Weather Nerds Go to War: #Noreaster4 vs. ‘Winter Storm Toby’

Who gets to name this latest nor’easter?

noreaster nor easter toby winter storm hurricane national weather service american meteorological society weather channel nora zimmett mike chesterfield adam rainear university of connecticut nws ams noaa snow severe

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

On Wednesday morning, the Northeast was pummeled with yet another nor'easter, the fourth in three weeks to wallop the region.

But what do we call the storm? On social media, a duel of sorts has emerged, highlighting a long standing beef between the National Weather Service—the government agency that's traditionally been tasked with naming severe storms like hurricanes—and the Weather Channel, which started the practice of naming winter storms in 2012.

That controversy over whether to name winter storms is playing out on social media with this latest storm. #Noreaster4 is trending on Twitter, a nod to the fourth nor'easter to hit the region in the last few weeks (and an obviously missed opportunity for an excellent pun of #4easter or #foureaster). Click over to the Weather Channel, though, and the storm is being breathlessly dissected and analyzed as Toby—a name one might otherwise associate with a scruffy, lovable dog.

So is it Toby or the more clinical "nor'easter?" And does it even matter?

For some, it might seem like the Weather Channel's attempts at making weather "social" or "cool" is a ploy to get clicks and eyeballs on their site, as meteorologist Dennis Mersereau sarcastically bemoaned on Gawker in 2015, writing that the Weather Channel's winter storm naming convention seemed desperate:

Hello, fellow kids! The hepcats at The Weather Channel are totally down with our lingo, man. They’ve got some cool winter storm names for us this year, like Goliath and Vexo and, best of all, Winter Storm #YOLO! This winter will be the bee’s knees!

Dennis Mersereau, meteorologist, in Gawker

"Personally, I don't care if someone makes fun of the name as long as it protects lives and properties," Nora Zimmett, senior vice president of content and programming for the Weather Channel, told The Daily Beast. She and her colleague, Mike Chesterfield, the director of weather presentation and design at the Weather Channel, said that the winter storm naming convention isn't even something that is uniquely American or Weather Channel specific; indeed, Europeans have been naming storms for years now.

Zimmett said one key reason why the Weather Channel has moved towards naming storms is that they help differentiate one from another, making it customizable by location.

"Winter storm warnings and watches are issued by the National Weather Service," she said. "They're significant events that will happen for that population. That's different for Nashville versus Boston: Bostonians shrug off six inches but Nashville and Atlanta will quake at two inches."

Zimmett said that winter storms are declared off of two key, objective criteria: whether two million people are in a "warning zone" (as defined by the National Weather Service), or if a 400,000 square kilometer territory is going to affected.

Then the naming system—which in recent years has veered off mythological names and moved more towards names that you might find in a standard American classroom—goes into effect.

During winter (or, as we're seeing, early spring), having names is crucial to informing the public, according to Zimmett. "You can have three storms at once across the country, and it can be difficult to warn the public about an impactful snow event by just calling it a snowstorm," she said. "It's cumbersome if you can't articulate which is which."

Chesterfield piped in, telling The Daily Beast that it's been helpful in making communication easier and helping emergency managers to convey to city governments the severity of a storm.

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"Saying 'Toby' is coming is more effective than saying 'Snow is coming to New York City,'" he said. "It's something tangible to grab onto." Chesterfield said that while metrics of figuring out whether naming winter storms has actually helped prevent harm is difficult, there's certainly proof in social media, which has increasingly been used to convey a storm's landfall and impact: "When you look at emergency providers and first responders using hashtags on Twitter, it's [the storm name the Weather Channel has bequeathed the storm] usually one of the highest trending."

Until last year, research on this topic was non-existent. But in October, Adam Rainear, a doctoral candidate in communication at the University of Connecticut, published perhaps the first and only paper on winter storm naming in the journal Weather, Climate, and Society, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Meteorological Society, with his professors.

Rainear was inspired to start the study in 2017 after attending the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society a few years prior, where the Weather Channel gave a presentation about the process of determining how winter storms should be named.

It wasn't pretty. "When they got to the Q and A section, they [meteorologists unaffiliated with the Weather Channel] were bombarding them with questions that were dismissive and broad," he recalled.

It got Rainear thinking: There had to be some empirical way to measure if this was a marketing ploy by the Weather Channel to try to increase their revenue (as these meteorologists alleged), or if it was actually a helpful device.

So Rainear surveyed 407 undergraduates at the University of Connecticut, asking them to judge how seriously they took the names. He selected Bill, a name that struck him as a "common, standard, European name" and that was used in naming a hurricane earlier in the season. He also chose "Zealous," a name that went unused in the 2016-2017 winter storm season because it was at the end of the alphabet but evoked the mythological, obscure, and unnatural names the Weather Channel has tended to favor in naming storms. He took Bill and Zealous and asked student participants if they would take either of those storm names seriously in comparison to a winter storm with no name, simply identified as a snowstorm or blizzard.

Personally, I don't care if someone makes fun of the name as long as it protects lives and properties.
Nora Zimmett, Weather Channel

All this brouhaha over naming winter storms that have the Weather Channel at arms with government-backed meteorology groups like the AMS and NWS and NOAA? It's sort of much ado about nothing, really, according to Rainear's research.

"I really found no differences [in perception], no real differences at all," he told The Daily Beast. "My main takeaway after finishing it, actually, was wondering if we're overthinking these names."

Rainear's survey found that people didn't find the Weather Channel more or less credible, that names weren't necessarily something that made them look at a storm less seriously, and that they didn't find naming a storm to be a reflection of a less credible source or dodgy science.

This goes against meteorologists’ long-standing charge against the Weather Channel: that its naming of storms could be dangerous, by making what should be considered a serious threat a caricature. Rainear's study seems to suggest that while names like Yolo (yep, that was a real suggestion) might seem like the work of a wannabe cool dad trying to be hip, normal humans could care less about their naming and wouldn't see a Winter Storm Yolo as any less serious than Winter Storm Toby.

Of course, there's a huge demographic shortcoming in Rainear's study: It focuses entirely on students at a large public university who have probably been using social media and the Internet for as long as they can remember. Zimmett and Chesterfield said the original inspiration for using winter storm naming was to effectively use social media in publicizing these storms, and the participants in Rainear's study probably barely remember a time when winter storms weren't named.

My main takeaway after finishing it, actually, was wondering if we're overthinking these names.
Adam Rainear, University of Connecticut

Older folks who might benefit more from storm naming are potentially not as adept at social media, and perhaps might not have the same opinions of how seriously to take a storm named Janus for example versus something like Aiden. Rainear acknowledged this gap, and it's something he's working to analyze more in future iterations of his research.

In fact, it's not just older folks that Rainear wants to follow. The Weather Channel has long pointed to the Internet and social media for wanting to name winter storms and promote education about their potential danger. But what about groups of people aren't connected to the Internet, or whose access is restricted due to socioeconomic issues, or perhaps don't have access to a cable channel like the Weather Channel and instead rely on local news for their information? These are groups that Rainear wants to study further in teasing out if and how winter storm naming is effective or not.

But he stresses the fact that his work solely focuses on a Twitter-friendly, youthful demographic is also important. "These are the people who would probably mock the Weather Channel if it went wrong and make memes that would go viral on Twitter," he said, pointing to an incident when a meteorologist accidentally covered the J in Janus and revealed the storm's name to be "anus" instead, promptly becoming a meme.