Sunday, February 10, 2013

Naming Winter Storms: Another View

This was written separately from Tom's excellent piece yesterday (I didn't even see his before I wrote it!)

Back in the beginning of the winter season, I made a prediction among friends/colleagues. We all agreed that The Weather Channel going forward with unilaterally naming storms was a poor decision, a power play intended to try and capitalize on ratings and spread TWC's brand under the guise of awareness and preparation. But I predicted that by the end of winter, we would all be forced to use the names. It was a prognostication made primarily in jest, but it was also something I felt has been building for awhile.

The naming of winter storms, while attempted at times in the past, finally got legs in the social media era, during the winters of 2009-10 and 2010-11. According to Wikipedia, in the winter of 08-09, Canadians began referring to massive snows as "Snowmageddon," specifically in Brantford, Ontario. It gained serious momentum in December 2009, when DC was blitzed by the "Snowpocalypse." The New York Times wrote a good piece on the origins of it right after the storm. Twitter and Facebook changed the way all news is covered. But it especially seems to apply to weather.

The multiple storms in Winters 09-10 and 10-11 impacted the population core of America, thus creating a need for some sort of differentiation between storms. "First Blizzard" and "Second blizzard" do not cut it in today's rapid fire society of 140 characters or less. Nate Johnson covered much  of this in detail back after it happened, explaining why this works for them, why it's bad, what the benefits would be, etc.

The bottom line is this: The Weather Channel's naming of storms will likely end up a smashing success after this weekend's blizzard. They are partially lucky that a relatable, kid-friendly name like Nemo coincided with one of the biggest New England/Long Island storms on record. But the bottom line is it seems to have worked. And it forces the hand of the rest us in the meteorological community to find a middle ground.

The problem is: Research and government protocols are too slow and drawn out to allow for an idea to gain quick momentum. The goal is to have a sanctioned body of names and standards, similar to what we do with hurricanes, but it's a process that takes time and research. The Weather Channel blindsided a number of us in the meteorological community by doing what they did. However, they were also keenly aware that if they had presented a case for doing so to the community first, it would have taken at least one, two, or possibly three years to establish protocols for naming winter storms. It would not have been a success of their own or one they could ever really profit from. Society works at a blinding pace today, and the research practices and standards for devising something like this would not have allowed anyone to profit from it. I certainly don't advocate sacrificing scientific standards for speed or profit in any scenario, but reality is what it is. We don't need to be lauding TWC for this, but let's understand that it's ultimately likely to be a brilliant marketing move.

If TWC were doing this for those of us in the meteorological community, they would have allowed for the research to run its course. I wouldn't go so far as to call them pioneers, but they have changed the game. The Weather Channel saw an opening and ran with it to profit, and I would argue that they have succeeded...and now it's up to the rest of the meteorology community to catch up.