The trouble with naming #Nemo

In my last post, I said that naming winter storms made sense to me both as a convenient shorthand, and on the basis that large winter storm systems like Nemo are spawned from slow-moving mid-latitude cyclones. But as Maura Hahnenberger (@Maura_Science) pointed out to me over Twitter, it’s not as simple as I made it out to be:

One thing I didn’t mention was whether or not The Weather Channel has sensible criteria for deciding which storms would qualify for a name. Or whether TWC has any standardized criteria at all. They don’t. This is the main sticking point for meteorologists who deride TWC’s unilateral decision to name storms: their criteria remain arbitrary and, perhaps even worse, proprietary.

The issue of criteria is one that TWC recognized when it announced its plan to name winter storms…and then immediately glossed over:

In addition, the impacts from winter systems are not as simple to quantify as tropical systems where a system is named once the winds exceed a certain threshold. 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 travel vs. weekends) will be taken into consideration in the process the meteorological team will use to name storms.

In other words, there are no set criteria—it is up to a magic formula of factors that they won’t publish. Although they may have good intentions by taking these variables into account, by not standardizing them and making them known, they forfeit any accountability, claim to consistency, and risk their own credibility.

Not all is lost—this doesn’t mean that someone couldn’t set some criteria. But defining a useful set is not trivial. A common point of reference in many news stories has been the “German system of naming winter storms” at the meteorology department at the Free University of Berlin. You might wonder, “Well, if the Germans can figure out criteria on what qualifies as a named storm, then so can we!” But in fact, the German system sidesteps the issue of storm criteria entirely—not only do they give names to windstorms, they assign a name to every low and high pressure system.  Hahnenberger proposes the following compromise:

This seems quite reasonable. Despite the challenges of defining meaningful criteria, the benefits of having named storms remain evident in the wake of #Nemo. The success of The Weather Channel’s naming scheme will undoubtedly increase pressure on the National Weather Service to “get with the times” and co-opt the system next winter—and if they do, it will hopefully be with standardized criteria.

One reason this issue of naming storms fascinates me is because it highlights the unique role of using names to foster science communication. There are many analogs in space science—for example, the anthropomorphism of NASA rovers, the push by some people to begin naming exoplanets to raise awareness. In many ways, it also echoes the debate over Pluto’s planetary status, and the struggle for planetary scientists to define a strict set of criteria for what is and isn’t a planet.

More on this later. In the meantime, the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of, if not the largest interdisciplinary scientific conferences in the world, is underway this week in Boston. I’m attending for the first time, and it’s also my first time at any conference as a registered member of the press. Look for my tweets at @markzastrow and watch this space for blog updates!

The naming of #Nemo

As I currently write this, about 8 inches of snow have accumulated on my back porch in Boston, thanks to the winter storm system known commonly as Nemo. That this storm even has a name is a new phenomenon. It comes not from the National Weather Service, which is the authority that names hurricanes. Rather, “Nemo” (and #Nemo) comes to us courtesy of The Weather Channel, which decided this year to assign names to winter storms that it deemed “significant” in order to “increase awareness and enhance communication of disruptive, impactful winter storms.”

Another reason might be to enhance their bottom line. Some people aren’t too happy about this, and one of them is Max Read at Gawker. He argues that the naming scheme, which is not authorized by the National Weather Service, is a “money grab” by TWC designed to heighten the sense of importance and hysteria that fuels high ratings. He also argues that winter weather systems are not as clearly-defined as their cyclonic summer counterparts, and that accordingly, their effects are too geographically inconsistent to be assigned one, all-encompassing name. In contrast,

“[C]yclones, which are the kind of storm that gives rise to hurricanes, are meteorologically-specific events that are easily identifiable; last for a long time; and arise simultaneously with other, similar storms, necessitating individual identification.”

He seems to have an airtight case on the first point, but I’m not convinced about the latter. Large-scale winter weather storms like Nemo are also the result of cyclones—mid-latitude cyclones. They’re slow-moving, large-scale systems resulting from air rushing in to fill large low pressure centers, similar to their tropical counterparts. They can cross the Atlantic and move to Europe, where they do get a name—the weather community there has been doing it for decades. They also are not always officially authorized by a government agency (while the Norwegian weather service does, the names used throughout most of Europe are assigned by the meteorology department at the Free University of Berlin), but are commonly used.

As an astrophysicist, to me, air is air, and when it swirls, it swirls. The same physical effects are at work in a tropical fall cyclone as in a mid-latitude winter cyclone: the Coriolis force, and pressure and temperature gradients. Although they are distinguishable by the region and the season in which they tend to form, I don’t see that as a reason to not name one while naming the other. But, dammit, Jim, I’m an astronomer, not a meteorologist, so perhaps my more earthly-minded friends can chime in on this point.

Regardless, whether The Weather Channel makes money off of naming them seems rather beside the point. Clearly, many weather agencies around the world do feel it is a good idea, on awareness and meteorological grounds. And, I admit that as a Twitter user, having a hashtag is convenient (and fewer characters than the #snowpocalypse that hit the eastern seaboard a few years back).

It does give me pause for a commercial news agency, rather than a scientific one (as in Europe), to take it upon themselves to delegate names. A legitimate concern is that the process will require genuine restraint that could conflict with TWC’s interests. For example, the 1991 “Perfect Storm” eventually evolved into a hurricane after it blew out to sea and was no longer a threat, but remained unnamed by the National Weather Service precisely in order to avoid unwanted confusion. I like the idea of naming winter storms. It would be nice if the National Weather Service would save us all the trouble and simply issue them themselves.