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Athena To Zeus: Weather Channel Names Winter Storms

NEAL CONAN: Are you ready for Winter Storm Walda or Blizzard Brutus? Starting now, The Weather Channel will dub snow and ice events with the same kinds of monikers given to hurricanes and tropical storms for decades. Some object that since there's no simple formula like wind speed, the naming threshold will not be objective. Others complain that such decisions ought to be left by - to the National Weather Service and not made by a private company. We want to hear from the meteorologists in our audience. Is this a good idea? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

CONAN: Bryan Norcross joins us from the studios of The Weather Channel in Atlanta where he's the senior director of weather content. And it's good of you to be with us today.


CONAN: And how are you going to decide which storms qualify for a name and which don't?

NORCROSS: Well, we have a team of senior meteorologists, winter weather specialists that will make the determination based on three really straightforward factors. The first is according to our forecast - and we have a team here of many meteorologists that actually contribute to the forecast. But are we thinking that there's going to be a significant impact due to snow or ice on an area in the next three days. So that would be a fixed threshold that we would subjectively apply. But I think most people would agree on what that means or understand what that means.

Secondly, would it have a significant impact on air or road travel if a forecast is right? There's never any guarantee, of course, of a forecast being right. But if our forecast comes to verify, would it impact air and road travel? And thirdly, might it cause life-threatening conditions due to snow, ice or wind of a winter storm? In other words, a winter rainstorm would not normally qualify for a name in our criteria. So the senior meteorologist would evaluate the forecast and say it meets these thresholds or it doesn't. And if it does, then we would go ahead and consider naming it.

CONAN: Email from Tim who says: While naming winter storms is a good idea as it will allow people to follow a major storm across the country, I do see a problem. Major storm for Texas in the winter where freezing rain may cause a problem is very different than a storm in North Dakota where five inches of snow and 30-mile-an-hour winds can cause major problems. Is there a size qualifier of a name storm? Is there pressure qualifier for a name storm?

NORCROSS: The qualifier really is significant impact. And his question is exactly the point, in why with winter storms, it really can't be objective, purely objective because it doesn't take much to disrupt Dallas or Atlanta where it takes a lot more to disrupt North Dakota. Grand Forks had a pretty good snow storm earlier this year, but they went to school that day, and the highways were open, and people went to work. So we did not name that because it did not qualify under the significant impact to air and road travel. And really, that's why, after a lot of thinking about this - and we've been working on this for a year - we decided that an objective standard was just not going to work for exactly that reason.

CONAN: And there's more than a few people who say, wait a minute. Those hurricane standards, they may be objective. We got to find new ways to measure hurricanes too. It's the storm surge that matters more than the wind speed.

NORCROSS: Well, in hurricanes, that's very true. It's - it depends on the storm, right? And Hurricane Andrew in 1992, it was all about the wind because the storm surge, as fierce as it was, did not hit a populated area. But in other storms like Isaac, it was, of course, not all about the wind. It was all about the storm surge. So NASA Hurricane Center - and we work very, very closely with them here at The Weather Channel - is working on ways to discuss wind and storm surge separately so that the appropriate warning is to be made based on a specific phenomenon. So that's really a different kind of discussion, but it is a significant communications problem.

CONAN: And there is a National Hurricane Center. Is there a national winter storm center?

NORCROSS: No, there isn't, and that's one reason that we took this on because we thought, based on a set of experiences that we've had - and I've been doing hurricanes for decades. And one of those experiences is that when a tropical system gets named, just the fact that it gets named raises the thinking and the profile of it with the public. More people start talking about them. More people start paying attention. So that's one factor.

Another is that in Europe they've been naming winter storms going back into the '50s, and its just commonplace there and it works. In newspaper headlines you'll see the names. Some countries like Norway name their storms specifically, and it's just become part of life there.

And thirdly, in the modern world of Twitter and hashtags and so forth, storms need names. You've got to push hash something when you're talking about it in a tweet. And so you end up putting, you know, #snowinwashington or some kind of thing. Or last year we came up with #snowtober for the October storm, just about exactly a year ago. And that took off and became very common. So that's really what triggered us to go down this road. And as I said, we've been working on it for about a year.

CONAN: Well, you mentioned snowtober. What, two or three years ago, there was a snowpocalypse here in Washington, D.C.

NORCROSS: Right. And snowmageddon.

CONAN: And snowmageddon. And, of course, the, well, more precisely named the Blizzard of '88. What's wrong with those names?

NORCROSS: Well, they're fine, except that now, you know, every - people want to talk about every system that comes along that's significant. And so what has evolved, really, because, you know, things are moving so fast. It's only been the last couple years that this issue of social media has dominated so many parts of communication, that we found that when the storms would be coming along, we would be racking our brains in trying to be clever at the moment.

So we thought, you know, let's try and standardize this, put some thought behind this, have a plan ahead of time so that people can anticipate what at least The Weather Channel is going to do and what we're talking about, and when you see tweets from The Weather Channel and you see other communications on our websites and our mobile platforms, that, you know, we communicate with literally tens of millions of people over these platforms every day, that there would be consistency across that and people would know what to expect. So that's why we went down the road.

It was actually driven as much by the social media component of it, where we were going to be forced to come up with some kind of name anyway for all of these platforms as any other aspect of it, although, you know, we had been talking about it even before snowtober came along.

CONAN: The names picked, well, a lot of them are Greek and Roman gods. But there are a few that are - well, I guess, there are some Norse gods as well. But there's great villains, Iago, of course, from "Othello," the Shakespearian play. But a lot of people say Gandalf? Gandalf, really? He was so nice.

NORCROSS: Well, the naming thing was really interesting. We struggled with this. Where would the names come from? How would we do it? And what we really decided to do after a lot of thought was we asked for input from a variety of folks here at The Weather Channel. And one of the producers, executive producers, actually, came up with the idea, well, how about if we went to the Roman and Greek way?

And I really liked that because it set the names apart from the hurricanes. There couldn't be any confusion. You know, we're just getting this started. Let's be sure that the names are completely unrelated to hurricane names. And then in laying it out and going down the list, it's - some of the letters don't exist in Roman and Greek names...

CONAN: The alphabet, yeah.

NORCROSS: ...that are familiar, right?

CONAN: K, for example, yeah.

NORCROSS: And so we wanted something that was familiar and easy to remember and not some, you know, fancy Greek name with seven syllables. So it kind of got filled in and then honestly we had a little fun in a few spots. But the Gandolf - again, just to put a little story behind the name, that Gandolf is not "The Lord of the Rings" Gandalf for the peers out there. They know that Gandalf in "The Lord of the Rings" is spelled G-A-N-D-A-L-F. We spelled it with an O, which, it turns out, was the name of the character in a 19th century novel that Gandalf in "Lord of the Rings" and Tolkien based it on. And Tolkien changed the letter in the name. But in any case, so technically speaking - and believe me, I've heard from a lot of folks that dissected this every which way. Technically speaking, Gandolf, in this case, comes from a 19th century novel.

CONAN: We're talking with Bryan Norcross, the senior director of weather content at The Weather Channel, about the company's decision to start naming winter storms. Meteorologists, good idea? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Steve is on the line with us from Fayetteville in Arkansas.

STEVE: Hey. Thanks for taking my call. You know, we get a lot of different kinds of crazy weather in Fayetteville, and so it's really good to prepare people for what is certainly coming. And respectfully, I think it sounds kind of like a marketing ploy to generate interest in The Weather Channel. Please, change my mind and tell me, are you going to issue your own warnings with this kind - with the name on it? Or is this name going to conflict with the National Weather Service warnings? What is The Weather Channel going to do to help prepare our citizens in Arkansas for this kind of weather?

NORCROSS: Very good question, Steve. Thanks very much. Let me be absolutely clear. This doesn't in any way change the forecasts that we make at The Weather Channel or the watches and warnings from the National Weather Service that we communicate. All of that will be exactly the same. The only thing that will change with this is the label that we put on the storm. So that instead of calling it the winter storm, the Christmastime winter storm, it might be Winter Storm Caesar or some other name.

So there is no difference at all in how we warn and how we advice people. All of the weather advisories and everything else that comes out from the National Weather Service will still be part of it. And let me also add that, you know, we would love to work with the National Weather Service if they think the idea has merit, and they would like to make it part of their operation. We'd be very happy for that. The fact is that the weather service being part of the government is very deliberate about things. And you know, it has experimental periods and other kinds of processes that they follow. So this we hope they'll look at and say, we think this might be a good part of the future plans for the weather service, and we would be more than happy to work with them on that.

CONAN: We're talking about the decision to name winter storms. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Kevin's on the line with us from Columbus, Indiana.

KEVIN: Good afternoon.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

KEVIN: Hello. I work in emergency response coordination, emergency management. And I'd like to point out that having the names for the storms, like the hurricanes, they're definitely a big help to us to help us keep track of the storms, especially when they occur one right after another in rapid succession, makes it easier to get the information to the people that need to have it and to organize a response with those issues.

NORCROSS: That's a really interesting point, you know. And I - as you all may know, I've lived with hurricanes for literally decades. And being able to communicate clearly one storm to the next when they come close - in close proximity, or when one is going place and another is going another place at the same time, keeping those warnings and advisories and forecasts straight can be dicey.

And there's actually experience with exactly what you talked about. It turns out a TV station in Connecticut named - has been naming winter storms for some time for their area and for their viewers. And local emergency management (unintelligible) some big storms has picked up those names and found that to be useful in their communications.

So I suspect that some of that will, you know, seep into use as we do this. I don't expect that everybody's going to pick up on The Weather Channel names and use them. Every media outlet has to do what they think is right for their viewers or readers or listeners, just like every emergency manager has to communicate in the best way that they think serves the people that they're serving. But you know, we're hopeful that - as this example points out, that it can aid in communications to raise awareness among people that there is threat, and it is something to pay attention to and make it easier to pay attention to.

CONAN: Kevin, thanks very much. And let's see if we go next to - this is Mike, and Mike's on the line with us from Columbia, South Carolina.

MIKE: Hey, thanks for having me. I agree with an earlier caller who was talking about just the premise of entertainment and The Weather Channel's purpose. I'm a pilot. I grew up in the '90s using The Weather Channel exclusively when I was learning to fly back when it was really just teletype, and followed it, you know, most of life and in my professional career. And I just - I've seen the change since I believe it was NBCUniversal took over. And I believe it's sort of reminiscent of The Movie Network, where, you know, it's just a media move to entertain rather than inform. You know, your guest said that the goal would be so the storms' names would allow you to anticipate at least what The Weather Channel will do. Well, the problem is, like I said, The Weather Channel is entertainment.

NORCROSS: Yeah. I think that, you know, the caller's comment has some validity. The Weather Channel has, over the years, adopted more call it lifestyle kinds of programming. And I think you'll see - if you watch The Weather Channel now, you'll see a concerted effort to put more science into The Weather Channel programming and appeal directly to traditional Weather Channel viewers. And I spent a lot of time every day - work on this, as do many other folks here. We have more experts on the air than ever before. And this is the trend you're going to see in Weather Channel program. I mean...

MIKE: Well, then you do - you definitely do have a favor for aviation as you can tell by the line-up of shows recently. But I do believe it leads to sort of a pre-emptive cancelation in the airline world where the flights are canceled just because the hype on TV. Even though we follow the meteorologists outside The Weather Channel for my profession, I do see a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

NORCROSS: That's absolutely true. It's true in hurricanes as well as winter storms, that if the people get kind of agitated about it because the local meteorologists are talking about it, and it's especially bad if they're talking about it in a conflicting way, or national weather services - I don't mean the National Weather Service - but I mean national weather companies talk about it in conflicting ways, you can end up with confusion. That's - that is a significant problem and one of the reasons that we here at The Weather Channel and most media outlets only communicate watches and warnings from the National Weather Service.

But in the United States the issue of a unified message to the public in significant weather events or emergencies in general is a tremendous problem, and it's, you know, it's rooted in our First Amendment and the way our media structure is set up and other factors to do with just the way our system works. But I don't at all deny that it is something that we talk about and we think about, and we try and contribute to solutions to the problem. But there are no easy solutions, as we saw in Hurricane Isaac.

MIKE: Two final points on that.

CONAN: Only one, Mike, we've got 10 seconds left.

MIKE: OK. You need to be responsible, is the first point about it. And the second point is between that and hurricanes, Jim Cantore can't be everywhere in one year.


CONAN: They will is the answer to the first one. And Bryan Norcross, thank you very much for your time today.

NORCROSS: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Bryan Norcross is senior director of weather content at The Weather Channel and joined us form their studios in Atlanta. Coming up tomorrow it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll see you again on Monday. I'm Neal Conan in. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.