Has anyone noticed something new about winter storms? At least in the United States? They now have names. That’s right. The Eastern US now is getting ready for Winter Storm Hercules. That sounds rather impressive, given it’s the name of a Greek half-god known for strength. This follows last years storms that include Athena and Nemo. The names now seem ubiquitous, and even officials use them. So you might ask, what government agency decided to start naming winter storms and when did they start?
The answer is none. These names are not official and have no standing in any way shape or form other than being made up by the Weather Channel.
Around the 1940′s, forecasters ran into a problem when it came to big tropical storms. With more communications, spotting aircraft and ships, they started getting reports of multiple storms at the same time. They were also keeping more records and it was getting confusing. “The Hurricane of 1938″ just did not cut it when it came to keeping one storm straight from the other. Military meteorologists came up with a pretty simple system: any storm that was considered tropical storm force (sustained winds over 65 miles per hour) was given a letter. They thus had “tropical storm A” and “Tropical storm B” etc. The actual names, however, used the then-current phonetic alphabet, so the storms were actually called “Storm Able,” “Storm Baker,” “Storm Charlie” and so on. The names were repeated each season.
In 1953, the United States Weather Bureau started to standardize the names. In 1953, there was a major policy change. Phonetic alphabet names were replaced by a list of female names, which were assigned to each storm as it occurred. In part this was because a new phonetic alphabet had been developed.
Initially, the plan seems to have been to reuse the same names each year, but in 1954, Hurricane Hazel and Hurricane Carol received a large amount of press and it was realized that reusing those names in 1955 would cause much confusion. For that reason, a new policy of coming up with a new annual list of names to use was created. Names are sometimes reused, but storms the practice is avoided for storms that are significant or strike land. For storms that are especially significant, the names are officially retired. Thus, there will never be another Hurricane Hugo or Katrina. Initially the letters Q U X and Y were omitted from the list. Today only the letter X is routinely left off the list of hurricane names.
Extension and changes in the practice:
While storm naming started for Atlantic Storms and was done by the US, the practice grew to other regions. By 1960, the US was also naming Paciffic storms and in 1963, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration took up the practice of naming storms in the Indian and Southern Pacific regions. Formal policies were later created for naming of storms in the Indian Ocean, with the final procedure not being finalized until the year 2000. The India Meterological Department was one of the last major national meteorology services to recognize the use of storm names, in 2004.
In 1977, the US relinquished control of storm naming to the World Meterological Organization, resulting in a true international storm naming convention. In 1979, another major change happened when it was decided to add male names to the annual list of storm names. The names have also become more diverse over the years. The initial names were very Americanized, but today they include more Latin and non-Anglical European names, reflecting the diversity of the Atlantic region. Pacific and Indian ocean cyclones have names that are more in line with the nations of the region.
In 2002, the practice of using the names for subtropical cyclones was official recognized. Since the line between a tropical and subtropical cyclone is blurred, these storms had sometimes been given names off the list but were sometimes called “storm system one” or some other generic name. The 2002 decision made things more consistent.
Problems, controversy and confusion with the system:
The practice of naming storms has generally worked pretty well, but there have been some minor issues. The names are generally extended only to cyclones of tropical storm force or greater. However, the names may remain even after the system has died down considerably, leading to named tropical depressions or named weather systems. On occasion, storms have been given names late as a result of inaccurate measurements of winds. Poor coordination has lead to a few storms being named twice.
Additionally, there may be the occasional regional naming issue. For example, when tropical systems cross between the US National Hurricane Center used to rename tropical storms when they crossed between the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific basins. Cyclones that move between the Indian Ocean region and the Australian region may or may not be renamed. The standards for how this is done has evolved over the years. On occasion, the resulting confusion has caused national meteorological services and international bodies to call the same storm by different names.
On a few occasions, a season has been so active that the list of names is exhausted. In such cases, Greek alphabet names are sometimes used. In other cases, a new list is created. Again, there is little consistency and the use of Greek names can be confusing. However, it is rare for a single season to be that active.
Winter storm names:
Given that the procedure for what tropical weather systems are given names and how those names are recorded is well formalized, you may wonder how the meteorological standard-bearers of the world decide when a winter storm gets a name. Is it based on snow fall? Or can it just be freezing rain? Does wind speed matter? What about location?
The answer is that there is no standard and no official recognition of winter storm names. That’s because no official agency ever decided to name winter storms. The names are all created by the Weather Channel. A US-based cable and satellite channel which has been in operation since 1982 providing 24 hour a day weather.
The practice started in the 2012-2013 season. The only criteria is that the storms are “disruptive to people,” which is extremely vague. However, the names certainly do help with drumming up publicity and making headlines.
The policy has been criticized by many forecasters. Other media outlets have often picked up the names, creating confusion and leading to the belief that they have some official standing, which they do not. It also makes a private cable TV channel the primary decision maker as to what is and is not a significant storm.
A number of competitors of the Weather Channel, such as Accuweather, have come out against the practice.
TV weathercasters criticize unilateral action by The Weather Channel on storm naming
A day after The Weather Channel (TWC) announced plans to name winter storms, a number of broadcast meteorologists are expressing significant concerns about the initiatve.
Most don’t have a conceptual problem with the act of naming storms, but TWC’s failure to coordinate with the rest of the meteorological community on the initiative is being viewed by many as self-serving and not in the interest of effective weather communication.
Andrew Freiden, a broadcast meteorologist in Richmond, put it bluntly: “Weather Channel to name Winter Storms! First Thought: “Who died and made them King?!”
Going quite a bit deeper, Nate Johnson, a broadcast meteorologist in Raleigh, thoroughly breaks down the flaws in TWC’s failure to engage partners in this effort on the blog Digital Meteorologist:
In making this change unilaterally, The Weather Channel has essentially tossed effective risk communication out the window and their partners in the National Weather Service and other corners of the “weather community” under the bus. One of the tenets of good risk and emergency communication is that communicators speak with “one voice”. That doesn’t mean everyone says the same thing; rather, it means those involved should speak in harmony with others. … By setting their own standards and making their own categorizations of winter storms behind closed doors, away from peer review and scientific scrutiny, they are jumping out and expecting the rest of the weather community to follow along…In other words, they’re telling the NWS, local TV stations, and local officials that “we will name the storms, and the rest of you should speak our language or you’ll be the one causing confusion.”
Despite the use of the names by elected officials, the naming of winter storms is also not endorsed by the National Weather Service.
The National Weather Service has refused to adopt TWC’s naming convention thus far. In an internal memo sent around in November, the NWS reminded employees not to refer to storms by names. The agency has stopped short of offering an opinion on the virtues of naming winter storms, but notes that these types of weather systems are very different from hurricanes.
“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,” the NWS said in a November statement.
For a time, the Buffalo, N.Y., division of the NWS gave unofficial names to winter storms that came in over the Great Lakes, with each season’s names based around a theme. The practice seems to have petered off though; the most recent names found on the division’s website are the snake-themed ones recorded for the winter of 2008-2009, which ran from Anaconda in November to Mamba in mid-February. Tom Niziol, the former head meteorologist for the NWS Buffalo divsion, has been with TWC since January 2012.
Personally, I would prefer not to use the names. They’re inconsistent, stupid and really, just giving away free publicity to a broadcaster. Unfortunately, when everyone starts referring to a storm by a name and looks at you confused when you don’t acknowledge the name, it seems there’s little choice.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 1st, 2014 at 5:47 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Culture, media, Misc, Not Even Wrong, Obfuscation. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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