The Weather Channel's winter weather expert Tom Niziol came to The Vane yesterday to respond to criticism of their winter storm naming scheme as a cheap marketing stunt. In the spirit of fairness and discussion, this post is dedicated to Niziol's (and by extention, the network's) rebuttal.

First, a little background for folks who don't watch The Weather Channel. Tom Niziol joined The Weather Channel back in 2012 after a career as the meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service office in Buffalo, New York. Given Buffalo's location and tendency to experience extreme lake effect snow events (on average, the city sees nearly 100 inches of snow every year), Niziol is an experienced choice to serve as the network's winter weather expert. He is one of several senior meteorologists at The Weather Channel who spearheaded the winter storm naming project.

Unlike most other major media outlets that ignore or react negatively to criticism, The Weather Channel actually seems to enjoy engaging their critics both in public and in private. Even with the DirecTV debacle and the network's tendency to air reality shows instead of, you know, weather, their most controversial practice is arguably their naming of winter storms that impact populated areas of the United States.

For the past two winters, The Weather Channel has developed a list of names (populated using the names of figures from mythology and fiction) that it assigns to winter storms they deem disruptive. After hearing about and reading my pointed criticism of their naming practices, Tom Niziol posted the following response:

I understand people's opinions and certainly respect them. However, I feel it is important to educate you on the facts as to how The Weather Channel names storms. Before I say that, I believe our biggest mistake was not communicating the exact naming process to our viewers and the meteorological community.

Contrary to popular opinion the entire naming process is handled by a team of meteorologists, not marketing gurus. Yes, there is certainly a goal to increase viewership, that is how a television network survives, but as the Winter Weather Expert please let me explain how we name storms. I believe whatever your opinion, if you have an open mind, you will find the information at the very least interesting and possibly may even win you over to the process. Here is the link below, I apologize if you cannot just click on it, please copy and paste it into your URL.…

A quick email to The Weather Channel confirmed that Tom Niziol did indeed write the comment, and the spokesperson urged me to read the article to which Niziol referred in his comment. The article is titled "The Science Behind Naming Winter Storms at The Weather Channel," and it lays out the criteria that meteorologists at the network use in order to assign names.

The thresholds that the network uses to name winter storms involves winter storm warnings and winter weather advisories issued by the National Weather Service coupled with area (in square miles) and population (in millions) covered. Straight from the linked article, here are the criteria used:

  • Winter Storm Warnings: 2 million people or 400,000 square kilometers
  • Winter Weather Advisories: 8 million people or 600,000 square kilometers
  • Winter Weather Advisories + Winter Storm Warnings: 10 million people or 1 million square kilometers

Basically, The Weather Channel is counting how many square miles or how many millions of people are covered by National Weather Service warnings and advisories in order to determine whether a storm has a large enough impact to warrant naming. I'm willing to cede that using warnings and advisories, at least, does make a bit of sense. As Niziol said in his response, the biggest mistake they made was not conveying this right off the bat when they first introduced this idea two years ago.

Using winter storm warnings and winter weather advisories as a major factor in their criteria is something they did right. Each National Weather Service office around the country has its own criteria needed to prompt the issuance of a warning or advisory. As the article states, it only takes two inches of snow in Atlanta in 24 hours to warrant a winter storm warning, but it takes nine inches of snow in Burlington, Vermont for a winter storm warning to be issued. Different amounts of snow and ice impact different areas in different ways. If you live in the Washington D.C. area, for example, you know that half an inch of snow is enough to trigger a pileup on the Beltway and shut down schools for the day because the local governments suck at treating the roads and area drivers can't control their cars when it's sunny.

In response to Niziol's response (responception), I wrote a rather lengthy comment that outlines my major issues with the network's naming scheme. You can read the full comment here, but here's a summary:

  1. Winter storm warnings could cover a much smaller area than 400,000 square miles and/or 2,000,000 people, but that doesn't mean that the impacts from that storm are any less severe than if it covered a larger or more populous area. If people start to take these names seriously as TWC wishes, using population/criteria thresholds might create the same public perception fiasco that the difference between a tropical storm and hurricane creates. People ignore a 70 MPH tropical storm, but take a 75 MPH hurricane as seriously as a heart attack. The public might start to see anything less than a named winter storm as nothing to be concerned about.
  2. The argument that these winter storm names are to help the public track storms and raise public awareness is disingenuous. The Weather Channel knew that by going about this project unilaterally with zero input or coordination from the NWS or anyone else, they would be the only forecasting outlet naming winter storms. That doesn't help the public; it sows confusion and forces people to watch The Weather Channel or go to weather dot com if they want information on Winter Storm Statefarm, which was the point—it's a brilliant marketing stunt.
  3. If any of TWC's competitors had come up with this list, The Weather Channel would have brushed it off as a cheap marketing stunt and unrepresentative of the weather community as a whole.

As of this post's publication, neither Niziol nor anyone else from The Weather Channel has responded further.

It's clear that the network will continue to name winter storms for as long as it'll drive eyes and clicks to their company's products, and that's understandable—hell, without traffic and ad revenue, I wouldn't be writing this right now. However, if their meteorologists truly want this winter storm naming scheme to make a positive impact on the public's perception and handling of future winter storm events, they need to work with the media and the National Weather Service rather than expecting everyone to fall in line and follow their naming scheme. The way The Weather Channel has gone about this creates confusion for the public and headaches for anyone who doesn't pull a paycheck from the network.

[Image: The Weather Channel]

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