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Noel 2.0

Andrew Freedman @ 11:15 AM

In contrast to the storm that killed more than 100 people in the Caribbean, the reincarnation of what once was Hurricane Noel merely confounded most southern New Englanders when it slapped them in their faces with a stinging, wind-driven rain on Saturday.

In the immediate Boston metro area the storm failed miserably to distinguish itself from the exalted nor'easters from days of yore, true monsters such as the Blizzard of '78 and the "Perfect Storm" that occurred at this very time of year (and under similar circumstances). This was not the case on the Cape and Islands, however, which experienced hurricane force wind gusts and pounding surf.

Jason Samenow's Forecast

Forecast Confidence: HighToday: Mostly sunny with a light breeze (from the west at around 10mph) Highs near 60.
Tonight: Clear with diminishing winds. Lows 35-40 (suburbs-city)
Monday: Mostly sunny with light winds. Highs 60-65.

The full week ahead forecast will appear in tomorrow's post.

Instead of struggling to get through the storm alive, we faced the existential quandary of what to call the storm. We knew what it wasn't. It wasn't a hurricane, or a blizzard (although northern Maine may disagree), nor was it "perfect" or notable for the date that it occurred on. We were dumbfounded, and meteorologists seemed equally convoluted in their logic.

The storm demonstrated once again how nerdy meteorologists can be. More importantly, the non-Noel Noel proved the importance of translating meteorological technospeak into actionable language in order to sufficiently prepare people for danger.

Ask a meteorologist what Noel was when it made its closest pass to New England and you're likely to receive the answer that it was a powerful "extratropical" storm. But from the non weather wizard's point of view the extratropical answer is meaningless.

First of all, the word "extratropical" shouldn't be used outside of weather geek world. Ever. This isn't the meteorological community's fault, but rather the society that established the English language. The word sounds like it means "more tropical", as if it's an advertisement for a new and improved storm with extra tropical qualities. Who doesn't love a storm that has extra tropical qualities? I know I do.

But how can a hurricane become more tropical? What did it do, pass over the Gulf Stream and put on a Tommy Bahama shirt and linen chinos?

There's a major "so what?" problem with reclassifying a storm like Noel. Noel was a slippery sort, a tropical storm that devastated parts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and became a hurricane only to evolve into a cold core system and intensify to the point where it was arguably stronger than it was when it was known as a hurricane. Yikes.

It doesn't matter to most whether a once weak hurricane is now a rapidly deepening coastal low when it will affect them in the same ways as it would've when it was called a hurricane. It just seems petty, like weatherpeople are needlessly demoting a powerful atmospheric phenomena.

There needs to be an easier way to satisfy both the demands of meteorologists for scientific accuracy and the need for public safety information.

To put this differently: if I'm a homeowner on Outer Cape Cod trying to decide what to do to prepare my property for the oncoming storm, what use to me is the knowledge that a particular storm has a warm core or a cold core? I need to know how it's going to affect me, and the truth is that the new and improved Noel (now with lower central pressure!) looked and felt like a hurricane.

With Noel 2.0, the meteorologists who interacted with the public through the media were caught between their quest for scientific accuracy and their objective of clearly articulating the risks posed by the atmospheric disturbance. Their basic goals were working at cross purposes.

The solution in this case was to avoid emphasizing the name change and focus on the storm's likely impacts. That's exactly what many media outlets and the National Weather Service did in this case, and they deserve credit for it. The NWS even told residents of the Cape and the Islands to treat the new nameless storm as if it were a hurricane.

But what if there wasn't a change from a named storm to a non-named storm? There should be a better method of signifying to the public the danger of such continuously evolving storms without sacrificing scientific accuracy. Perhaps next time we should have the name transform along with the storm. Ladies and gentlemen, what once was Noel is now... Noelene!

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