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.