From the ABC 7 Weather team

Winter Storms: Naming storms A good idea or gimmick?

October 2, 2012 - 04:28 PM
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Naming winter storms is, at best, a poor decision by a critical source of weather information.

First, full disclosure. I worked for NBC for 32 years, now one of the part owners of The Weather Channel, and I know and highly respect many of the meteorologists and managers at TWC. 

Having said that, I think the preemptive decision by TWC to begin naming winter storms is, at best, a poor decision by a critical source of weather information, and, at worst, as my (I still hope) friend Al Roker mentions in this video  ". . .even though this sounds gimmicky. . .” it sure does sound like a gimmick.

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.

All of us who forecast and communicate weather information have professional responsibilities to coordinate with our colleagues within the NWS as we all share the goal of having you, the public make the best weather related decision possible.

Sure at times we may disagree with the “official” forecast. As professional meteorologists we may at times give you our forecast that differs from the NWS forecast. But making a decision such as this, by the leading private company of weather information in all media is a slippery slope. Will TWC decide to begin issuing its own weather warnings? Will we decide to name storms that may cause major flooding? Should the storm system that produced the terrible tornado outbreak of April 2011 have been named 2 days before? What name?

Our blogging colleagues at the Capital Weather Gang point out that storms, such as the February 2010 “Snowmaggedon” and the January 26, 2011 “Commutaggedon” were given those names by the public and readers AFTER the event. Would my colleagues at TWC have given a name to the Washington DC storm of January 26, 2011 2 days before? It impacted millions of people and was a major snowstorm. But it was quite local here in the DC area.  How about very local Lake Effect snowstorms that might bring crippling snows to New York State or Ohio or Michigan? Each one gets a name?

TWC is the largest private sector weather business in the world. As a leader in communicating information that often can be life threatening, I believe it also should be a leader in coordinating how we can all better communicate weather risk.

At a recent conference, (you can watch the presentation here) I pointed out TWC Dr. Greg Forbes' development of the “TORCON” index as a way that more effectively communicates the risk (a 1-10 scale) of tornadoes better than words such as “slight, scattered, moderate, and particularly dangerous”.

I think the TORCON Index is a better way of communicating risk. Trying to pick which winter storm to name days in advance without any agreed upon criteria is not a good idea.

I personally believe that the NWS “Watch/Warning” way of communicating potential weather risk and dangerous weather that requires immediate action needs to change. I believe that a storm such as this summer’s Derecho that caused millions of dollars of damage, and power outages for over a week from Illinois to the East Coast called for more than just “Severe Thunderstorm” warnings.

Should the NWS use language such as “Destructive Thunderstorm Warning” with events such as this? I think so, but we should all work cooperatively and with social scientists to have the advances in the science of meteorology be matched with new, more effective ways of communication. I believe we, as a community, can better communicate, but we are not preemptively going to start issuing an “ABC7 Life Threatening Weather Alert” system. We use graphics such as this to communicate risk of severe weather.

ZZZZZ

Or as here the probable impact of winter weather.

ZZZZZ

But I also believe as an individual or a corporation we should NOT make a significant preemptive decision in weather communication that is unlikely to be accepted within the broad community and comes as a surprise to the public lead in weather communication, our National Weather Service.

The NWS has issued the following statement today, “The National Weather Service has no opinion about private weather enterprise products and services. A winter storm's impact can vary from one location to another, and storms can weaken and redevelop, making it difficult to define where one ends and another begins. While the National Weather Service does not name winter storms, we do rate major winter storms after the fact (see: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/snow-and-ice/rsi/nesis.”

The naming of tropical storms and hurricanes has a long history and criteria the entire meteorological community knows and shares and universally communicates to help everyone make the best weather related decision. As well intentioned as TWC’s preemptive decision to begin naming winter storms may have been, I do not believe it will now be widely accepted within the community of broadcast meteorology.

The public, we all reach, would be much better served by all of us who care about more effective communication working together even in a very competitive media world.

 

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