We don't name snowstorms and here's why

HOUSTON/USA - The northeast was pummeled by a huge snowstorm this week. The Weather Channel thought it was so notable, they actually gave it a name just like the National Hurricane Center uses names for tropical systems. They called it, "Stella". Because a winter weather system is amorphous (changing constantly in its structure), you can't track it as a unique, single, "entity" like you can a hurricane. A blizzard has several components to it -- a collective of separate systems, working together and sometimes becoming one parent system. While this is one reason winter storms are not given a name, the other reason is that unlike hurricanes, there is typically only one happening on a continent at any time and they're relatively short-lived: alive for days verses weeks. There is no need to distinguish between multiple blizzards when communicating a short-term weather forecast. The concept of naming non-tropical system has been explored thoroughly by government officials, but rejected.

Naming conventions have always been reserved for international officials to assign. The multi-national World Meteorological Organization - WMO - is currently the only governing body which issues names. This is done to avoid confusion. If the same hurricane has different names, it could get confusing quickly. A panel of officials gathers to decide which will be used, and this has been done since 1950s.

For The Weather Channel (TWC) to name a snowstorm, independent of government organizations, in a unilateral action is considered by some to be less than acceptable. It is widely assumed that TWC started naming snowstorms with the goal to drive more eyes to their webpages via the use of, "hashtags" with a storm's name (example: "#Stella"), and to provide an easy branding method for TV marketing applications during superlative winter events. 

TWC first started naming snowstorms in 2012. "Winter storm Athena" was an out-of-season, early autumn snowstorm for parts of the northeast US. Athena was composed of two separate systems, which combined to make a larger one. An immediate conflict presented itself because the key storm which contributed to the snow already had a name: "Sandy". The remnant moisture and low pressure center from that infamous hurricane. (This author had the privilege to fly into with NOAA's Hurricane Hunters, as the only broadcast meteorologist in the country to do so). Sandy's influence was the key factor in making it a snow producer. The hurricane had pulled-in extremely cold air from Canada, making it frigid enough for rain to change to snow. Should TWC's, "Athena" have simply continued with the name, "Sandy"?

This has all become comedic fodder for Late Show hosts like CBS's Steve Colbert. (You can watch Colbert each night after KHOU 11 News at 10pm.)

While comedians are having fun with it, TWC's own Weather Underground (WU) website allowed a WU blogger to publish a scathing article on their site, voicing protest of their parent company over the naming of snowstorms. (This was posted in November 2012, months after WU was purchased by TWC in July of that year.)

Certainly, I am not above naming storms. In the April 18th, 2015 floods, I believe that I was the first person in Houston to apply the name, "Tax Day Floods". I was on-air during continuous coverage for several hours, with my sleeves rolled up, when I realized I needed to call it something. I rationalized with viewers that since this flood was happening just three days after Tax Day, "maybe it will be remembered as the Tax Day Flood. Maybe we should call it that."

While, 'Tax Day Flood' isn't as easy to say as, "Stella" or whatever proper name one might choose, it served the same function. In history, other major big storms earned nicknames like, "The Superstorm of 1993", or, "The Blizzard of '78." But those titles are a mouthful. Why not name it something fun like, "Brutus" or, "Nemo"?

Social science takes the lead over meteorology here, in that people want their severe weather experiences validated. What a better way to provide validation for a major event than to give a faceless storm a name? (Possible future conversation: "During Stella over a decade ago, we got over 4 feet, knocking out power for a week and crushing the roof of our barn under the weight of her snow!")

Regardless, 5 years has passed since TWC started unofficially naming non-tropical systems, and their media influence as a nationally-broadcast cable network has caught on. In this recent storm as an example, ski resorts have used, #Stella to describe its snows. NASA Astronaut Shane Kimbrough mentioned it by name in a recent Tweet.  Even USA Today, a privately-owned newspaper and media giant, adopted TWC's naming convention.  

 

 

It seems a critical mass has been reached. The Weather Channel has successfully circumvented the authority of the World Meteorological Organization and its member nations. The way storms have been named for over a half a century has changed forever.

Brooks Garner
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