STORM:CON, Naming Winter Storms, and Other Media Hype

A few months ago, The Weather Channel announced it would begin naming winter storms.  Today, it released a new winter storm severity index named STORM:CON.  The idea is similar to its summer TOR:CON, identifying tornado potential risk, although the latter is little more than an interpretation of the Storm Prediction Center’s severe weather outlook.

The idea of assigning unique identifiers to significant weather events is not a new one.  Most people are familiar with the naming of tropical storms; the World Meteorological Organization is responsible for the naming of the Atlantic events, and eastern hemispheric scientists take responsibility for their regions.  Personifying the storms with familiar names has allowed scientists and the media to make the general public aware of a specific storm and its expected human and ecological impacts.  Even the naming of winter storms is not uncommon; newscasters and reporters have been known to sensationalize blizzards under the headline “Snowmageddon” and Twitter hashtags like “#snOwMG.”  In the scientific community, local National Weather Service offices have assigned event names to significant lake effect snow storms and even tornadoes after the events.

What makes The Weather Channel’s approach to both names and numbers controversial?  The television network is promoting the idea as a way to raise public awareness of potentially hazardous snow events, a goal that most of the media and scientific community seem to encourage.  The primary concern of the community about this new approach is the unilateral power given to a private organization (The Weather Channel) in deciding which storms are named and ranked, and doing so with a very loose set of criteria.  Unlike the naming of tropical storms, which have very specific criteria to meet before being named, the channel has announced that storms will be named based on subjective measures like the population of a region being hit and the time of day that the storm affects an area.  Accordingly, a foot of snow dropped in the rural Appalachian mountains may not result in a named storm, but two inches of snow in a major metropolitan area occurring at rush hour may garner an identification.

From a scientific standpoint, both ideas are essentially useless without specific criteria based on a consensus from the community at large; from a media standpoint, there is no obligation for individual news outlets to use The Weather Channel’s naming or ranking conventions.  Many scientists consider the general idea of naming winter storms to be sound, but are concerned with the methods being employed here.  As was shown following the landfall of Hurricane Sandy (which evolved into a significant winter storm event of its own) very few in the media opted to utilize The Weather Channel’s naming convention for Winter Storm Athena, which followed two weeks later.

STORM:CON appears even less likely to be applied across various media outlets than the storm names, as is evidenced by the lack of universal usage of TOR:CON, which was released a few years ago.  The same problems that plague the haphazard naming of winter storms also plague this new index, as some level of subjectivity will be incorporated into the 1-10 ratings, which read as follows:

STORM:CON 1 to 3
Snow or ice occurs but does not produce significant impacts.

STORM:CON 4 to 5
Impacts would disrupt commerce or travel but not force closures.  You might see NWS advisories at this level.

STORM:CON 6 to 7
Impacts would close down commerce or travel for a day or less. Metro areas with active NWS Winter Storm Warnings might fit into this category. Recently named winter storms such as AthenaBrutusand Caesar would likely be in this category.

STORM:CON 8 to 9
Impacts would close down commerce/travel for multiple days, typically reserved for biggest storms which might occur 3 to 4 times a year.

STORM:CON 10

Reserved for anticipation of debilitating storms which might occur once or twice a year.  Complete shutdown of travel and commerce possibly for several days.  Examples would include storms such as Snowtober, Snowmageddon etc.

If The Weather Channel were to reach out to other meteorological organizations to achieve a consensus on naming and ranking storms, I (and others) would be less likely to label this as another example of media hype.  From my professional view, however, this comes off more as a quest for ratings than a quest for public awareness.