The Usefulness of 'Nemo'

People seem to find The Weather Channel’s gimmicky storm names valuable.

A popular image shared via Twitter and Instagram on Friday

Ever since The Weather Channel announced its system for naming winter storms last year, meteorologists have expressed skepticism about the gimmick. This weekend, “Nemo,” their name for the blizzard, caught on anyway. News organizations (including this one), social networks, and public officials like Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City embraced the shorthand for the big storm. It gave us a convenient way to talk about the event online, uniting our photos and tweets and conversations under a common hashtag. That utility seems more pronounced as we hear from meteorologists that “the Blizzard of 2013,” an already popular alternative name, may not have actually satisfied the technical definition of a “blizzard” in most places. As with the conflict between “Hurricane Sandy” and “Superstorm Sandy,” Nemo gives us some word that unites our conversations surrounding the weather event, even as we try to figure out what that event was.

Still the National Weather Service and rival organizations like Accuweather aren't on board. An NWS spokeswoman explained why to The Atlantic Wire recently:

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.

The difference is that a tropical storm must reach certain wind speeds to merit a name, whereas a winter storm gets one based only on forecasts of a few days out. Even so, this fear that storms affect different areas differently strikes us as an argument against naming tropical storms as much as winter ones. Remember Hurricane Irene? The storm didn't hit New York or Boston nearly as badly as people thought it might, which may have convinced too many people to ignore the warnings about Hurricane Sandy. That's the danger of hype, regardless of season. Thus, the simple fact that The Weather Channel gives a winter storm a name shouldn't become the gauge by which people decide how much to prepare. People should still listen to meteorologists and heed the advice of public officials.

Others argue that the Weather Channel didn't properly consult with the rest of the meteorological establishment before rolling out its system, and that it is trolling for viewers and web traffic with the gimmick. Surely that's true. They're a private organization and their size-6-million, bold, caps-locked headlines about death and destruction this weekend make it pretty clear that they're in the business of scaring up page views. (Of course, hype, when merited, is an important public safety measure.The more responsible hyping from public officials and weathermen almost certainly helped lessen the impact this time around, as Juliette Kayyem's Globe column argues well this morning.)

Maybe the naming process would be better off in the hands of a public organization whose interests are more pure, but this weekend made clear that there is enormous demand for someone to give us a common shorthand with which to discuss big weather events. The Weather Channel tapped into that, and inter-meteorology conflict be damned, that means the names are probably here to stay.