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What’s in a name? Dissecting Nemo.

Earlier this month, NPR asked, “Can you really be afraid of a storm with the same name as a cartoon fish with a bum fin?”

The news station was referring, of course, to Nemo, February’s northeast blizzard. Although Nemo’s rank in history is relatively low, the blizzard was ranked a three on a scale of five (three is “major”; level four and five storms are considered “crippling” and “extreme”). Despite public skepticism, Nemo caused nine deaths and caused power outages to 650,000 homes and businesses, not to mention a slew of car-related accidents.

Nemo got its name from The Weather Channel, following their decision made last year to start naming winter storms. Officially, hurricanes and tropical storms get names in the U.S., while winter storms do not.  The National Weather Service won’t acknowledge the name’s existence, and says it has no plans to name winter storms.

Why all the ruckus about naming a winter storm? Joel N. Myers, Founder of Accuweather, argues it’s “not good science and importantly will actually mislead the public.” The Weather Channel is using unpublished and seemingly arbitrary criteria, Myers says, in determining whether a storm is big enough to earn a name.

But according to hurricane specialist Bryan Norcross, there’s a bigger motive for getting buzz. “Everything needs a hashtag to get noticed,” he says. Norcross, who created this year’s list of names, says the intention behind the names is to draw the public’s attention to severe weather. While winter storms may not have as large of an impact as hurricanes, they can often be erratic; for example, dumping snow in one area while leaving nothing more than rain or fog in another.

Winter storm names
Credit: The Weather Channel

Heidi Cullen, chief climatologist at Climate Central, also points out that when we give things a name, it allows us to connect with it. She says, “It gives it a narrative. We’re hard-wired for stories and we can turn these weather events into stories.”

Other meteorologists, however, complain the name is indicative of more media hype, a meager marketing gimmick by The Weather Channel to promote its coverage. After what many perceived as media hype surrounding Hurricane Irene in 2011, many people may have had a false sense of confidence when preparing for Hurricane Sandy.

Is it possible to strike a balance between providing adequate warning and “crying wolf”? While there are no clear answers, it seems we’ll have to get used to it.

Academics use something called a “hype cycle” to illustrate the way society adopts new technologies. Now, it’s becoming clear that superstorms have hype cycles of their own. NPR breaks down the phases of a “storm hype cycle” as follows:

Phase One: The Trigger

Meteorologists agree that a major storm is on the way; a storm name triggers the start; and assorted social media hashtags follow.

Phase Two: 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.

Phase Three: 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.

Phase Four: The Storm

While many storms are shorter than the preceding stages, Nemo’s exceptional length provided added fodder for news coverage.

Phase Five: 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.

To learn more details about the hype cycle of storms, visit NPR.