Beginning this winter, The Weather Channel will begin naming significant winter storms affecting the United States. On the surface, the new initiative will be similar to the National Hurricane Center's convention for naming hurricanes and tropical storms, but there are a few important distinctions.
The Weather Channel is hoping to increase awareness of winter storms, which can have a debilitating impacts on regions hit by them. The network hopes to take advantage of social media to help spread the word about these storms and believes that, by bestowing unique names on each one, any confusion about a particular storm and its potential impact will be minimized. It believes that a named storm will be easier to follow in media coverage and that it will take on a distinct identity, like a hurricane, which will help to raise awareness of the storm as it plows through a region of the country.
The naming system that The Weather Channel will use is very different than the hurricane naming system that the National Hurricane Center uses. Hurricane names are given to storms once they have met very discrete criteria based on a storm's wind speed. The Weather Channel's naming system is more arbitrary, based on a storms potential impact to life, health and the economy. In other words, a snowstorm that drops 3 feet of snow in sparsely populated North Dakota might not receive a name, while one that drops one or two inches in a large population center like New York might.
Also, the National Hurricane Center only names tropical storms and hurricanes once they have formed. The Weather Channel plans to name storms up to three days prior to impact. The network could give a name to an as-yet unformed system. So, should The Weather Channel name a storm that doesn't develop or that ultimately fizzles with no impact to the public, it could be left with egg on its face. It will, no doubt, require the meteorologists working there to be accurate with some very tough forecasting decisions as the winter progresses. If they make the right calls, they'll walk away smelling like a rose. Conversely, if they miss some key forecasts, things could get ugly.
Ultimately, the Weather Channel's new naming system is very ambitious and will raise the accountability on the network as it asserts itself as the national authority in winter weather forecasting. If things work out as the network plans, naming winter storms could, indeed, help to keep the public more informed and more prepared for major messes this year. That's a good thing. Only time will tell if the network meets its goals.