If you've wondered why the blizzard dumping snow on the Northeast has a name, look no further than The Weather Channel. At the start of this storm season, the 24-hour-weather network announced, much to the chagrin of The National Weather Service, that it would give names to winter storms.
The whole storm-naming-phenomenon is just part of a recurring cycle of frenzy, buildup, climax and plateau that we seem to collectively observe with each major weather system these days.
Academics use something called a "hype cycle" to illustrate the way society adopts new technologies. Now, it's becoming increasingly clear that superstorms get hype cycles of their own. Let's break down the phases of a storm hype cycle:
Phase One: The Trigger
It's tricky to forecast the weather several weeks out, so storms like "Nemo" often start as "a cold front that may bring a few inches of snow next weekend." But once many meteorologists agree that something major is coming, the hype cycle is triggered. Use of a storm name also indicates the storm cycle has begun. (See: "Frankenstorm.") Sometime during this phase, assorted social media hashtags that may or may not feature the storm name begin proliferating cyberspace.
Phase Two: The Expectation Buildup
This is when you start seeing headlines that include any of the following terms: historic, extreme, crushing, imminent. Often these terms can be found in all caps. Elected officials start making necessary municipal or state-level preparations for the weather; the governor of Massachusetts, in anticipation of Nemo the Blizzard, banned driving on all Massachusetts streets and bridges by Friday afternoon. Airlines cancel flights. Trains stop service. Anxiety sets in. NPR's Monkey See blogger Linda Holmes put it this way, as she watched 14 hours of The Weather Channel during 2011's Hurricane Irene: "I'm convinced that wall-to-wall weather coverage soothes anxiety by making you feel (quite incorrectly) like you now have an encyclopedic knowledge of how, exactly, you might wind up with a basement full of raw sewage." Perhaps Linda's not alone.
Those in harm's way are either relocating or making the decision to hunker down. On the social front, one or two key hashtags break out from the dozens of different ones that cropped up earlier. In 2012, for example, #Frankenstorm was quickly replaced by #Sandy.
Phase Three: The Wait
The speed of the Web being what it is, the media-consuming public often gets whipped up into a frenzy that crests several hours — or even days — before a storm actually begins piling an area with precipitation and doing damage. So this phase represents the gap in time between the crest of the frenzy and the storm actually arriving. Images of empty airports, train stations and people shoring up their homes flash across screens. Television reporters go live from grocery stores, where those in the storm's path have stripped shelves clean of bottled water, batteries and nonperishable food items. Over on The Weather Channel site, a blizzard countdown was measured to the second.
Phase Four: The Storm
The length of this phase depends on the size of the system. But more often than not, the actual storm lasts for a shorter amount of time than its preceding phases. A recognizable trait of this phase is that emergency crews and journalists are the only ones outside. Many of those reporters and meteorologists broadcast while getting pelted with hail, knocked down by sideways rain, swallowed by snow or otherwise suffering the very situations they are warning you to avoid. And for those actually in the path of the storm, phase four presents a rather modern and meta situation. Assuming you haven't lost electricity, it's entirely possible to find yourself watching a storm unfold on television or Twitter instead of looking out your window at wind gusts, driving rain or falling snow.
Phase Five: The Coverage Plateau And Petering Out
Coverage shifts from the disaster to what it left behind. But after a certain amount of time — a week, perhaps more — aftermath attention tends to plateau and peter out. Post-storm stories tend to show at a more surface level the way the storm shook up a community in sometimes permanent ways, but the stories don't commonly get revisited. More than three months after Superstorm Sandy, the AP reported that 42,000 of its New Jersey victims remain displaced. But after a week's worth of storm damage stories, Sandy stories largely fell off of front pages.
The danger here is that while a hype cycle tends to follow the same pattern, storms themselves can vary widely in their magnitude, scope and degree of damage to humans and creatures. If the go-to aftermath stories are the same, the public response runs the risk of becoming routine — to the detriment of those who need help. In Sandy's wake, donations of clothing piled up when aid organizations said what they really needed was cash. In other instances, blankets are sent to tropical areas or bottled water to places with abundant water resources.
With scientists predicting extreme weather systems will only increase in frequency, the storm hype cycle will likely become more common. And when the cycle is standard, the vastly different ways lives are affected could get lost.