Sunday, November 11, 2012

Storm is a storm is a storm is a storm

But a storm by any other name would be as destructive.

A long time ago (but not in a galaxy far, far away), someone came up with the idea for naming tropical cyclones. The credit is given variously to several people but it doesn't really matter now. The point is it turned out to be a pretty good idea.

A lot of work and collaboration has gone into the strength rating and naming of storms over the years and slowly it has become a quite well-oiled machine. No one really has any problem with it. The only little hitches were when people (feminists) decided to become offended because all the storms had female names. To me this was only a natural outgrowth of other naming systems: boats and ships were traditionally given female names (and mostly still are) and a lot of times fighter pilots in the wars unofficially named their planes after wives or sweethearts. So it changed to alternating male and female and the dust settled until the next beleaguered group reared its head. Now we have both male and female names of English, French and Spanish origins in the Atlantic and of multiple other (including Polynesian, Japanese, etc.) origins in the Pacific. This makes sense for the areas the respective storms will affect.

The Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale was created in 1973 and went through various adjustments over the years, the latest adjustment being only this year. Thus we have a relatively simple system for telling how strong a hurricane or typhoon is and a way to quickly and easily identify it in all of the countries which it may affect.

All well and good. Then an entirely new animal emerged just a little while ago: the naming of winter storm systems.

The excuses given are various but THE claim to credibility is the precedent set by the Europeans to name winter storms. Let's just look at that for a moment:

First, the Europeans name all major windstorms, not just winter storms (although most do occur in the winter). Second, a given windstorm will likely track across multiple countries in the course of only a few days and it is not a bad idea to have one name for the thing so there isn't confusion. Third, given number two, you would think that you would thereby avoid confusion by having an official naming system. Alas, no. The media started the naming system and it gradually spread. Because it is not sanctioned by any international meteorological society the storm can acquire different names along its course. Fourth, you can have multiple winter windstorms affecting Europe at one time so naming them is a way to distinguish between them.

So, back to this interesting development in the U.S. The Weather Channel unilaterally created and instituted this naming system. The Weather Channel, contrary to what some people think, is not an official and disinterested meteorological body. [The National Weather Service (NWS), one branch of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is an official government body.] TWC exists to make money, plain and simple. It is not a non-profit. It is interested in increasing ratings and thereby increase income. Everyone knows how hyped up hurricane season has become an how people hang on TWC's every word. When there is a storm about you can go into restaurants with bars and the televisions are tuned in to the TWC. It's playing in the airports. It's everywhere. I admit that when we had cable (almost 3 years without!) I would watch it too...although not 24 hours a day. All it does is keep recycling the same thing every 15 minutes. When hurricane season is over things settle down. The excitement goes down. You don't go into public places and look up to see people in yellow slickers with "TWC" emblazoned across the front hanging onto lamp posts with the wind blowing them at 45 degree angles. Consequently, ratings must go down.

By deciding to create the same excitement during the winter as during hurricane season, you never get that drop in ratings. About the time the last hurricane has blown through there's snow on the back side of it. [Spring is already covered with "Tornado Season".] It's brilliant.

Do we need it? I have to say, by the time we're seeing the end of hurricane season (and usually well before) I'm a bit sick of the hype. I don't mean the well-deserved warnings and the sober predictions, I mean the hype. Winter is a relief from all of that. And now we're not even to get that break? It's like always being in election year. Gah!

So, back to the question, do we need it? I say no:

1. When a winter storm system comes through the U.S., it generally affects Canada and the U.S., two quite large countries. It's not hard to communicate storm warnings between only two countries.

2. We usually don't have two major winter systems at once although we have had up to several tropical systems being tracked at the same time.

3. Naming winter storms is a good way to confuse tropical and arctic systems as far as the public is concerned. Someone will say, "Remember Olive?" and the other person is left wondering if it brought blizzards or beach erosion. This does bring up the point: how are we going to have naming systems that are obviously distinguished from one another?? Is there something about "Alvin" that is tropical and "Marvin" that is wintry? 

I would rather see the NWS institute a winter storm naming system if it is going to be established. I would still have arguments against it but at least I would feel that it was a fairly unbiased decision. As it is, TWC seems to be coming up with the latest gimmick to line its pockets.

At least one weather station's reaction to all the hype: