You may recall hearing the news last month that The Weather Channel will be naming winter storms this year. Hence, the storm currently moving up the Atlantic coast in the Northeast, the one which the rest of the nation is referring to as a "nor'easter," is now known to The Weather Channel world as "Athena."
The Weather Channel says naming storms will bring "dividends" like raising awareness, making it easier to remember storms past, and facilitating the discussion of storms in social media. The news release announcing the decision likened naming winter storms to the National Hurricane Center naming tropical storms. But there are a few important differences. For one, the Hurricane Center is like a clearinghouse for categorizing storms. From weathercasters, to the insurance industry, to John Q. Public, everyone understands that NHC information is the "official word" on tropical storms.
Not so with The Weather Channel and winter storms. In fact, rather than making it easier to discuss and remember winter storms, the naming of the nor'easter now moving up the Atlantic Coast is causing confusion. For example, the National Weather Service is not playing the winter storm name game, instructing its meteorologists to refrain from using "Athena" when referring to the storm. Some media outlets are reportedly considering using the name. So is The Weather Channel's Athena the same storm that the weathercaster in Boston is saying will bring a half a foot of snow to the city, or is that a different storm -- because he/she didn't call the storm Athena? See what I mean?
There's another major difference between winter storms and hurricanes. A typical hurricane season can easily have 15 or more named tropical storms -- Hurricane Sandy was number 19 of the 2012 season. Because it's difficult to keep up with so many storms, it makes sense to name them. By contrast, there are typically only a handful of winter storms each year which rise to The Weather Channel's criteria for being named. Monumental winter storms don't happen very often, and they're pretty easy to remember.
The challenge to increase audience size -- or at the very least, to not lose viewers -- is why The Weather Channel replaced its non-stop weathercasts in the evening with entertainment programs like "Storm Stories" and "Coast Guard Alaska" several years ago. There have been other significant changes over the past few years, like incorporating popular NBC Today Show weathercaster Al Roker in the morning weather program. Perhaps the decision to name winter storms is more about attracting attention and marketing a brand than it is about making winter storms easier to remember and track.