Saturday, February 09, 2013

An Open Letter To The National Weather Service

This winter's debacle of storms by a certain private forecaster that is owned by the cable company that most of our region belongs to has lead me to make a simple plea.

Take the naming process for winter storms over starting next winter. Stop letting the private sector own something that's used more for "awareness" (er, marketing), search engine optimization, and self-promotion on their end than for something that really could help benefit the scientific community by setting clear, definitive benchmarks of what is a noteworthy, name-worth winter storm.

Do you remember Winter Storm Khan?  Its wrath brought a whopping four inches of snow in Ohio and Maryland, although its wrath was hyped to do a bit more than that.  In Philadelphia, we got a lusty 1.5" of snow from it.  I'm sure you made a bread run especially in preparation of its approach.

How about Winter Storm Magnus?  Lake enhancement brought some foot plus totals to Michigan but it was more noteworthy for its lusty 30 mph wind gusts and rush hour snows that brought a few inches to Chicago.  Yawn.  I'm sure they'll never forget.

The debacle isn't so much the naming process -- I think it *can* work if it's done properly  and scientifically -- but the combination of nobody knowing what the hell the naming process is and that The Weather Channel is turning what could be a decent idea into a trainwreck by naming just about every little snowfall that's coming through the US as a winter storm is making this, in my opinion, an embarrassment for meteorology.

TWC meteorologist Tom Niziol, who was naming lake effect snows in Buffalo when he worked for the National Weather Service, stated that an average of "eight to ten" storms would be named each winter when he talked publicly about the naming game.

Today is February 9th and fourteen of them have been named.  Outside of this most recent one, there may have been half (if that) of that number of storms the entire winter that really, honestly were noteworthy this winter in the US.  This hasn't been an entirely disastrous winter in the US -- there have been some pretty good storms this winter, but not fourteen.

This is where the lack of published objective, peer-reviewed criteria, a list of sorts where we can go through and check off X and Y and if enough of those boxes are checked we name the storm, makes the whole naming process a meme, a stunt, and self-promotion and not beneficial for the scientific community.  It cheapens meteorology on the whole.  We won't refer to the storms by name (exceptions being past named flops in this article) and will not do so if the names aren't attached to concrete criteria or coming from the Weather Service.

That said, I really don't think the name game is going away.  It is working.  While there are voices in the wilderness who are advocating avoiding using the names, and bless their hearts for doing so, it *is* catching on...unfortunately, even across networks (Weather.com is owned by NBC and I have seen reporters on CBS 3 tweet with this storm's name attached) and into government level agencies such as school districts.  I'm not surprised about this.  Names do work and it's not surprising that, despite as much silence from the scientific side of the meteorological community as there has been, the name meme is catching on in the public.  This winter storm's name did trend in twitter, ahead of blizzard for much of last night.

This is where the National Weather Service needs to step in, bring some credibility to the mix, and come up with a naming system for winter storms and objective criteria that would have to be met (and known) before a name is obtained.  Naming a storm in advance is nothing more than self-promotion and hype that benefits one particular entity over others.  Own it, make it your own list, your own criteria, and make it mean something.  Come up with names that actually have some bite and aren't cheesy, silly, or have us scratching our heads.

At least if I see Hurricane Ike, I think of Ike Turner and his violent tendencies when he was alive.  Ask Houston and Galveston about which Ike had a meaner streak and the hurricane would probably win.

Please do this, before we're forced to go through this exercise again next winter.