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The power of a name

What happens when you invite the public to suggest storm names? More than you might expect.

Naming storms is nothing new. The practice of giving tropical cyclones names goes back to before the Second World War, and several prominent naming systems across Europe have been around for decades. However, there has never been a definitive system for the UK or Ireland - until now.

Last autumn, the Met Office partnered with Ireland's meteorological service Met Éireann to launch a pilot project inviting members of the public to suggest storm names. The reasoning behind the project was twofold.

It had become apparent over the stormy winter of 2013-14 that not having a single authoritative system was causing confusion, with the media using names from different schemes to describe the same storms.

Most concerning was the risk that this confusion would undermine the effectiveness of the Met Office's National Severe Weather Warning Service. As Dee Cotgrove, Executive Head of Media and Communications, explains: "By inviting the public to contribute to a new system, we hoped to eliminate the potential for confusion, as well as support the National Severe Weather Warning Service and increase awareness of the impacts of severe weather."

This alignment with the National Weather Warning Service is significant. Other schemes name storms once they hit a defined meteorological threshold such as a certain wind speed or central pressure. The Met Office and Met Éireann's scheme was designed to follow the National Weather Warning Service's impact-based approach, naming storms according to how much damage they are expected to cause.

Changing behaviour

The project launched in September 2015, with a series of press releases inviting the public to submit ideas for names via email or social media. The response was tremendous: over 4,000 names were submitted, generating conversations around the weather across platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. The Met Office and Met Éireann then created a joint list from the submissions, choosing names such as Abigail, Clodagh and Henry. These were consistently adopted across the media and other communications, effectively making the Met Office and Met Éireann's new system an authoritative standard - just as was hoped.

What was perhaps even more encouraging was the impact on people's behaviour. Preliminary evidence indicates that the naming pilot has improved people's ability to understand the risks of severe weather and what it means for them. There's also evidence to suggest that the project made people more likely to take action.

Hashtag culture

So why did naming storms have such a tangible effect? "I think it's to do with the 'hashtag culture'," explains Will Lang, Chief Operational Meteorologist at the Met Office. "Bringing seemingly disparate factors such as traffic issues and school closures under one name creates coherence, and with that comes greater understanding of how these things are connected."

Met Office partners such as emergency services and the Environment Agency were also able to take advantage of this effect, applying storm names as hashtags to get their own messages about severe weather out to the people that mattered.

Gerald Fleming, Head of Forecasting with Met Eireann, said: "Naming storms brings many benefits; the public latch on to the name and assimilate the warnings messages far more easily. The media get ready-made headlines for more punchy communication. The storm can be easily searched online or via social media. And when the storms follow quickly one after the other, as happened last December, even professional meteorologists find it hard to keep track of what storm produced this wind or that rainfall; the names bring clarity for us all."

The pilot continues for a second year starting this September. Before the launch, the Met Office is investigating whether to introduce new rules in the second half of the season that would incorporate other kinds of weather, such as less severe storms that have a high flood risk. Either way, the objective remains the same: to engage the public and help both meteorological services and their partners raise awareness of severe weather impacts.

Campaign effectiveness in detail

• Greater authority for our single voice around severe weather which will have a positive effect on public safety.

• Consistency of European thinking on the integration of severe weather messaging.

• According to research commission by YouGov after the first seven storms of the season, the majority of people took action in some way upon hearing about a named storm:

  • 39% assessed the local forecast.
  • 15% warned their familyand/or friends about the storms.
  • 12% prepared for longer journey times.
  • 9% followed further advice from a local authority and/or emergency services.
  • 1% took steps to protect their homes (sandbags, boarding up windows).