BOSTON – At the onset of the Northeast blizzard, meteorologists weren’t sure whether the snowstorm would drop 18 inches or 30, but they were sure about one thing – it definitely, absolutely, would not be called Nemo.
But that’s what the Weather Channel decided to call it, part of a policy announced in the fall in which the TV station gives names to winter storms so that people can more easily follow them.
The naming decision angered a few meteorologists and spurred a Facebook page, “STOP the Weather Channel from naming winter storms.”
“This is more of a PR stunt by the Weather Channel. It’s not something the government is running with,” said Thomas Downs, a meteorologist with Weather 2000. “There’s not really a hold-fast criteria to determine when to name it like there is with hurricanes and tropical storms.”
He speculates that because the Weather Channel is owned by NBCUniversal, stations owned by that company will be the most enthusiastic about using the name.
“A named storm should be a hurricane, and only a hurricane” said George Wright, a meteorologist and the founder of Wright Weather Consulting in New York. “A hurricane is something that’s more unusual and devastating. If you start naming other storms, people will suddenly think this might be a hurricane.”
Joel Meyer, founder and president of AccuWeather, a Weather Channel competitor, issued a statement this fall blasting the Weather Channel for its decision.
“In unilaterally deciding to name winter storms, the Weather Channel has confused media spin with science and public safety,” he said.
“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.”
Flip over to the Weather Channel, though, and it was Nemo-mania. There are graphics about Nemo’s trajectory, stories about Nemo, and a section where viewers can upload their own Nemo photos (of the storm, not the Disney movie).
The Weather Channel decided to start naming storms after it coined a 2011 event Snowtober, a name that got picked up on Twitter and in media outlets and drew more viewers to the site.
The channel decided that naming a storm was helpful for those following the storm on social media, and also helped viewers keep track of weather events, said Brian Norcross, senior executive director of weather content and presentation at the Weather Channel.
“We know that when a tropical system is named, people pay more attention,” he said in an interview. “They go out and figure out what is going on – what does it mean to them.”
Americans first started naming tropical storms in the 1940s, when Marines in the Pacific had to figure out a way to keep track of all the incoming and outgoing storms. The practice stuck, and in 1950, the National Hurricane Center started attaching names to storm advisories. At first, storms were only named after women, but in 1979, forecasters began alternating between men’s and women’s names.
There are about 20 tropical storms a year, making it relatively easy to decide when to name a hurricane. However, there are dozens of storms every week in the United States, bringing snow, rain, tornadoes and hail to all 50 states. If you ask the Weather Channel, winter storm Orko is currently making its way through Colorado.
So how do they choose what storms to name?
“It would have to be something disruptive” to travel and other plans, Norcross said.
Norcross supervised the creation of this year’s list of winter storm names, which also include Draco, Gandolf and Walda. While the Weather Channel first looked at using baby names from the early 20th century, it eventually settled on names of gods from Norse and other mythologies. Jor-El, the father of Superman, nearly made the list, but was swapped out at the last minute for Jove.
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