Must Winter Storms Have Their Own Names?

By The Philadelphia Inquirer | February 22, 2013

The creeping acceptance of a mercenary scheme to name winter storms is not among the most important things in the news, or even the weather. But like an ill wind, it carries an unmistakable whiff of chaos and dissipation.

The system for naming hurricanes and tropical storms was developed over decades to facilitate communications about weather patterns that can endanger large swaths of the planet. Storms must reach sustained winds of at least 40 m.p.h. before they earn a name from one of several rotating lists established by an international committee of the U.N. World Meteorological Organization in Geneva. Officials even have a deliberate procedure to retire the names of the most damaging storms once a year.

Boston after blizzardAnd then we have the Weather Channel’s so-called system for naming certain winter storms, which looks to have been developed by the marketing staff in a fluorescent-lit meeting room somewhere deep within its offices off an Atlanta-area highway interchange.

The channel’s comically vague explanation of its process says it will assess “several variables” before naming “noteworthy” storms – including whether they affect rush hour. The alleged benefits presented by the network include ease of “hashtagging” on Twitter.

This isn’t much of a bid for gravitas, and the Weather Channel’s choice of storm names doesn’t help. A good portion of its list – including Gandolf, Khan, Rocky, and Yogi – consists of names closely associated with characters from science fiction, popular movies, and cartoons.

The Weather Channel announced its unilateral venture back in the fall, whereupon the National Weather Service warned its meteorologists not to dignify the network’s first winter storm designation, “Athena,” with a mention.

Unfortunately, though, the gimmick started to gain traction with the nor’easter that dumped snow on New York and New England this month. Public officials and others, particularly on social media, began joining the channel’s hype machine in calling the storm “Nemo,” a name irrevocably bound to an animated clownfish. (Sorry, Jules Verne.)

At least the new regime replaces the channel’s previous, ad hoc efforts to name snowstorms – e.g., “Snowtober” – which were even worse. But it’s still a depressing attempt to disguise empty hype as empirical analysis.

How long can it be before this pseudoscientific system mutates to encompass even more unremarkable weather patterns? We might as well brace ourselves for Heat Wave LeBron or Stiff Breeze Bieber.

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