Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Reacting To Naming Winter Storms

Reaction to yesterday's news that The Weather Channel was going to initiate naming winter storms has been swift, fierce, and generally negative across the social media spectrum and beyond.

From our Facebook page, a number of you commented and generally were in agreement that it wasn't a good thing.  Our twitter feed was equally vocal...mainly in opposition to the decision.  Common comments included "lame", "ratings grab", "asinine", and "stupid" among others.

Not everyone is against it -- a few liked the idea and one meteorologist in an email to me (name withheld at their request) that the idea is a long time in coming because of Europe's use of naming windstorms each winter. He said it will help make communication of potential storm tracks in the winter a bit easier.

I get that.  Saying Brutus will track on a path from Cincinnati to Buffalo is a bit easier than saying "this winter storm will track from Cincinnati to Buffalo" so there is some merit in it.

I also thought that "#rejectedTWCnames" was a great hashtag to name some of the storm name ideas that didn't quite make the cut. Our Kevin Wagner's suggestion of "Winter Storm Romo" would get intercepted by the jet stream.

Outside of the immediate spectrum of social reaction, reaction from the meteorological community has followed suit.  Bob Ryan of Washington's WJLA-TV (ABC) criticized the decision based on the lack of coordination from TWC with the broader meteorological community. 

Ryan: "I call this a “preemptive” decision because there was, from everything I have learned, NO coordination of this decision to name winter storms with the National Weather Service or any of the professional groups such as the Weather Coalition, groups within the AMS or NWA. Our shared goal is to communicate the best weather information so that everyone will make the best weather related decision."

Nate Johnson, a meteorologist in Raleigh, goes a step further: "In making this change unilaterally, The Weather Channel has essentially tossed effective risk communication out the window and their partners in the National Weather Service and other corners of the “weather community” under the bus. One of the tenets of good risk and emergency communication is that communicators speak with “one voice”. That doesn’t mean everyone says the same thing; rather, it means those involved should speak in harmony with others. That’s hard to do when one member of the choir is singing their own song and won’t share the sheet music with everyone else. That’s essentially what TWC is doing here: By setting their own standards and making their own categorizations of winter storms behind closed doors, away from peer review and scientific scrutiny, they are jumping out and expecting the rest of the weather community to follow along: 'Coordination and information sharing should improve between government organizations as well as the media, leading to less ambiguity and confusion when assessing big storms that affect multiple states.' In other words, they’re telling the NWS, local TV stations, and local officials that 'we will name the storms, and the rest of you should speak our language or you’ll be the one causing confusion.'"

Nate's points are probably a bit harsh but speak to a broader point that I made yesterday and feel is critical in this whole debate.   What is and isn't worthy of naming?  More importantly, should that naming criteria be proprietary and not released to the public?

There has yet, to my knowledge, been any information divulged on specific criteria on what is name-worthy or not.  Snowfall impacts vary widely based on timing, geography, topography, climatology, and any other wildcard factors.  Four inches of snow in Philadelphia on a Saturday night might impact the party in Old City but most people don't really care about it nor be terribly impacted by it despite crushing amounts of video from the Bala Cynwyd ACME.  Two inches of snow in the morning rush hour from a clipper system causes more impact around here, ACME bread runs or not.  Does a storm that develops on a weekend which produces a moderate snowfall get a name while a two inch clipper that fouls up a rush hour not?  Without seeing the criteria behind the naming process, TWC's decision does smell of pure marketing.

TWC erred, in my opinion, by not announcing the concrete criteria that goes into naming a winter storm yesterday.  Not releasing the scientific backing to show what will be analyzed into making the decision makes TWC looks like it's purely in this for the marketing buzz, the search engine optimization, and other gimmicks that put weather secondary to revenue and eyeballs.   Since Comcast (which owns TWC through NBC) is a private company, TWC doesn't have to release that secret formula if it so desires.  The problem, however, is that forecasting weather is a public service and something like designating a name on a storm should be held to a standard that the scientific community should be a part of and where the information should be publicly known.   Tropical cyclones get named upon reaching set criteria that is publicly known and usually agreed upon.

I'm not completely opposed to naming winter storms as a practice -- I mentioned that it's been done elsewhere so it's not like this is a novel idea.   However, if a private forecaster is going to "go there" and try and create a system for naming storms, it needs to share the concrete behind it instead of generalities such as "snowfall and population." I also think there needs to be some publicly known scientific criteria that are established that show what qualifies as a named winter storm or not given the vast array of different factors in impact.  If those criteria are released, then perhaps TWC's decision has some merit...however, until they choose to announce what scientific criteria is and is not worthy of a name, this smells like marketing first, gimmick second, and weather awareness third.  To me, a reluctance to put the science of weather ahead of the marketing of weather or to put the two out there in tandem with reach other is bad for meteorology as a science and industry overall.  It's unfortunate that major players in the weather business feel the need to put hashtags and SEO over public safety in the name of getting buzz and eyeballs.  It's a bit of a disturbing trend...and when Brutus (or any other storm) is hyped up as a "potential major storm" by them only to produce an inch of snow in reality, the backlash from that busted storm will hopefully be fired in the right directions.

That said, the hype and buzz are winning because many people are sure talking about it!