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Naming Nemo: how The Weather Channel took storm names away from the government

Naming Nemo: how The Weather Channel took storm names away from the government


The Twitter-friendly move is marketing genius, but is it science?

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tracking nemo
tracking nemo

Look out, Northeasterners: two massive low pressure systems are merging, creating the potential for wind gusts up to 60 miles an hour and heavy precipitation. We're experiencing what will probably be record-breaking weather — but even as the western frontal system approaches the coastal low pressure area, all people are talking about is something called Nemo.

Yep, The Weather Channel's ploy worked. Back in November, the 31-year-old cable network announced a list of outlandish names that would be assigned to "noteworthy winter storms" during the 2012-2013 season, in the style usually reserved for hurricanes. "Our goal is to better communicate the threat and the timing of the significant impacts that accompany these events," the network wrote, quite reasonably. "The fact is, a storm with a name is easier to follow, which will mean fewer surprises and more preparation."

It took a little while for the names to catch on. The decision to include "Q" on the list of names sparked a story in The New York Times; then "Euclid," the snowstorm that swept the South in early January, got some traction. However, the current blizzard's innocuous-sounding moniker has taken off and is now being used in news stories and trending on Twitter. Everyone from MTV to Verizon is using "Nemo" to refer to the storm.

The National Weather Service does not endorse the practice and has told forecasters not to use the name. A harried spokeswoman told The Verge that the government agency has never named storms and does not intend to start. "The Weather Channel started naming winter storms, that's their project," she said.


A satellite image of Nemo. Source: NASA

The agency sent along a statement explaining why it does not name storms: "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."

The National Weather Service does not endorse the name and told forecasters not to use it

The naming of hurricanes, tropical storms, and typhoons is done with the cooperation of governments around the world; there's also a university in Europe that issues storm names for that region. However, there is no official system for naming winter storms in the US. Traditionally, tornadoes, summer storms, and blizzards were deemed too short, too ambiguous, or too inconsequential to get names. That is, until the marketing department of The Weather Channel got involved.

The idea to name winter storms came in late 2011, when the network's social media editors started using the term "snotober" to talk about a weather system that hit around Halloween. The term took off on Facebook and Twitter and forecasters started using it on the air. That was when the marketing department collaborated with the meteorologists to design a system for naming storms.

"Twitter was actually the initial catalyst," said Bryan Norcross, a meteorologist at The Weather Channel who led development of the system.

"Twitter was actually the initial catalyst."

Some critics have said The Weather Channel is overstepping its boundaries by attempting to be the registrar of record, which Norcross acknowledged. "They like the fact that the storms are named. They get that in this modern era of short communication, having a name makes it clearer. They just wish that the National Weather Service were doing it so that there wouldn't be a competitive aspect to it," he said.


The Weather Channel's name list for the 2012-2013 winter storm season.

The Weather Channel approached the NWS and its umbrella agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration when the idea first came up, Norcross said. "We said, 'if you guys picked it up, we'd be happy to use your names,'" he said.

However, the government didn't move fast enough. "Somebody's got to start it, and The Weather Channel is a logical place because it's a weather network with a national reach," Norcross said. "Because we're a private business and a private entity, we can move faster than these agencies can move."

But the fact is, having a name has been really helpful

It may feel as if a private entity has hijacked what should be a government function, especially considering the value it's adding to The Weather Channel's brand. The fact that the network benefits when the weather is news also means the channel has more incentive to exaggerate the size of storms, which could result in the naming of insignificant systems. But the fact is, having a name for the storm that's battering the Northeast has been really helpful. Just ask the New York City Mayor's Office, which started referring to the storm as "Nemo" almost immediately.

"Since at least some New Yorkers have adopted the name, we think using it will help the public find information that will help them be prepared and safe during the storm – and that’s our goal in communicating during severe weather," Julie Wood, the mayor's deputy press secretary and voice behind @NYCMayorsOffice, said in an email. "We know that a lot of New Yorkers get their information via Twitter and that’s why we put information there and on other social media platforms with great frequency during severe weather. We want that information to be searchable and easy to find."

Perhaps the naming of storms should be reserved for the National Weather Service. But when the snow starts to fall, the winds start to roar, and the Twitter jokes start to crack, people are going to reach for a name — whether it's Nemo, Q, or #snowpocalypse.