.K./Ireland announcement as a call to the U.S. weather enterprise to come together to see how we could maximize the use of social media to improve the public response to severe weather events?  Twitter is here to stay, and it requires hashtags to separate the relevant information from an avalanche of incoming data. Hashtags are spilling over into other social media as well. It is easy to create a hashtag from a tropical storm name. If we could come together as a community to address this for winter storms, we’d no doubt learn a lot that could then be applied to significant weather at the local scale. The nomenclature could be something much different than what’s used in tropical storms or what we have been using.

What’s important is to lead as a community in this social media era. For our part, we are willing to share our experiences, transition our system, and/or help set up an enterprise-wide naming system. During major snow events, the reach on Twitter has been over a billion. What would our reach be with all of us working together feeding into the same system to keep people informed during these hazardous events? Are we ready to re-engage on this topic as a community?