Weather Channel Plan to Name Snowstorms Greeted Coldly

Weather Channel Plan to Name Snowstorms Gets Cold Reception
The idea for naming storms sprang out of last year’s October storm that left more than 2.3 million customers without power from Maryland to New England. The Weather Channel named the storm “Snowtober." Photographer: Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images

A plan by the Weather Channel to name “noteworthy” winter storms has hit its competitors in the commercial forecasting industry like a face full of sleet.

“It is almost arrogant to say that everybody else in the industry and science is going to follow their lead and use these random names they came up with,” said Tom Downs, a forecaster at Weather 2000 Inc. in New York. “It seems they have gone off the wall, if you will. It has no scientific merit and it could be very confusing to the public.”

Clearing up confusion is part of the reason the Atlanta-based Weather Channel gives for drawing up a list of names for the 2012-2013 season that includes Brutus, Draco, Iago, Kahn, Q and Rocky.

Winter storms are the third-largest cause of catastrophic losses, behind hurricanes and tornadoes, the Insurance Information Institute of New York said. The systems caused about $25 billion in insured losses from 1990 to 2009, according to the institute’s website.

One of the worst storms on record, a blizzard in March 1888, dropped as much as 50 inches (127 centimeters) of snow in the Northeast and killed 400 people, according to a National Weather Service list.

Naming systems will help create public awareness of a threat and help alert specific areas that they may be hit, said Bryan Norcross, a spokesman for the company.

Increasing Communication

“We’re not going to be aggressive about this,” he said in a telephone interview from Atlanta. “And really, use it to enhance communication.”

The Weather Service doesn’t have an official opinion “about private weather enterprise products and services,” and only rates a storm’s ferocity when it’s over.

“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 Weather Service said in a statement e-mailed by Susan Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the agency.

The American Meteorological Society, which represents 14,000 forecasters across the U.S., also doesn’t have an opinion on the idea because “this just came up a few days ago and for the society to react to it, we can’t act that fast,” said Keith Seitter, executive director.

Seitter said among the informal feedback he has received from members is a wish that the Weather Channel had conferred with the industry as a whole.

“There is a sense that the Weather Channel would have been better served if they had spoken to other people,” Seitter said from his Boston office. “They just sprung it out there. From a business point of view, that is their right.”

Idea Source

The idea for naming storms sprang out of last year’s October storm that left more than 2.3 million customers without power from Maryland to New England. The Weather Channel named the storm “Snowtober,” a moniker that was picked up by other media outlets and became an easy way to describe the event and drive awareness of it, Norcross said.

The channel is owned by a consortium of NBC Universal, Bain Capital and the Blackstone Group, Norcross said. It’s seen in more than 100 million U.S. households and has a website that receives 62 million unique views a month, according to a company statement.

The Weather Channel didn’t include the Weather Service in its plans because of differing timeframes for making decisions, and didn’t believe the Meteorological Society was in the business of setting policy, he said.

Rival Disagreement

AccuWeather Inc., a competitor of the Weather Channel, has rejected the idea of naming the storms.

“Weather forecasting is based on a scientific foundation,” said Joel Myers, founder and president of AccuWeather in State College, Pennsylvania. “To cheapen it in this way for a P.R. stunt concerns me because in the public’s mind it may end up reducing the public’s perception of the credibility of meteorologists.”

Myers said AccuWeather, which provides forecasts to 900 newspapers and television and radio stations, has considered naming winter storms in the past and has always dropped the idea because the company decided there wasn’t a way to develop criteria that would make sense.

Winter storms aren’t like hurricanes, which have definable centers and specific characteristics, said Myers, who was a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University when he founded his company in 1962.

Distant Impact

While the center of a winter storm may pass over a specific city, the greatest impact from the system may be hundreds of miles away, said Downs.

“What is the definition of a storm?” Downs asked. “There is also a big legal question -- when does one storm begin and one end?”

Naming a storm may complicate legal matters that arise from storm damages, said Downs, who testifies about the weather in court cases through his company’s subsidiary, Weather Investigations.

Storms probably will be named no more than two to three days in advance and the names may be changed as systems merge, Norcross said. He called the plan a “a bit of a laboratory.”

“It has created a lot of buzz, I must say that,” Norcross said. “And actually and honestly, more buzz and interest than I expected. I didn’t think of ‘Snowtober’ last year as some sort of P.R. stunt. I thought about it as what are we going to put after this hashtag here so people know what we’re talking about.”

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