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January 1, 2013

Winter Storm Names: Public Service or Just Hot Air?

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WASHINGTON —

One reason: Unlike the government process for naming tropical systems — which is based on strict objective measures such as barometric pressure and wind speed — the Weather Channel's naming standards are a little squishy.

The channel says its meteorologists consider several variables — snowfall, ice, wind, temperature — that can produce "disruptive impacts" in populated areas, particularly during weekday hours, before giving a storm a name. It hasn't spelled out how much snow or wind in each area it considers "disruptive."

It all, apparently, depends. A two-inch snowfall in, say, Atlanta might paralyze the city, but the same amount in Buffalo would barely be worth mentioning, let alone naming — offsetting factors that the channel's name team considers before a storm is deemed name-worthy, according to Tom Niziol, TWC's winter-weather specialist.

The amorphous criteria are one reason why other forecasters have given TWC's names a frosty reception. Accuweather, TWC's biggest private competitor, has pooh-poohed the idea ("We are concerned about the lack of strict criteria with naming winter storms," it tweeted in October, when the plan was disclosed). Others have groused that naming storms in this fashion is dangerous, because it could hype some storms while playing down the threat of unnamed others. A few have dismissed it as a "gimmick."

The National Weather Service says it will pass on the name game. Winter storms are more variable than hurricanes, said spokesman Chris Vaccaro, with different effects across different regions — heavy snow in one spot, thunderstorms in another, tornadoes in a third. "It can be a challenge to determine the boundaries as it moves or morphs," he said. "The threats can vary greatly and evolve." Given such complexity, naming a storm "might involve a large degree of subjectivity," he said.

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