Captain Nemo

'Behemoth blizzard' dominates weekend news

It was all about “The Big Dig” this weekend in snow-blanketed communities from Long Island to Maine that faced a massive effort to uncover cars and roads buried by the punishing nor’easter that struck the Northeast on Friday. People were also digging out from a flurry of media coverage that was as intense as the storm itself.

The catchy name, Nemo, a creation of The Weather Channel, caught on with many news outlets, social media and the public, and quickly became a trending topic on Twitter. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation just four months ago, the audience was already tuned in, but outlets primed them further with headlines that billed the storm as “historic.”

While the disaster reports provided an important early warning system along the New York-Boston corridor, the drumbeat of snow and wind updates, particularly on cable networks, took on a disquieting tone of sports coverage, in which the “winners” were the towns with the most snowfall and highest wind speeds.

Foremost among them, of course, was The Weather Channel, with its non-stop “Tracking Nemo” forecasts. The cable network announced last October that it would start naming winter storms on its own, an attempt to mirror the far more official naming of intense tropical storms by the US government’s National Hurricane Center and the World Meteorological Organization (whose monikers, from Katrina to Sandy, are indelibly imprinted in most Americans’ memories).

The Weather Channel’s latest name continued to create online grousing Saturday, with NPR’s Two Way news blog asking “Is Nemo A No-Go Name for You?” Mark Memmott questioned whether Nemo was even appropriate, given its popular connotations:

Now, while The Weather Channel will point out that Nemo is “a Greek boy’s name meaning ‘from the valley,’ ” and that it means ‘nobody’ in Latin, those definitions probably aren’t what most people think of first. As The New York Times’ Media Decoder blog says, Nemo brings to mind ‘the adorable orange fishie in the Disney/Pixar film Finding Nemo.’ That’s perhaps not the image to go with a potentially historic storm that is expected to dump a lot of snow on millions of people.”

Nonetheless, Memmott added, NPR standards and practices guru Stuart Seidel gave station hosts and correspondents permission to call the storm Nemo if they wished and said NPR has “no rigid policy” on the issue. The National Weather Service, many professional meteorologists, and newspapers like The New York Times and The Boston Globe are strictly avoiding Nemo and other Weather Channel names, however.

Nemo did spawn a humorous Twitter account with the handle @Nemopocalypse, “the Zelig of Storms.” One tweet wryly noted that “we all meet our maker at some point. In my case I look forward to meeting the marketing folks at @weatherchannel.”

“The whole storm-naming-phenomenon is just part of a recurring cycle of frenzy, buildup, climax and plateau that we seem to collectively observe with each major weather storm system these days,” wrote Elise Hu in another NPR weekend blog post. She dissected how “The Blizzard ‘Nemo’ Highlights the Hype Cycle of Storms,” breaking down the typical storm hype cycle into five distinct phases:

  • The Trigger: Meteorologists agree that a major storm is on the way; a storm name triggers the start; and assorted social media hashtags follow.
  • The Expectation Buildup: Headlines with words like historic, extreme, crushing, and imminent appear; state and local officials prepare; airlines and trains cancel; and public anxiety sets in.
  • The Wait: The public “gets whipped up into a frenzy” that often crests before the storm even begins, leaving a gap until the storm arrives that the media fills with images such as empty airports and grocery stores stripped of bottled water, batteries, and nonperishable food.
  • The Storm: While many storms are shorter than the preceding stages, Nemo’s exceptional length provided added fodder for news coverage.
  • The Coverage Plateau and Petering Out: “Coverage shifts from the disaster to what it left behind” and may drag out for a week or more.

“The danger,” said Hu, “is that while a hype cycle tends to follow the same pattern, storms themselves can vary widely in their magnitude, scope and degree of damage to humans and creatures. If the go-to aftermath stories are the same, the public response runs the risk of becoming routine.”

Forecasts of an “epic” blizzard with “historic” snow levels, winds and coastal storm surges spurred a host of evocative, alliterative Nemo adjectives. “Behemoth” paired with blizzard or storm was popular on Fox News and ABC News as well as in newspapers as far away as The Sydney Morning Herald (perhaps a result of AP wire service stories that used the B-word.) A Los Angeles Times story from Boston called it a “monstrous blizzard” with “hurricane-force winds” that “pounded the Northeast on Saturday, dropping more than two feet of snow in many areas and causing as many as 650,000 homes and businesses to lose power.”

The blizzard’s possible link to climate change arose even before the storm struck on Friday (although The Weather Channel steered clear of that angle). By and large, the message was largely consistent with climate scientists’ general consensus on extreme weather events: while you can’t say just what impact climate change had on this particular nor’easter, it is part of a paradoxical pattern of shorter and milder winters with more intense winter storms in which global warming is a significant driver.

A Friday New York Times On Our Radar blog post on “Snow Storms and Climate Change” linked to a consumer-friendly explanation of weather and climate—“It’s Cold and My Car is Buried in Snow. Is Global Warming Really Happening?”—that provided a teachable moment for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science-based, action-oriented organization in Cambridge, MA.

The Daily Climate, a web aggregator of global climate news, took a more direct approach in its headline: “Opinion: Record Snow in a Warm World? The Science is Clear.” A story by Marlene Cimons, a writer for the foundation-funded non-profit Climate Nexus, relied heavily on the outspoken Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann, who said:

Climate change contrarians and deniers love to cherry-pick individual events to argue that they are somehow inconsistent with global warming, when they are not….As long as it’s cold enough to snow - which it will be in the winter - you potentially will get greater snowfalls….Most likely we will see a shorter snow season, but more intense individual snowfall events.

By Saturday afternoon, the storm moved northward, and initial assessments suggested that lives lost and property damaged appeared relatively low, although power outages plagued many communities, particularly those in Massachusetts.

It was time for The Weather Channel’s Tracking Nemo team to tally the records. Updates from studio anchors in Atlanta and blue-jacketed reporters and meterologists in the field put Hamden CT in the lead, with snowfall totaling 40 inches (the top five cities with three feet or more were all in Connecticut). Meanwhile, Cuttyhunk, MA (an island near Martha’s Vineyard) and coastal Westport, CT were neck-in-neck with peak winds at 83 and 82 mph, respectively. From a mound of snow in Boston’s Copley Square, a cheerful Eric Fisher reported that Nemo apparently ranked fifth in terms of record snowfall there, with nearly 25 inches.

More unsettling were the frequent comments that “Nemo lived up to its promise,” amounting to a presumptive pat-on-the-back for Nemo—and weather forecasters themselves, of course. By Saturday evening, The Weather Channel’s exuberant Jim Cantore crowed from a Boston street: “We absolutely nailed it.”

By then, however, the station was already “Tracking Two Storms,” with Nemo coverage interrupted by warnings of a new winter storm named Orko projected to hit the Plains and Great Lake states Sunday and Monday, including Fargo ND (the namesake of another movie). Watching radar images showing the Northeast’s epic storm heading out to sea, a Weather Channel meteorologist bid it adieu: “We can say goodbye to Nemo and hello to Orko.”

But, of course, it wasn’t really goodbye. It was just the beginning of The Weather Channel’s post-Nemo coverage of the challenges the storm left behind: restoring power to about half a million New England households facing dropping temperatures; digging out stranded vehicles; plowing snow-clogged roads as state travel bans were lifted; warning of carbon monoxide hazards amid scattered reports of deaths from the poisonous gas. “Tracking Nemo” headlines were replaced by “The Aftermath of Nemo.”

By Sunday night, however, it was “Severe Storm Central,” as The Weather Channel’s attention turned to breaking news and dramatic footage of a tornado striking Hattiesburg, MS, as well as warnings of thunderstorms and flash floods in the South.

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter. Tags: , , , , ,