Naming Winter Storms: Good for Weather Channel, Bad for Public

A pedestrian walks into the wind and snow in the financial district, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in New York. Residents of New Y
A pedestrian walks into the wind and snow in the financial district, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in New York. Residents of New York and New Jersey who were flooded out by Superstorm Sandy are waiting with dread Wednesday for the second time in two weeks as another, weaker storm heads toward them and threatens to inundate their homes again or simply leave them shivering in the dark for even longer. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

When you learned this week that parts of the Northeast and mid-Atlantic region were hit with Winter Storm Athena, your first thought was undoubtedly concern for those still suffering the devastating consequences of Hurricane Sandy.

If your second thought was confusion since you didn't know that winter storms were named, then blame the Weather Channel since it unilaterally instituted a naming system that promises to cause more confusion than it's worth.

Hurricanes and tropical storms are the only types of storms to have official names, assigned by the National Hurricane Center, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). These names are universally accepted and used. Very detailed and particular criteria need to be met in order for a storm to be named. It's not a random process in the least, and the intention is to help those who might be affected by the storm.

Once a tropical storm or hurricane has been named, it's easier to follow, especially on those occasions when two or more tropical storms or hurricanes are occurring at the same time. It personalizes the storm, and those who follow storms fairly closely can quickly discern the storm's general intensity from its classification alone. For instance, there's a big difference in terms of wind speed between a tropical storm and a Category-5 hurricane.

It's an extremely useful tool, but it's only useful when we all use the same names and the same intensity classification scale.

If different weather entities (government, private and media) were to follow different rules and assign different names based on their own criteria, then there would be nothing but confusion. One forecasting outlet might call it Hurricane Bill while another names it Hurricane Jenny, and one might classify it as a Category-1 hurricane while another thinks it's still a tropical storm.

The public, rather than having a tool that would quickly help identify storms, would have to follow the weather even more closely to keep up with important weather information.

There is no official naming convention for winter storms, but the Weather Channel took it upon themselves to start naming winter storms based on their own criteria.

The weather business is as competitive as any other field. Not one competitor of the Weather Channel, whether that's another forecasting company or a nationally known meteorologist, is going to refer to any winter storm by the name the Weather Channel randomly selected. That would be the same as promoting the competition. It's not going to happen; in fact, competitors are likely to give the storm a different name, perhaps the type of nickname that's become popular in recent years (such as Snowmageddon) that is not based on any weather criteria.

Some media outlets will use the Weather Channel names when referring to storms, either because they are a partner of the Weather Channel (perhaps receiving Internet forecasts from them) or because they consider the Weather Channel to be the experts in forecasting.

Regardless, the point is that some people will use the Weather Channel names for winter storms, some won't, and others will use their own names. And the criteria for what makes a storm worthy of a name will not be as precise as the naming convention for hurricanes.

The Weather Channel claims that naming storms would provide the same benefits as naming hurricanes, but they've been in the business long enough to know better. Those benefits would only result from a NOAA-instituted naming convention that mirrored the one for hurricanes -- a consistent system used by one and all.

Instead of looking out for the best interest of the public, the Weather Channel looking out for the best interest of itself.