On Wednesday, The Weather Channel unveiled its third annual list of winter storm names, this time covering the upcoming 2014-2015 season. Among the many obscure mythological Greek figures (Gorgon, Hektor, Frona, Eris), there was also a high school Latin teacher recognized (Bozeman), the Norse god of thunder/good hair (Thor), and my favorite, "W ???" That last one isn't a Myxlplyxian concoction, but rather an invitation to Weather Channel viewers to vote on what the W storm (which is unlikely to even be used) should be named. Like it has every year since TWC decided to start christening weather patterns, the whole thing felt funky: since when did weather reporting become a popularity contest?

But in its own way, it always has been—at least amongst the meteorological community. "It's simply easier to communicate about a complex storm if it has a name, which our naming program has demonstrated," explained TWC's Bryan Norcross, a senior hurricane specialist and compiler of the list. "Good communications benefits everyone." It's an argument TWC has made several times in recent years, and it's something which they themselves probably should have paid more attention to before unilaterally deciding to start naming storms that no other weather forecasters believe should be named.

As Dr. Joel N. Myers, AccuWeather Founder and President, put it, TWC failed at communicating at a fundamental level: "In unilaterally deciding to name winter storms, The Weather Channel has confused media spin with science and public safety. We have explored this issue for 20 years and have found that this is not good science and will mislead the public. Winter storms are very different from hurricanes."

That distinction is one of the major bones of contention over TWC's storm naming. Winter storms are much more complex than hurricanes and tropical storms. There's an agreed-upon criteria for the latter two: tropical cyclones get names when they reach tropical storm strength (winds > 39 MPH), and get called hurricanes when winds become > 74 MPH.

But winter storms have a wide variety of conditions happening at the same time—there could be freezing rain in Maine when there's falling snow in Rome, NY when there's brutal wind chills in Minnesota all at the same time. How can you name something when you can't explicitly communicate why it should be named?

We asked resident Gothamist meteorologist Joe Schumacher to fill us in on some historical background. He explains that after 1945, forecasters decided it would be less confusing to the public to keep track of tropical storms if they had easy-to-remember names. It would also be practical for meteorologists as well, because more than one storm can be present in a given area at a time, so forecasters need to be able to distinguish between them. In addition, tropical storms and hurricanes can affect more than one country, so the meteorological community developed a series of international protocols (you can read more specifics about those here, via the World Meteorological Organization) on how they would be named to avoid confusion.

By the mid-'50s, naming had caught on to the public. Storms were initially named in alphabetical order using WWII version of the Phonetic Alphabet, but in 1953, a set of 23 women's names were chosen for use, for reasons that are somewhat, well, mysterious:

in 1953 forecasters chose to try the practice which had been in use by typhoon forecasters in the Western Pacific since the closing days of World War II of naming tropical cyclones with women's names.

As time went on they were criticized for this, as a Times-News article at the time points out, because people felt it was "ungentlemanly and insulting to womanhood"—this has come up again in a different kind of sexist light, when it was reported that people don't take female-named storms as seriously, and therefore, have been killed by them more frequently. For whatever reason, that initial controversy died down, and the practice continued through 1979, when male names were finally added. They also later decided that particularly notable storms would have their names retired.

"That process has worked well because hurricanes are discrete storms," Schumacher noted. "Hurricane Bob isn't going to run into Hurricane Carla and make baby hurricanes or anything."

Then in 2012, TWC decided to take the popular practice and apply it toward winter storms. "At first glance that makes sense because it is easier to recognize a threat if it has a name," Schumacher said. "Winter storm Hercules or whatever seems more 'real' than 'the next winter storm.'" But as mentioned previously, winter storms are fundamentally different kinds of weather patterns from those other storms. The majority of the reasons TWC offered for the policy change in its initial announcement were about name recognition and social media awareness, and nothing to do with the complexities of the actual weather phenomena.

And TWC pissed people off by deciding to do this without going through or including other forecasting agencies or private forecasters. Schumacher argues, "This sets a precedent for mass confusion when people get winter storm warnings from the Weather Service that don't mention a name and at the same time get a dire forecast from the Weather Channel for Winter Storm Astro. There's also now nothing stopping AccuWeather or other private forecasters, from using their own set of names."

Other meteorologists have not been shy about their feelings. Broadcast meteorologist Nate Johnson accused TWC of holding the rest of the weather community hostage with the aggressive move:

In making this change unilaterally, The Weather Channel has essentially tossed effective risk communication out the window and their partners in the National Weather Service and other corners of the “weather community” under the bus. One of the tenets of good risk and emergency communication is that communicators speak with “one voice”. That doesn’t mean everyone says the same thing; rather, it means those involved should speak in harmony with others. That’s hard to do when one member of the choir is singing their own song and won’t share the sheet music with everyone else.

That’s essentially what TWC is doing here: By setting their own standards and making their own categorizations of winter storms behind closed doors, away from peer review and scientific scrutiny, they are jumping out and expecting the rest of the weather community to follow along: “Coordination and information sharing should improve between government organizations as well as the media, leading to less ambiguity and confusion when assessing big storms that affect multiple states.” In other words, they’re telling the NWS, local TV stations, and local officials that “we will name the storms, and the rest of you should speak our language or you’ll be the one causing confusion.”

The Vane weather blogger Dennis Mersereau wrote a scathing indictment of the practice this week as well, accusing TWC of embracing a cheap advertising ploy:

The Weather Channel's list of winter storm names is a brilliant, near-zero-budget advertising campaign that uses you as their mouthpiece. They knew that by going about these winter storm names unilaterally, with zero input from the weather community and attempting to force everyone to fall in line, that The Weather Channel would be the only one talking about "Nemo" or "Brutus" tearing through New York or Washington. When people go to the National Weather Service's website or check their WeatherBug app, they won't see anything about Winter Storm Skittlebip. The only place the public will hear those names is on The Weather Channel, so that's where they'll turn for weather coverage.

TWC winter weather expert Tom Niziol responded to those criticisms head-on: "I believe our biggest mistake was not communicating the exact naming process to our viewers and the meteorological community," he said in the comments section of The Vane. "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."

He also pointed to a very recent TWC post that finally does clarify the methods and threshold they use to categorize winter storms (information they SHOULD have communicated to the public when they first announced the decision to name winter storms, at the very least). Here's the most important part:

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

Based on these results, for 2013-2014, the general guidance for naming a winter storm is that either the areal or population thresholds must be met for each of the advisories, warnings and the combination thereof. While these guidelines are considered fairly strict, the storm naming committee still reserves the right to override the quantitative decision in certain circumstances. Some of the factors that may influence decisions to override the naming rules include the degree of historical significance of the event (e.g. accumulating snow in South Florida, a summer season snowstorm, etc.).

This is a start, although it still leaves some meteorologists annoyed: as Mersereau wrote in response to that post, "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."

Schumacher offered this final thought about how to fix the schism in the weather community:

To name a storm you'd ideally get everyone to agree on a certain set of criteria and then stick with those benchmarks. That way every time a storm has the potential to produce six inches of snow in 24 hours, or have below zero wind chills (or whatever, I'm just making those up) that storm gets a name. My impression though, and I don't know this for a fact, is that the Weather Channel doesn't have a hard and fast standard and just semi-arbitrarily decides what storms get named. Mashable makes a good point that a dangerous storm in NYC is not necessarily a dangerous storm in North Dakota. It is the unilateral naming and mushiness of criteria that gets under other forecaster's skin.

This week, Niziol told the Washington Post that no “official” conversations had taken place between TWS and the National Weather Service on the matter, though he added that he's optimistic that there will be some agreement on these names. "Throughout my entire career I have reached out to the government. I continue to support partnerships," Niziol said. "The cornerstone of our science is the ability to share data and information." The question then is whether or not TWC really wants to communicate with other weather services...or is only in it for the marketing.