This commentary is the viewpoint of the authors.

In 2012, the Weather Channel began formally naming winter storms. The annoucement was quickly met with complaints, mistrust, and disdain from many in the meteorological community. Three years later — and with no formal partners on board in the naming process — the company called for the weather enterprise as a whole to collaborate in the process, citing the project’s proven success in public awareness particularly on social media.

It’s hard not to agree with them at this point, though there are certainly plenty of caveats.

In the spirit of full disclosure — and at the risk of being called flip-floppers — we were against naming winter storms before we were for it. Even today we cringe at the announcement of the season’s names. Yolo? Hmm.

But here’s the thing: Names are here to stay. We should move beyond the disagreement and exploit this fact. Full adoption of a cooperative effort in naming winter storms would evolve what now often feels like a media gimmick into something truly useful.

It will probably be a bumpy process, and there’s still a lot of work to do in making the naming system the most useful that it can be for public awareness and even historical reference. But cross-enterprise acceptance and involvement will help iron out the kinks in what is proving to be a surprisingly complex undertaking.

It ain’t easy

It seems like much of the initial frustration in naming storms came from those who simply weren’t interested in supporting the Weather Channel’s efforts. But over the years, complications in the actual naming system have come to the forefront.

When they first began naming storms, the criteria were highly subjective. Any storm that looked like it would have an impact got a name. Beginning in 2014, the Weather Channel tightened the reigns on the criteria, only naming a storm if it would generate warnings for a population of 2 million, or an area of 400,000 square kilometers. The advantage to using the National Weather Service warnings is that they are region-dependent. Two inches of snow in Atlanta would generate a warning, while it would take much more in the Northeast.

With the criteria and the Weather Channel’s track record in mind, we compiled a daunting list of questions about the fundamentals of winter storm naming, and many have yet to be answered — transparently or otherwise — under the current process. We’ve grouped the questions by likeness:

  • Are the criteria too strict to capture all significant events? Should we actually be naming every storm like we do tropical cyclones? Will there be too many names? What about the events that are not traceable low pressure systems? (Background: Even with “strict” criteria, the Weather Channel is averaging 25 storm names per year over the last three years.)
  • Should storms have categories like hurricanes and tornadoes? Is that the best way to state their severity in today’s world? How do we classify across impact type? How would we do this across multiple climate zones? (Background: The current naming system being intimately tied to Weather Service warnings helps on a base level, but doesn’t capture all concerns. Looking at a map of storm tracks from the Weather Channel tells us very little about the type of storm and impacts it had on any given region.)
  • What observational data should we be recording to “tag” each event for future research and development? How can we store data in such a way that it can be accessed widely? Where is the data that has been collected so far and when can it be made public? (Background: Both tropical cyclones and tornadoes have databases to examine events from the past. Winter weather needs one too.)

These core issues border on maddening. Impacts – even the actual type of precipitation falling from the clouds – can widely vary across a storm system. And it’s a short list. No doubt we’ve missed plenty of questions about the future of this endeavor.

Best yet, we haven’t even covered the community collaboration part. Oof.

Not new, here to stay

While considering the options in any formal naming system, we should remember that the Weather Channel did not invent the idea. They simply recognized that it worked and forced the issue here in the U.S.

Winter storm naming goes back at least several decades. Parts of Europe have done so to back to the 1950s, around the same time Atlantic tropical cyclones started being named. WFSB in Connecticut has been naming winter storms since the 1970s. The National Weather Service has named some lake effect storms going back to the 1990s. Major historical weather systems typically go by names rather than dates — think the Perfect Storm, or the Great Blizzard of 1899.

Still, implementation of the Weather Channel’s scheme has been iffy. Winter Storm Nemo in 2012 — which impacted mainly the New York City to New England region — stands out, but partly because it shared a name with a cute cartoon fish and there were lots of memes.

A stumbling block has been that in almost every case multiple storm names have competed with one another. In large part this is thanks to the fact that many meteorologists, let alone the public, have been hesitant to get on board with what has been viewed as a marketing ploy.

One thing that seems abundantly clear is the naming of winter storms is happening whether we like it or not. Even back when the Weather Channel first dropped the snow-filled bomb, the eternally-wise meteorologist Nate Johnson wrote, “In any event, five or ten years from now, I expect naming winter storms in the U.S. will be commonplace.”

Sure, it hasn’t quite been five or ten years yet. But rather than dig in our heels, everyone should welcome the dialogue and potential for meaningful change. The reasons are many.

Names are enablers

Names are not just a gimmick or a hashtag. They enable broader communication. They enable information. They enable data collection.

As a long-time advocate of the idea, Jason Samenow, weather editor at The Washington Post, laid bare the rationale behind naming winter storms back when it was first announced:

Every storm has its own unique characteristics and traits. And sharing information about the impacts of a storm becomes easier and more effective when a storm is given an identity.
Smartly recognizing this, The Weather Channel (TWC) announced today it will begin naming significant winter storms – the first three will be called Athena, Brutus and Caesar.

Along similar lines, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) nicely details why hurricanes are named:

Until the early 1950s, tropical storms and hurricanes were tracked by year and the order in which they occurred during that year. Over time, it was learned that the use of short, easily remembered names in written as well as spoken communications is quicker and reduces confusion when two or more tropical storms occur at the same time.

It’s pretty clear these ideas are the right ones, whether you agree with the current setup or not.

Going beyond general communication, in today’s world data is critical. Names are metadata. Attaching names to storms will allow for better databases. This can foster examinations not just by those in American academia, government and industry, but the world at large. Data is the catalyst of 21st century innovation.

The critical public-private partnership

It’s time to move beyond the bad feelings that inflamed much of the naming debate to begin with.

Government and universities still carry out the legacy tasks as parts of respective missions to serve and protect, or to explore and teach. That doesn’t make the offerings of the agile and smart folks at private companies like the Weather Channel or AccuWeather, for example, any less important.

The private sector needs to be embraced as an agile innovator that can pass products into a critical but often lumbering government sector. Further, partnerships between the sectors serve to enrich the science in ways that cannot be replicated through other means.

All we have to do is look at Raytheon’s development of AWIPS/AWIPS 2, AccuWeather’s deal with the National Weather Service on proprietary geocoding software, and places like Lockheed Martin taking a lead on climate change issues. If you want a shining example outside the weather business, look to a rejuvenated NASA and all the private companies that have helped along the way.

Importantly, it does seem that experts under the the Weather Channel umbrella have always embraced the idea of working with partners.

Tom Niziol, winter weather expert with TWC, has stated as much himself. “Throughout my entire career I have reached out to the government. I continue to support partnerships,” he told the Post’s Angela Fritz last year. Niziol’s National Weather Service background makes it it harder not to take him for his word there.

There’s also little question that the company is taking the naming process seriously. It might all be viewed in broader terms which include the management shaking up the channel’s programming in moves back toward science.

In a potential future world where the Weather Channel doesn’t solely own the naming of winter storms, it will still be remembered for getting this important process underway. Just one of many significant impacts the company has had over the years.

For success, what next?

While we think naming winter storms is the future (come on, get with it folks) we also understand more needs to be resolved. Here are some of the big-ticket items and potential next steps:

  • Naming should not be solely decided by the Weather Channel. Every effort to pass ownership should be hastened. It may take a few years to fully transition. During this time, a community-building effort should be attempted in which the Weather Channel names are used across markets.
  • The National Weather Service, the American Meteorological Society, or the National Weather Association should take the lead. One of the main complaints through the whole process has been that Weather Service does not own it. It doesn’t appear that the Weather Service even wants it. If not, then an organization like the AMS or NWA would certainly be sufficient. Another option may be to continue to primarily house the process within the Weather Channel, but as a truly shared partnership. That option brings up a whole new set of questions, although the following points would still apply no matter where the shop is built.
  • Main stakeholders should have a primary voice. Pick out a large dining table and plan on multiple reserved seats. Organizations like the following should be considered in rule-and-decision making: National Weather Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency, The Weather Channel, AccuWeather, American Meteorological Society, National Weather Association. Media representation through a lead person or group is also advisable. Requests for thoughts from the community should be explored.
  • Ditch the double entendre names. Yeah, they’re Greek gods or something–and planets, or the guy with the blanky on Charlie Brown. Creating lists full of commonly used names in the United States shouldn’t be difficult. Perhaps sprinkle lists with names of meteorologists who helped enrich the science. Rotate names and retire them in the way the World Meteorological Organization does for hurricanes.
  • Examine criteria, then examine them again. This is a part of the process that even those in favor shiver at from time to time. The U.K. is adopting the winter storm naming system, but their climate is much more unified than ours. While it is apparent the Weather Channel is taking this seriously and continues to make improvements, there have been misses. The Cape Cod blizzard of 2014 should be in this kind of database but was not named because it fell short of criteria. Furthermore, many big Sierra Mountains snowstorms in California could go unnamed because of the population and area requirement. 100 inches of snow could fall on those peaks and the storm wouldn’t be entered in the historical naming record.
  • Regions and ratings. There are going to be a lot of named storms in most winters. We probably even need to plan on rolling through two lists of names in one year. There may be no reason not to “overname.” We name tropical swirls most people don’t even care about. A rating system is an eventual must. Think NESIS and regionally/nationally-based.
  • A unified storm database is necessary. What are we collecting besides tracks, population impacted, and simple snowfall tabulations? A list of the critical items to store in one spot should be collected and crowd-sourced among researchers, forecasters, emergency managers, and perhaps the public. This database should be available to any interested parties and not behind a commercial entity’s firewall.

Implementation might be bumpy… progress tends to be

There are many valid concerns about the process ahead.

These concerns include real-world issues like how the act of naming implies increased severity or impacts. Worries are potentially both in the here-and-now while planning for a storm, but also in the future with respect to the aftermath via aid and insurance.

Then there’s the challenges we’ve detailed above.

Sure, the easiest solution might be to sweep this under the rug for another time after we’ve complained a little more. But, we’ve seen naming works and it hasn’t fostered any man-made calamities. We’ve also seen that storms will be named, whether the list was formulated months prior or the morning it starts snowing.

Admittedly it feels a little dirty to come out in support of naming winter storms. That said, the apparent willingness from the Weather Channel to embrace a community transformation of the naming system gives everyone an opportunity to shape a stronger future for the enterprise rather than dwelling on silliness of the past.

Ian Livingston is a forecaster and information lead for the Capital Weather Gang. Brendan Heberton is an engineer at the Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri) and founder of Weather5280, a Denver area weather web site.