While everyone from Mayor Bloomberg to Twitter has settled on a decidedly unthreatening name — Nemo — for this weekend's blizzard, other members of the weather community have notably left the Disney title out of their coverage. AccuWeather calls it a "major winter storm," as does the National Weather Service, and various network forecasters have followed suit. (Update: One local Connecticut station has gone rogue, calling it "Charlotte.) And that choice is not accidental, AccuWeather senior meteorologist Tom Kines confirmed to The Atlantic Wire. The National Weather Service has a similar policy, a spokesperson told us, after thoroughly debunking the Finding Nemo origin in The New York Times. Threatening as they actually may be, snowstorms aren't hurricanes — and just because The Weather Channel started naming them doesn't mean that's proper meteorology.
This isn't some sort of meteorological oneupmanship. AccuWeather and other services don't play along with the new name game, says Kines, because the practice "confuses people." Unlike a hurricane, which affects everything in its path, a winter storm's wrath doesn't have the same certain doom. "The National Weather Service does not name winter storms because a winter storm's impact can vary from one location to another, and storms can weaken and redevelop, making it difficult to define where one ends and another begins," National Weather Service spokesperson Susan Buchanan told The Wire.
Which is all a fancy, weatherman kind of way to say that everyone except The Weather Channel — which was called out for its preparation alarmism on Thursday — is trying to avoid panic. If you live in, say, Pennsylvania, there's no need to do brace for conditions as bad as those in Massachusetts. "For southern New England this is a horrific storm," AccuWeather's Kines says. "For them it will be 18-24 inches of snow with very, very strong winds. For other places that were in its path it didn't do that."
Since The Weather Channel first announced its storm naming plan last fall, many other forecasters have called it a dangerous ratings ploy — and they still do. "The Weather Channel probably names the storms because it gets the publicity," Kines said today. The Weather Channel is a privately owned weather service, which relies on page views and a massive TV audience during storms. And for better or worse, it's working — Nemo is already the headline of choice heading into the weekend, and #Nemo is trending on Twitter across the Northeast.
It's no surprise, then, that The Weather Channel is not backing down. "The names are working well," Bryan Norcross, the man who devised the whole system, told the Times's Brian Stelter. "We expected that some people would pick it up because there's a common sense aspect to this," he added. Or maybe they're picking it up because of The Weather Channel's aggressive promotion of the name on its homepage and Twitter feed — not a tweet gets posted without the #Nemo tag:
The popularity, however, doesn't quite speak to the public safety of The Weather Channel's storm-branding campaign. The Weather Channel has not responded to a request for comment for this story, but here are some decidedly useful meteorologists to follow in the meantime.
Update, 2:00 p.m.: For the record, The Weather Channel does not think that naming winter storms is confusing. "I haven't seen evidence of that, and instinctively it doesn't feel like that," Norcross, the channel's meteorologist who helped develop the naming system, told The Atlantic Wire this afternoon. "Either people know what we're talking about — we're talking about the storm that is heading toward the Northeast — or the other reaction is that they ask, What does that mean? Asking what that means is really what we want."
If The Weather Channel is trying to induce that kind of curiosity, though, it's also trying to get people to turn on The Weather Channel or visit its website, right? "You're going to have to have a hashtag," Norcross added. And why not have one picked out by The Weather Channel?
AccuWeather doesn't like the idea, Norcross suspects, because they're a competitor: "I wouldnt really expect them to embrace it."
But just because social-media marketing inspired the new naming convention doesn't mean the process itself doesn't have merit. Just like hurricanes, which have to meet a certain wind speed threshold to get a name, TWC came up with a storm naming metric. "We look at the forecast within three days, and if there is a forecast for a storm that will be disruptive, then we go ahead and name it," Norcross told The Atlantic Wire. "It's not based on what the storm is doing at this moment — it's based on what the analysis says."