The myth of the named winter storm

Last week’s storm in the Northeast reignited the debate over the Weather Channel’s silly decision to name winter storms.

But let’s not go overboard.

“In unilaterally deciding to name winter storms, the Weather Channel has confused media spin with science and public safety,” Joel Meyer, founder and president of AccuWeather, said in October when The Weather Channel announced its marketing scheme. “We have explored this issue for 20 years and have found that this is not good science and will mislead the public. Winter storms are very different from hurricanes.”

Could you think less of the public than to assume naming a storm means people won’t take it seriously?

On its blog last fall, AccuWeather said naming a winter storm is different than a hurricane because a named hurricane is more predictable:

Hurricanes are well-defined storms following a path that can be tracked. Winter storms are often erratic, affecting different areas unevenly. Their centers may not be well-defined. There may be multiple centers and they often shift. One area may get a blizzard, while places not too far away may experience rain or fog, or nothing at all. Naming a winter storm that may deliver such varied weather will create more confusion in the public and the emergency management community.”

Late last week, NPR said on its Two Way blog that the naming of winter storms constitutes the “hype” cycle of storms.

The danger here is that while a hype cycle tends to follow the same pattern, storms themselves can vary widely in their magnitude, scope and degree of damage to humans and creatures. If the go-to aftermath stories are the same, the public response runs the risk of becoming routine — to the detriment of those who need help.

That theory was tested over the weekend. The emergency management community did just fine, casualties from the storm were light, few people expected animated fish to fall in place of snow, and by this morning, many people went back to work, having — apparently — taken the whole situation seriously, more seriously than some hurricanes.

In other words: Nothing changed from any other nor’easter.

While a fair bit of nonsense, the naming of a winter storm is no more a danger to the possibility of the public not taking a storm seriously than a forecast, delivered with alarm, that turns out to be wrong.

  • Bonnie

    bring on Plato!

  • BJ

    So what is the “hype” cycle of storms. So we are naming them so the weather channel has something other that just “blizzard” to shout.

  • Kevin Watterson

    Hurricanes need one simple name as a reference because a lot of times the message needs to be, “Katrina is coming, GTF outta the way!” Whereas with blizzards, we generally don’t have evacuations or the need to mobilize thousands of people and responders. Generally the advisory, “Stay home.” is good enough.