Why is it Controversial to Name Winter Storms?
If you live in the United States, chances are you’ve read about a winter storm that had a name attached to it much like a hurricane. Just over a week ago, Winter Storm Jonas blasted the east, and Winter Storm Kayla is currently dumping heavy snow from Colorado to Wisconsin. It won’t be the first time you’ve heard names like these: Once or twice a year for the past few years, social media has lit up with news of Winter Storm Nemo or Winter Storm Goliath threatening to dump feet of snow on winter-weary towns.
This practice of naming winter storms is relatively new, and it’s controversial among meteorologists and the news media. It seems like a silly controversy, but there are some pretty strong arguments both for and against assigning names to winter storms.
THE CASE FOR NAMING WINTER STORMS
The Weather Channel began naming winter storms during the 2012–2013 winter season, generating a list of names from A to Z similar to how we keep track of tropical storms and hurricanes. A panel of meteorologists at the television network came up with criteria a winter storm must meet in order to be assigned a name: As of the winter of 2015–2016, the network will name a storm if 2,000,000 people or 400,000 square kilometers of land are covered by an official winter storm warning, which is issued by the United States National Weather Service when significant amounts of snow and ice are forecast for a certain area.
Both the television network and proponents of winter storm naming strongly defend the system. They insist that calling a winter storm by a name instead of simply referring to it in generic terms will assist people in keeping track of significant snow and ice in their area, helping meteorologists convey hazards to the public and allowing people in harm’s way to easily track threats to their safety. Meteorologists began naming hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean for roughly the same reason—to help both them and the public easily keep an eye on storms swirling toward land.
Their argument has precedent. Officials in Germany have assigned names to individual windstorms for decades, and the UK’s Met Office began naming major storms in 2015. Some historical weather events created such an impact on society that they naturally sprouted nicknames for easy reference. The “Storm of the Century” in 1993, for example, needs little introduction to anyone in the eastern United States. The Knickerbocker Blizzard of 1922 is widely remembered because of its unique name; the rapid accumulation of snow in that blizzard collapsed the roof of the Knickerbocker Theatre in Washington, D.C., killing nearly 100 people.
Some recent winter storms acquired names solely due to viral trends on social media. The early 2010s produced storms with nicknames like “Snowpocalypse” and “Snowmageddon,” which were tongue-in-cheek ways for people on sites like Twitter to keep track of and remember major thumps of snow. The Weather Channel’s winter storm naming system grew from this social media trend.
If it’s intended to help people, then why are there people opposed to winter storm names? I’m one of them, and I’ve extensively detailed my opposition to the naming system in the past.
THE CASE AGAINST NAMING WINTER STORMS
One of the major arguments against assigning names to winter storms is that The Weather Channel went about classifying these storms on their own with names they chose using seemingly arbitrary criteria they invented. They received no input or collaboration from the National Weather Service, which as the federal government’s official weather forecasting agency is tasked with responsibilities like issuing official warnings and classifying and naming hurricanes. Neither the National Weather Service, competing private weather outlets (like AccuWeather), nor a majority of news outlets honor the network’s naming system. The Weather Channel unilaterally calling a snowstorm “Winter Storm Xerxes,” for example, can breed confusion instead of cohesion if others don't use the name.
Another reason there’s opposition to the naming system is that it’s based more on society than science. When meteorologists classify a disturbance as a hurricane, they arrive at this conclusion based on sound scientific evidence. They look at wind speeds, wind direction, pressure gradients, and cloud patterns to determine if a system has achieved sufficient strength and organization. In both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, a storm receives a name from a predetermined list once it reaches tropical storm strength.
The Weather Channel’s winter storm naming system is based on how many people or how much real estate is affected by the worst part of a storm. A localized but extremely impactful winter storm could affect 1,000,000 people, but since it doesn’t reach that 2,000,000 population requirement, it wouldn’t receive a name. The November 2014 lake effect snow event that dropped up to 7 feet of snow around Buffalo, New York, was easily one of the most impactful snow events that season, but it didn’t receive a name because not enough people were affected. This doesn’t even take into account the fact that sometimes it only takes a light dusting of snow or thin glaze of ice to create extensive issues.
This naming system could also have the unintended effect of breeding a sense of complacency, similar to what people experience during hurricane season. Many coastal residents ignore and even openly mock tropical disturbances that aren’t named hurricanes, even though such systems could spawn the same level of devastating flooding and damage as a more “respectable” named storm. Widespread use of winter storm names could create the same issue, leading people to falsely believe that an unnamed snow or ice event isn’t worthy of the same attention or concern as a named event.
Regardless of what one thinks about giving names to snow and ice storms, The Weather Channel has no plans to stop the program anytime soon. The names have slowly caught on with businesses and local governments, and Facebook even referenced the January 2016 blizzard as “Winter Storm Jonas” in some of its trending news blurbs. Winter storm names are probably here to stay— it’s just a matter of adjusting the criteria and convincing everyone else to go along with it. For its part, The Weather Channel openly wishes that more people would cooperate with the system, and the network’s president stated in a 2015 interview that they hope the National Weather Service completely takes over winter storm naming sometime soon.