MASSIVE, DEADLY STORMS AREN’T “FUN”
Jason Samenow, the normally reasonable leader of the “Capital Weather Gang” blog on the Washington Post must have gone over to “the dark side." I agree with him on practically everything, so it was a shock to see a column titled: “Godzilla El Nino’: Meteorologists need to back off their criticism of apt description." He said using the word “Godzilla” was a “fun, buzz-worthy weather term”. What?????
“SUPER EL NINO” /”RECORD EL NINO AREN’T ENOUGH”?
As I’ve pointed out in a couple of blogs, a possible record El Nino continues to build in the Tropical Pacific, and it is certainly helping to suppress hurricane season in the Atlantic.
Apparently, calling it a “Super El Nino” or “Record El Nino isn’t enough for some folks. We live in an age of hype-in blogs, movies, politics, and yes, even news at times. It helps sell papers, create a “buzz," get more “clicks," and get valued media attention. But do scientists have to play that game? Are we so un-creative that we have to make up nonsense names to get attention?
The name “Godzilla” was added to the El Nino term by none other than a man Jason described as “respected NASA scientist William Patzert”. A quick Google look proves that not only is he brilliant, but a terrific communicator. He’s so good that he is well-known in California. Los Angeles Magazine calls him “The Prophet of California Climate." Clearly the guy has no problem finding words to describe his science.
ALL IT TAKES IS ONE PERSON….
Jason seems to feel that “Godzilla” is fine because it was used by a “respected scientist” and that “I say it often: If you’re boring, you’re irrelevant in weather communication.” Just how “un-boring” can you be as a scientist without causing a problem for everyone else? It is now a perfect defense by any headline writer in the world to call the El Nino “Godzilla." “Hey, a respected scientist called it that, not us.” This kind of thing has happened before, and I’m sure it will happen again.
“THE PERFECT STORM”
Now, that was a great name. It was attributed to a former co-worker of mine, Bob Case, from the National Weather Service office in Boston. The 1991 combination of a dying hurricane, a cold front, and a high pressure area coming down from Canada were the three elements. They led to a best-selling book in 1997 and a popular movie starring George Clooney in 2000. While it wasn’t that unique in weather history, Bob apparently told the author, Sebastian Junger that it was a “perfect situation”. As I recall, only meteorological nitpickers objected to the name.
BRIEF HISTORY OF STORM NAMES
When we think of names for storms, we think of hurricanes. That officially started in 1953. But the origin of that was probably the habit in World War II of pilots naming their planes for their wives, girlfriends, or movie stars. The main objection regarding hurricane names was in 1979, when the National Hurricane Center (NHC) was ordered to alternate men’s and women’s names. It had been all female names before that.
Hurricane names have been carefully selected, first by NHC, and then by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). None of them are “jokes" or silly names, unlike the winter storm naming from The Weather Channel starting in 2012.
WINTER STORMS “ASTRO," “THOR," “VULCAN”
There are some real science nerds at The Weather Channel (I should know-I used to be one of them). It must have been a kick to be able to name winter storms after characters on “The Jetsons” (“Astro”), “Star Trek” (“Vulcan”), mythology (“Thor”, and many others), Captain “Nemo”, cartoon or comic book characters (“Linus”, Electra”), etc….etc….Believe it or not, I don’t object to the general idea of naming winter storms. It’s just the obvious frivolous and playful choice of names. Why not name them after Presidents? Or great scientists? Or war heroes? There are plenty of serious possible choices.
We had more than one big snowstorm in the record winter of 2009-10. The biggest was on Feb. 5-6, 2010. We got 28.5” of snow officially in Philadelphia, making it the second biggest one ever recorded. In the Washington/Baltimore area, Dulles airport got 33” and BWI 25”. So, of course, someone had to come up with a special name for the special storm. The Capital Weather Gang asked for suggestions, and one of them, “Snowmageddon” became the favorite. The storm will forever be known with that name.
While the name was nice and cute, there were several deaths associated with it. But not nearly as many as there were in “Frankenstorm”.
“THE FRANKENSTORM” KNOWN AS SANDY
We knew Sandy was going to be bad days in advance. When an executive on a conference call asked what the “worst case scenario” was, I replied: “The worst natural disaster in our part of the world." This was no time for frivolous names. People were about to die. Others would lose their lifetime homes. Millions suffered in one way or another.
But one National Weather Service meteorologist wrote in a discussion, noting that Halloween was near, that “inviting perhaps a ghoulish nickname for the cyclone along the lines of ‘Frankenstorm,' an allusion to Mary Shelley’s gothic creature of synthesized elements.” What????? What happened to the days when The National Weather Service had standards as a serious, life-saving institution? Is it about internet “clicks” now? Or, “let’s get as much publicity as possible?"
Now that one real scientist used a “fun” name, it seemed every media outlet jumped in to join the fun. Except, of course, it turned out to be as far from fun as any storm we’ve seen along the East Coast. Later, it was called “Superstorm Sandy," which was a perfectly appropriate name for such a disaster.
AND NOW FOR “GODZILLA”
“The Perfect Storm” , “Superstorm Sandy”, “The Storm of the Century”, “The Lindsay Storm” (look it up), “The Labor Day Hurricane”….all were names that described the storm, the timing of it, or the politician whose career was hurt by it (Lindsay). But where does “Godzilla” come in?
It’s no more serious than “Sharknado”, which is a nice, funny joke. Everyone knows it’s a joke. And it’s about something fictional. “Godzilla” has nothing to do with El Nino, in any way. But expect to hear that name a lot more. After all, it was “a respected scientist” who coined it. It’s the perfect defense.