This winter, you just might see winter storm Athena heading your way. You're not going to get buried in snow any differently, and you're still going to have to dig out the old-fashioned way. You'll just get a named winter storm, courtesy of the U.S. Weather Channel.
Why did the Weather Channel suddenly decide a winter storm needed a name?
The Weather Channel's not exactly answering "because," but it's close. It's not about anything scientific. It's about communication, and that means it's about branding.
According to the Weather Channel, naming a storm raises awareness and makes it easier to follow. It's also easier to remember a named storm and to reference it. That's what happened with tropical storms and hurricanes.
The Weather Channel also says that a storm with a name takes on a personality all its own, which adds to awareness. That kind of thing happens all the time with hurricanes, and it's also happened many times with major snowstorms. Remember Snowmageddon?
But the Weather Channel's decided they aren't going deal with media-named Snowmageddons anymore. They've taken the naming ball into their own hands.
The Weather Channel's already prepared the list of names for the 2012 winter. How does Athena sound to you? How about Rocky, or Draco? Would you believe Gandolf, or Khan? How about a winter storm named Q? That's right, Q. It's supposed to be after a New York City subway line, but that's not what most people are going to think of first. That storm's going to remind every red-blooded Canadian of the award-winning CBC radio show with Jian Ghomeshi. Every Trekkie's going to be reminded of something else completely. Actually, that's true for a lot of the names on that list.
And they're expecting everyone else to use those names. They've even recommended hash-tagging a storm based on its name to "provide a one-stop shop to exchange all of the latest information on the impending high-impact weather system." That's branding right there.
So why do hurricanes have names anyway?
The original reason tropical storms and hurricanes got named was because shortwave radio communication isn't always perfect. This was way back before satellite TV. Ships and people needed to know about incoming storms, and it's easier to understand a storm name than to hear a string of numbers correctly over a hissing radio.
People also reacted differently to named storms, like it was more personal. That meant people got a lot more ready, and they also got a lot more determined to stare it down and rebuild.
So the government made it official, and storms were named ever since. Everyone in the private weather industry used the government data anyway, so they used the storm names too. Now the privately-owned Weather Channel's expecting everyone to just start using their names for winter storms the same way.
How the Weather Channel's going to do it
Winter storms are finicky. Hurricane prediction isn't what you would call an exact science, but that's peanuts compared to winter models. Of course the Weather Channel's prepared for all that.
For starters, with hurricanes, names go along with exact measurements. A tropical storm doesn't get a name until it has a closed convection and its winds reach at least 65 kilometres per hour.
There's nothing that's that precise with a snowstorm. There's no sustained winds to measure. There could be a lot of snowfall, or a shift in the storm's path could turn it into ice or even plain old rain. A couple of inches of cold rain's not fun, but it's not in the same league as the equivalent amount of snowfall. Remember, the amount of snow can be up to ten times the equivalent amount of rain.
The Weather Channel hasn't really answered the question of how it'll figure out which storms to name. The exact paragraph goes like this:
"The process for naming a winter storm will reflect a more complete assessment of several variables that combine to produce disruptive impacts including snowfall, ice, wind, and temperature. In addition, the time of day (rush hour vs. overnight) and the day of the week (weekday school and work vs. weekends) will be taken into consideration in the process the meteorological team will use to name storms."
In other words, they're going to wing it.
It's also really hard to predict major snowstorms far in advance. You've basically got half a week from nothing to full development to gone.
So the Weather Channel isn't going to name a winter storm more than three days in advance of that storm's expected impact on a populated area. That'll at least improve the confidence level that the storm's going to develop at all.
Of course, they don't say what they consider a properly populated area. It's kind of like holding off on naming a hurricane until they're sure it's going to strike Miami or New Orleans. Would Biloxi count?
A lot of people are upset at the Weather Channel over this. Especially the Weather Channel's privately-owned competitors!
The government's staying out of it. In their words, "The U.S. National Weather Service has no opinion about private weather enterprise products and services." They're not going to condemn it and they're not going to endorse it. But they did point out that "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 statement also pointed out that the government already rates winter storms, but only after there's something there to be measured.
Accuweather's really annoyed. According to them, they've explored the issue of naming for twenty years and found that it was not good science and would mislead the public. You can bet they'll bend over backwards to avoid using the Weather Channel's winter storm names!
If you're on Twitter, you can check out #RejectedTWCNames for some fun reactions. There's some really creative people out there!
In Canada, the reaction's been one giant national shrug. Most Canadians are putting this change in the same box as the puck trail digitally added in for hockey games on Fox. If you're paying attention to the game and you've got a reasonable attention span, you'll have no trouble following the puck. That goes for winter storms too.