Naming Winter Storms: Time for Community Cooperation

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?

8 thoughts on “Naming Winter Storms: Time for Community Cooperation”

  1. I agree with your point about people needing to come together in the weather community to effectively communicate, reach people who are into hashtags and such . . . but I don’t see why #snowstorm, #icestorm, or #blizzard isn’t just as effective as #Dracula, #WillardMcVane, or #BillyBob. (Not sure what the real names have been, so . . . picked something no one else would.) I thought “Snowmaggedon” was the beginning of ridiculous amounts of weather hyperbole on social media, which in my opinion, have only gotten worse the past several years. I think naming winter storms is one more step in the wrong direction. To communicate weather effectively to average people in the real world, we need to cut the melodrama . . . from every direction.

  2. It is essential to name winter storms, just as we name tropical systems (i.e., tropical storms, cyclones, hurricanes) every year. This makes impeccable sense to me. It is not rocket science. I support The Weather Channel in this ongoing endeavor to improve our communications.
    Here is another reason why I support The Weather Channel in naming winter storms: By giving a winter storm a name, we can look back and scrutinized what the named winter storm brought to us. In addition, we can differentiate one winter storm from another winter storm.
    Like we name tropical systems in the Atlantic Basin, once we use up all the names, we go into the Greek alphabet and give it a Roman numeral. For example, Winter Storm Achilles in 2012 – 2013 became Alpha I retroactively. Therefore, if we have to go into the Greek alphabet, then we would have Alpha II, Beta I, Gamma I, Delta I, etc.
    Naming winter storms benefits all of us for the better. #ilovenamingwinterstorms

  3. I used to watch TWC quite often, in part because I find meteorology rather fascinating, and I’ve learned a lot about how weather systems work at different times of the year. I would turn on TWC first thing in the morning for a clearheaded, dignified look at the WEATHER, and the weather ONLY.
    Then TWC was purchased by NBC/Universal, and things went into a nosedive. Suddenly it seemed like they were less concerned with weather, and more concerned with personalities and sensationalism. These days I’ll turn on TWC for “Local on the 8s,” and that’s about it.
    For me the very last straw was TWC’s shameless, pretentious practice of naming winter storms. One Facebook user posted THIS criticism: “Naming winter storms is the dumbest idea ever. Why hasn’t NWS or any other reputable weather reporting source joined in the naming? Oh, maybe they still feel their role is serious reporting – instead of sensationalizing, dramatizing and commericializing.” It’s pretty much how I have always felt.
    TWC’s Tom Niziol attempted to deflect the criticism: “One reason we’re doing this, simply put, is we can. We cover weather on a national scale. By ascribing a name to a weather system that’s gonna create those types of impacts, we can follow it right across the country.”
    THAT’S their answer? “We do it because we CAN”?? And the only way the personalities at TWC can keep their eye on a weather system is to give it some kind of cute name? That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. But HEY, if a private cable channel like TWC can start naming winter storms just because they CAN, maybe every other channel should start doing the same.

  4. RESIST the suggestion to name winter storms. This is simply The Weather Channel attempting to assert another asinine idea to ‘hype’ the weather and sell their wares to mainstream weather outlets and the public.

  5. It would help matters if TWC didn’t select almost exclusively currently- or recently-trendy baby names. I just saw the 2017-18 list and it reads like a kindergarten roster.

  6. As I had expected, since NBC-Universal purchased–or perhaps more accurately “commandeered”–The Weather Channel, the show would inevitably revert to resembling any of an unimpressive number of NBC-Universals standard format-recipe afternoon/daytime shows that appear geared to audiences with afflicted with either low-IQ or an insatiable thirst for unabashed melodrama; unfortunately, my expectations have been exceeded…in the negative sense. Naming winter storms–and then staunchly and arrogantly defending the corporation’s unilateral ploy for doing so–is rife with difficulties and challenges: I’ve often observed winter storms, irrespective of names conveying their significance, split into different storm systems; one storm system that developed in the Pacific NW and moving east, split into two after engaging another air mass moving in from the Canadian Rockies moving SSE…until encountering another, higher pressure, warmer air mass moving in from the SSE at a rapid rate of speed. This occurred before TWC’s legerdemain of winter storm naming, but is a prime example of the unpredictability of tracking Winter’s version of tropical storms and hurricanes. There is a REASON why the National Weather Service refrains from naming winter systems, and perhaps I have provided but one example of why. IMO it is a ludicrous practice that warrants reconsideration by TWC, yet its adherence to NBC-Universal’s tradition of sensationalism (or at least making mountains out of molehills) requires ignoring commonsensical approaches suggested by NWS and viewers alike.

  7. No, it’s not “time for community cooperation” to hype weather into entertainment or reality programming.
    Unless a “winter storm” approaches the level of severity and carries the potential for life loss and property damage named hurricanes and typhoons carry, it’s misleading and fantastical (not to mention panic inducing) to put snowfall totals measured in inches in the same category for the general public.
    There’s a reason the National Weather Service – which sticks to forecasting and science – hasn’t bothered with a naming convention for severe snowfall totals, and it’s because that real science is less concerned with flash than it is substance.

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