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Would A Storm By Any Other Name Be So Scary?

Can you really be afraid of a storm with the same name as a cartoon fish with a bum fin?

Variations of that joke are all over social media, even as the storm called Nemo is dumping rain and snow throughout the Northeastern U.S. Albert Brooks, the voice of one clownfish in the movie Finding Nemo, quipped on Twitter: "They have named this new Nor'easter Nemo. I am not looking for it."

The Weather Channel has taken to naming winter storms, echoing the National Hurricane Center's longstanding tradition of naming hurricanes. So far, it has used names such as Draco and Gandolf, with Rocky and Yogi in the queue.

The names are catching on and "working well," Bryan Norcross, a Weather Channel meteorologist, told The New York Times. "We expected that some people would pick it up because there's a common-sense aspect to this."

Not everyone likes the new practice. Some meteorologists complain it's just a marketing gimmick that The Weather Channel is using to promote its coverage — akin to the way some other cable channels repeatedly banner incremental stories as "breaking news."

"It's just media hype," says Wendy Ryan, a research associate with the climate center at Colorado State University. "To name every big snowstorm or rainstorm would probably in the end become distracting."

And it's not just about trying to christen individual storms. One contemporary weather pattern holds that just about every big storm seems to generate its own made-up terminology — "Frankenstorm," say, or "thundersnow" and "snowpocalypse."

"There's no real meteorological term called 'superstorm,' " said Alan Blumberg, who directs the Center for Maritime Systems at the Stevens Institute of Technology, after last year's coverage of the Sandy system. "It's a media invention."

There's no question that the media love a good shorthand. It's much simpler to refer to the "fiscal cliff" than trying to describe a package of automatic spending cuts and tax increases, to use a widespread recent, non-meteorological example.

Or as the National Hurricane Center notes in an explanation for why it gives names to hurricanes: "Experience shows that the use of short, distinctive names in written as well as spoken communications is quicker and less subject to error than the older, more cumbersome latitude-longitude identification methods."

Ryan, the Colorado scientist, says it's easier to remember names such as Nemo or Irene than referring back to the "Blizzard of '93."

It's not just mainstream media anointing the weather. Social media also play a big role, says meteorologist Michael Armstrong of KWTV, the CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City. "If one name like Frankenstorm gets tweeted, all of a sudden it takes on a life of its own," he says.

It's human nature to try to identify a storm in a way that differentiates it from other storms, according to Jeff Evans, warning coordinating meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Tallahassee, Fla.

The danger comes in overdoing it. If too many storms rise to the level of naming and increased media attention, people might tune out when some really dangerous weather is on the horizon.

"We are sensitive to the 'cry wolf' syndrome," Evans says. "You want people to know what to plan for, if it's the worst-case scenario, but if you push too much of that information out, you lose your message."

The whole point of media weather forecasting, however, is to let people know what's going to happen — or, rather, could happen — so that they can plan accordingly.

If they prepare for the worst and the worst doesn't happen, they can count their blessings and move on, Evans says. Even though people do tend to become irate if schools and roads are shut down needlessly.

"It's a marketing thing they're trying to do," Henry Reges, national coordinator of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow network, says of The Weather Channel's granting itself storm naming rights.

"But I guess if we can save a couple of lives by naming a storm and bringing it to people's attention, maybe that's a good thing," he says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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