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The Weather Channel Goes Rogue

By on February 11th, 2013

I think it’s reached the point where if you see Jim Cantore walking down the street of your town, you should run for shelter immediately. I wasn’t watching The Weather Channel on Friday as “Nemo” proceeded to bury pretty much all of New England, but a friend of mine described their breathless coverage as “weather porn.” I was sitting in the bar at the Boca Bistro here in Saratoga around 5 p.m. on Friday and on the array of TVs all the local weather folks were in meteorology nerd heaven, sleeves rolled up, ties askew, out-isobarring and out-snowbanding each other, even if they did universally get the Capital District forecast pretty wrong. To the east, though, as the onslaught continued, New England-based friends on The Facebook Machine were quick to share their pictures as their cars and sheds (and children) proceeded to vanish.

I really wasn’t paying a great deal of attention in the run-up to the storm, but as I saw the initial references to “Nemo” I was a bit perplexed, as I didn’t think they named winter storms, much less something as dorky as “Nemo” (most people think of the animated fish, but nemo, as Jules Verne could tell you, is actually Latin for “no one”—a bit of an ironic name for the storm, especially if you are in New England). Back in my day, we had to be content with referring to “The Blizzard of 1978.”

Anyway, it turns out a storm is brewing between AccuWeather and other meteorologists and The Weather Channel, as it was The Weather Channel that unilaterally decided to name the storm “Nemo” against the protestations of just about everyone else. They first started naming storms last winter with “Snowtober” (If they’re going to come up with storm names, can they at least come up with better ones?) which did not make some people happy:

 “A named storm should be a hurricane, and only a hurricane” George Wright, a meteorologist and the founder of Wright Weather Consulting in New York, said in an interview with The Times. “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.”

Well, the phrase “a Weather Channel competitor” probably explains some of the irritation. I really don’t know that we have ever had any difficulty keeping track of storms, be they named or not. Here in upstate New York (which was spared all but a few inches of “Nemo”) we just refer to “that @#%$# snow.” Anyway, what other names can we look forward to?

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 20thcentury, it eventually settled on names of gods from Norse and other mythologies. Jorel, the father of Superman, nearly made the list, but was swapped out at the last minute for Jove.

By Jove!

Interestingly, the naming of storms began in the 1940s when Marines assigned to the South Pacific needed a way to keep track of all the assorted tropical storms. The National Hurricane Center began using names in the 50s, originally just women, but began alternating with men’s names in 1979.

The original idea behind attaching names to hurricanes and tropical storms was to help raise awareness for the purpose of public safety. I wonder if expanding the naming of storms to phenomena less destructive than hurricanes won’t simply make folks more blasé about hurricanes rather than more attentive to blizzards. (There are other issues, as well. In some states, like Florida, insurance companies charge a higher deductible for damage from named storms. If you’re in snow-prone regions, you may want to check the fine print on future homeowner policies.)

(For perspective on the difference between these types of weather events, I defer to my mother, who grew up in New York City, lived for 30 years in New Hampshire, and has lived in South Florida for the past 12 years—so has experienced New England blizzards, including 1978, and some very bad Florida hurricanes. “I’ll take a blizzard over a hurricane any day of the week,” she told me over the weekend.)

Regardless, I think whatever decision is made needs to be endorsed by the entire meteorological community, otherwise it’s just a marketing ploy by The Weather Channel. Then again, maybe we should just name all major storms “Jim Cantore” and be done with it.