You might not know it from all the Twitter chatter, but the blizzard that’s currently pummeling the East Coast is not called “Nemo” — at least not officially.
Nemo is just a name that The Weather Channel cooked up on its own, following a decision last year to start naming winter storms. The National Weather Service won’t acknowledge the name’s existence, and told the New York Times that it has no plans to name winter storms. Other organizations have also turned their noses up at the concept. “We’re not using that arbitrary name for the storm,” Jason Samenow, the Washington Post‘s weather editor, told Poynter. “It’s meaningless.”
Officially, hurricanes and tropical storms get names. Mere winter storms do not.
Still, there’s something to The Weather Channel’s logic: Winter storms tend to be large in scale, both in terms of time and area of impact. Attaching a name raises awareness and makes them easier to follow, especially on social networks like Twitter and Facebook.
Or, as Bryan Norcross, the channel meteorologist behind the idea, put it to the Times, “The fact is that Twitter needs a hashtag.”
Twitter would seem to agree. As I write this, #nemo is a national trending topic on the network. A general search for the topic turned up nearly 200 posts in ten minutes, just before noon on Friday. As I watch new Tweets come in, “Nemo” seems to be edging out the more generic “blizzard.”
What’s the problem with giving a name to a winter storm? Joel N. Myers, Founder and President of Accuweather, argues that it’s “not good science and importantly will actually mislead the public.” He makes some fair points, noting that The Weather Channel is using unpublished and seemingly arbitrary criteria to determine whether a storm is big enough to earn a name.
But Myers also undermines his own argument, in saying that while hurricanes have a long lifespan and move in a well-defined area of impact, winter storms can be erratic, and could dump snow in one area while leaving nothing more than rain or fog in another. Actually, the erratic nature of a winter storm is where a service like Twitter can shine.
The value of social network is that they can distribute information quickly, covering areas that a major news organization–or weather service–might not reach. As we saw during Sandy, Twitter was an excellent way to keep an eye on general news as well as first-hand accounts of the damage. During a winter storm, as with tropical ones, Twitter is arguably in a great position to inform us which areas are being hit the hardest, and give us an up-close look at the damage. A name for the storm provides a clear keyword for people who have something to say.
Of course, there’s a cynical way to look at all this: Giving a name to a blizzard encourages a certain level of hysteria, which in turn could help bump up The Weather Channel’s ratings. The channel may have a greater incentive to be entertaining now that it’s owned by NBC Universal.
If anything, that should only encourage the National Weather Service to consider naming winter storms. The agency is already in charge of naming hurricanes, so it could bring some sobriety to the issue, along with actual criteria and naming schemes for everyone to follow. We could use that, because as we’re seeing now, Twitter will latch onto a name whether it’s official or not.