Winter Storm Prediction and the Drawbacks of Naming Them

The idea of naming winter storms is not a new debate. Many a crippling snowstorm and corridor halting blizzard have pounded the country in the past. Notable ones get names in their aftermath like the blizzard of ’88 (1888), The ’93 superstorm, the blizzard of 2010 (snowmaggedon), and countless others.

It’s common for snow storms to be rated after they happen, in fact for the northeast the national weather service has devised a way to quantify the severity of the impact. It takes into account the amount of snow, the area it falls over and the population within that area. Former Weather Channel winter weather expert Paul Kocin was a critical part of that classification scheme.

A new idea has been posed by the weather channel, who announced that they will begin to name winter storms proactively. You can read their statement here. Now this isn’t the first time this has been done. In fact, wfsb-3 in Connecticut has had a system of naming winter storms that hit Connecticut with 6 or more inches of snow on average – a tradition that spans a few decades now. I prefer local naming of storms for a few reasons that I’ll get into later. With TWC naming storms we very possibly will have networks calling storms by two different names. Just from a public standpoint that’s disastrous.

My problem lies not with the naming of winter storms as much as it does with using a name to track them. Let’s take a classic example of a developing nor’ easter here in New England. The biggest storms often have energy coming in from two or more different places. You have an amplifying trough coming down from Canada and with it you can have a low that cuts across the Midwest and drops 6+” of snow. Tapping the southern stream you can have a surface low from the south grow and track northeast dropping a trail of heavy snow to it’s north and west. Maybe that low then occludes inland under the base of the trough and spawns a new low off the coast and that then turns into a large storm. Is this all going to be classified as one storm system or be named separately?

In addition to the difficulty of pin pointing the center of these storms, the impacts of these storms can vary greatly over short distances. The weather channel will name a storm that gives Connecticut mostly rain as long as it slams areas further north. WFSB of course won’t do that but it’s still the same storm system impacting both locations. When you are trying to maximize public awareness of winter storms you need to do it in a way that doesn’t alarm those who are not going to be impacted. This is best handled by local media in the areas being directly impacted by these storms.

I have enormous respect for the weather channel in the quality coverage they have provided over the years from their forecasts centers and from the great field work they do during severe storms. Creating a national stir over snow storms, which are incredibly complex and difficult to track systems, is probably not one of their better moves.

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