Public service or just a lot of hot air?


A local resident clears snow from his driveway after an overnight snowfall left many schools and businesses closed for the day, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012, in Urbandale, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
December 31, 2012

That wasn’t just snow burying a swath of the nation from the Ohio Valley to southern New England over the weekend, no sir. And that wasn’t just sleet and rain in Boston.

That was Freyr.

Freyr, as in “Winter Storm Freyr,” the Nordic-centric name bestowed by the Weather Channel on an icy band of precipitation that moved like spilled milk from west to east starting on Friday night.

See, the Weather Channel thinks names aren’t just for your well-defined tropical systems like hurricanes and cyclones any more. And it isn’t waiting for the National Weather Service’s National Hurricane Center — the official namer of tropical storms — to start naming this winter’s blizzards and such. In a confluence of marketing hot air and a ridge of cool calculation, the cable channel has started pumping out its own storm names.

So, it was Freyr the other day (and Athena, Brutus, Caesar, Draco and Euclid before that). The channel says it will name each subsequent storm in alphabetical succession, until we get to Khan, Q, Yogi and Xerxes, among others. Weather permitting, of course.


A lone cyclist navigates the bike path through a snow storm at Chicago's North Ave. beach Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Give the Atlanta-based Weather Channel credit for packaging and branding what Nature dishes up for free. By naming the storms, it gives its TV coverage a unifying identity (“Coming up: More on the wrath of Khan . . .”). It also creates a Twitter rallying point and an Internet search term to direct people to such TWC-owned sites as Weather.com and Weather Underground.

All part of the plan, says Weather Channel spokesman David Blumenthal. But he also says the bigger reason for giving storms names is “to create better understanding and more awareness [of severe weather] so that people are better prepared.”

The federal government has been naming warm-season storms for decades, but it’s never done so for the cold variety. It has no plans to adopt the Weather Channel’s names, either.

One reason: Unlike the government process for naming tropical systems — which is based on strict objective measures such as barometric pressure and wind speed — the Weather Channel’s naming standards are a little squishy.

The channel says its meteorologists consider several variables — snowfall, ice, wind, temperature — that can produce “disruptive impacts” in populated areas, particularly during weekday hours, before giving a storm a name. It hasn’t spelled out how much snow or wind in each area it considers “disruptive.”

It all, apparently, depends. A two-inch snowfall in, say, Atlanta might paralyze the city, but the same amount in Buffalo would barely be worth mentioning, let alone naming — offsetting factors that the channel’s name team considers before a storm is name-worthy, according to Tom Niziol, TWC’s winter-weather specialist.

The amorphous criteria is one reason why other forecasters have given TWC’s names a frosty reception. Accuweather, TWC’s biggest private competitor, has pooh-poohed the idea (“We are concerned about the lack of strict criteria with naming winter storms,” it tweeted in October, when the plan was first disclosed). Others have groused that naming storms in this fashion is dangerous, because it could hype some storms while downplaying the threat of unnamed others. A few, including WJLA-TV forecaster Bob Ryan, have dismissed it as a “gimmick.”

The National Weather Service says it will pass on the name game. Winter storms are more variable than hurricanes, said spokesman Chris Vaccaro, with different effects across different regions — heavy snow in one spot, thunderstorms in another, tornadoes in a third. “It can be a challenge to determine the boundaries as it moves or morphs,” he said. “The threats can vary greatly and evolve.” Given such complexity, naming a storm “might involve a large degree of subjectivity, ” he said.

Even so, the Weather Channel, which is principally owned by NBC Universal, is the largest privately held provider of weather information, and thus big enough to create its own buzz and momentum. Says Blumenthal, “We’ve gotten a lot of people talking about [winter] storms because of this.”

The Washington Post’s weather editor, Jason Samenow, says TWC fostered resentment and charges of arrogance among weather forecasters by not coordinating with others in the industry. “It seemed like a power grab,” he said.

But Samenow, a meteorologist who edits The Post’s Capital Weather Gang blog, says naming winter storms isn’t such a bad idea. “Fundamentally, [it’s] a smart marketing idea,” he says. “I don’t really have a problem with it. At the end of the day, I’m not sure the meteorological arguments against naming them are that compelling.”

Indeed, Capital Weather Gang likes to coin its own names for big-deal weather. Surely you’ve heard of Snowmageddon, which crippled the Washington area in early 2010. The Weather Channel didn’t name that one. A Capital Weather Gang reader did.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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