Is Northeast blizzard getting too much hype? No, experts say
SETH BORENSTEIN AP Science Writer
8:59 PM, Feb 8, 2013
WASHINGTON - You can call it a snowstorm of historic proportions. You can call it the return of New England's blizzard of 1978. You can call it simply dangerous. And you can even call it Nemo.
But don't call it hype.
The new director of the National Weather Service says some may be getting carried away in describing the winter storm bearing down on the Northeast. But he says the science is simple and chilling.
Louis Uccellini is an expert on snowstorms. He says meteorologists are telling people that this is a dangerous storm because it is.
Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the private Weather Underground, said the storm deserves the attention it's getting. "This is a serious life-threatening storm if you're trying to travel in it and getting stuck."
One of the big differences between this one and the 1978 blizzard is that back then, it caught people by surprise, leaving many stranded on the highways, said Keith Seitter of the Boston-based American Meteorological Society. This time preventive steps, like closing schools and an early order for people to be off Massachusetts roads before dark, should save lives and make road-clearing easier, experts said.
For more than a week, forecasters have seen this one coming. Meteorologists put it in the category of those that earned nicknames like the East Coast "storm of the century" in 1993. In size, that one topped the 1978 blizzard. The Weather Channel is even giving this storm a name -- Nemo.
The National Weather Service has rejected the cable TV network's naming system. The weather service uses names for hurricanes and tropical storms created by the World Meteorological Organization, but not other types of storms.
Snowbound MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel agrees that forecasters are telling it like it is. But he adds that extreme weather like this fascinates not just weather geeks, but the media and everyone.
"People sort of like it," says Emanuel, who is stuck in his Lexington, Mass., home. "It's the weather porn phenomena. There are people glued to The Weather Channel."
Experts aren't too worried about future weather warnings being ignored if this storm fizzles, because fizzling seems unlikely.
Decades ago, storms like this would come with at most a day or two warning. But now because of satellite technology, high-powered computers and better data and modeling, forecasters are seeing storms several days in advance, says Uccellini, co-author of two books on snowstorms.
Computer model forecasts accurately predicted last fall's Superstorm Sandy about a week in advance and with this blizzard, the first models were showing trouble brewing 10 days out, Uccellini says.
With so much warning, there are days of waiting for a storm with little news to report, sometimes leading to exaggeration. On occasion someone will overemphasize one of the scarier computer model simulations -- there are dozens-- while the weather service and others use a combination that's more conservative and has more scientific consensus, Uccellini says.
"The longer you to have the watch the storm, the more anticipation you're going to get, the more interest it's going to generate," Masters says.
In that way, the lead-up to the storm has been the atmospheric equivalent of the week before the Oscars or Super Bowl.
And now it even has the catchy Nemo name thanks to The Weather Channel.
"By definition when we give things a name, it does allow us to connect with it," says Heidi Cullen, chief climatologist at Climate Central, a nonprofit science journalism group. She's also a former Weather Channel expert. "It gives it a narrative. We're hard-wired for stories and we can turn these weather events into stories."
But Uccellini and others don't like it because it's arbitrary and leads to confusion. This storm is the product of two systems, one coming from the west, dumping snow over the Great Lakes and one moving north from the southeast coast. Which of those were Nemo, if either, he asks. And what makes some storms name-worthy and others not?
The name Nemo was getting significant use, trending Friday on Twitter. The Huffington Post website fully embraced the name, trumpeting "Nemo Cometh" in a morning headline. But it was an easy target for jokes, too. CBS News' Major Garrett mused on Twitter: "I thought only Dairy Queen named Blizzards."