For three years, the Weather Channel has been naming winter storms, and for three years, many in the meteorological community have either dismissed the idea or even outright admonished the company for the concept.
The argument against winter storm names, in addition to it seeming like blatant ratings propaganda, has been that if names were truly a valuable idea for public awareness and storm safety, the Weather Channel would have collaborated with other organizations — most importantly the National Weather Service — before they launched the initiative in 2012.
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The Weather Channel has repeatedly said that they welcome collaboration with the broader weather enterprise, though no partnerships have ever materialized. But now — just over a week from when the Weather Channel typically announces its list of winter storm names for the season — they are going all-in on the desire to turn winter storm names into a legitimate, cross-enterprise initiative.
In a post the American Meteorological Society’s blog, Mary M. Glackin, the senior vice president for public-private partnerships at the Weather Company, called for cooperation across the U.S. weather enterprise in the naming of winter storms.
“What’s important is to lead as a community in this social media era,” Glackin writes. “During major snow events, the reach on Twitter has been over a billion. What would our reach be with all of us working together feeding into the same system to keep people informed during these hazardous events?”
For its part, the National Weather Service still has no plans to consider the naming of winter storms, and no official conversations between the two organizations have yet occurred.
“Names are given to [tropical] systems because they are discrete and naming provides a common link as these storms traverse international boundaries and multiple languages, and to distinguish between multiple storms that may threaten a region concurrently,” Chris Vaccaro, the National Weather Service director of public affairs, told the Washington Post. “Unlike tropical systems, winter storms are more diverse with impacts that evolve throughout the storm’s life.”
Nonetheless, Glackin makes a strong case for collaboration on naming winter storms:
After three years experience at TWC, here is what we can report: Twitter alone provides an incredible reach where we routinely see more than one billion people receiving tweets using the storm name. Millions of tweets are sent using the hashtag from government agencies, school districts, utilities, businesses, and the general public. These hashtags also allow the NWS and others to find real-time weather data tweeted by citizens that can be used in nowcasts and other storm reports.
The criteria to name a storm are pretty simple: it must meet the National Weather Service winter-storm warning criteria, and it must be expected to impact at least two million people and/or 400,000 sq. km. We use a formal process and a committee of three meteorologists to review these criteria for each possible storm, and while we consider the criteria strict, the storm-naming committee still reserves the right to override the quantitative decision in certain circumstances. Some of the factors that may influence decisions to override the naming rules include the degree of historical significance of the event (e.g., accumulating snow in South Florida, a summer-season snowstorm, etc.); see more details here. The U.K. is planning a similar system using their two highest warning levels, so names are only applied to the storms that present a significant threat.
What’s in a name? Well in this case, the name is the headline to attract attention to the threat. It is the beginning. It needs to be backed up with easy-to-understand information that details the threat to a specific locale and appropriate call-to-action statements. But, in this information-saturated world, this headline/hashtag is key. We need to recognize the importance of serving people in the way they find easiest to consume information vs. how we are most comfortable in delivering it.
Glackin’s argument for naming winter storms becomes even more powerful (or at the very least more interesting) when you consider that she’s not simply a public relations executive or spokesperson for the Weather Channel. Prior to joining the Weather Channel, Glackin was at NOAA — the parent administration for the National Weather Service — for over 30 years in various roles, not the least of which was Deputy Under Secretary for Operations. Glackin is also a fellow of the American Meteorological Society.
When the Weather Channel first announced its naming plan, broadcast meteorologist Nate Johnson summed up what many in the meteorological community were feeling — that the Weather Channel was hijacking the system, in a way, and subverting the “due process” that initiatives like these deserve.
“In making this change [naming winter storms] 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,” Johnson wrote. “One of the tenets of good risk and emergency communication is that communicators speak with ‘one voice.’”
“One voice” is exactly what Glackin is calling for. But will these organizations — the Weather Channel and National Weather Service, along with all of the other private weather organizations in the U.S. — be able to bridge the gap, or has this ship already sailed?
Tell us what you think: