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Northeast blizzard likely scarier than its Nemo name, experts warn

| Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, 9:21 p.m.
A warning sign flashes for motorists on the expressway into Boston as snow starts to fall on Friday, Feb. 8, 2013. A major winter storm has started in the U.S. Northeast. AP photo
A pedestrian walks into wind-driven snow in Boston, Massachusetts February 8, 2013 at the beginning of what is forecasted to be a major winter snow storm. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENVIRONMENT)
A woman crosses Congress Street during a snow storm, Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, in Portland, Maine. Snow began falling across the Northeast on Friday, ushering in what was predicted to be a huge, possibly historic blizzard and sending residents scurrying to stock up on food and gas up their cars. AP photo

WASHINGTON — You can call it a snowstorm of historic proportions. You can call it the return of New England's blizzard of 1978. You can call it simply dangerous. And you can even call it Nemo.

But don't call it hype.

The new director of the National Weather Service said some may be getting carried away in describing the winter storm bearing down on the Northeast. But he says the science is simple and chilling.

Louis Uccellini is an expert on snowstorms. He said meteorologists are telling people that this is a dangerous storm because it is.

Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the private Weather Underground, said the storm deserves the attention it's getting. “This is a serious life-threatening storm if you're trying to travel in it and getting stuck,” he said.

One of the big differences between this one and the 1978 blizzard is that back then it caught people by surprise, leaving many stranded on highways, said Keith Seitter of the Boston-based American Meteorological Society.

This time preventive steps, such as closing schools and an early order for people to be off Massachusetts roads before dark, should save lives and make clearing roads easier, experts said.

From New Jersey to Maine, shoppers took advantage of the early alert and crowded into supermarkets and hardware stores to buy food, snow shovels, flashlights and generators, something that became a precious commodity in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in October. Others gassed up their cars, another lesson learned all too well from Sandy.

Across much of New England, schools closed well ahead of the first snowflakes.

The wind-whipped snowstorm mercifully arrived at the start of a weekend, which meant fewer vehicles on roads and extra time for sanitation crews to clear the mess before commuters in the New York-to-Boston region of about 25 million people must go back to work. But it also could mean a weekend spent cooped up indoors.

In heavily Roman Catholic Boston, the archdiocese urged parishioners to be prudent about attending Sunday Mass and reminded them that, under church law, the obligation “does not apply when there is grave difficulty in fulfilling this obligation.”

Halfway through what had been a mild winter across the Northeast, blizzard warnings were posted from parts of New Jersey to Maine. The National Weather Service said Boston could get close to 3 feet of snow by Saturday evening, while most of Rhode Island could receive more than 2 feet. Connecticut was bracing for 2 feet, and New York City was expecting as much as 14 inches.

By evening, the New York-to-Boston corridor was getting blowing, swirling snow and freezing rain. Early snowfall was blamed for a 19-car pileup in Cumberland, Maine, that caused minor injuries.

The snow was expected to be at its heaviest during the night and into Saturday. Forecasters said wind gusts up to 75 mph could cause widespread power outages and whip the snow into fearsome drifts. Flooding was expected along coastal areas still recovering from Sandy, which hit New York and New Jersey the hardest and is considered Jersey's worst natural disaster.

Meteorologist Masters said the winter storm was a collision of two storms and may end up among the Boston area's Top 5 most intense ever.

For more than a week, forecasters have seen this one coming. Meteorologists put it in the category of those that earned nicknames like the East Coast “storm of the century” in 1993. In size, that one topped the 1978 blizzard. The Weather Channel is even giving this storm a name — Nemo.

The National Weather Service has rejected the cable TV network's naming system. The weather service uses names for hurricanes and tropical storms created by the World Meteorological Organization, but not other types of storms.

Snowbound MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel agrees that forecasters are telling it like it is. But he adds that extreme weather like this fascinates not just weather geeks, but the media and everyone.

“People sort of like it,” said Emanuel, who is stuck in his Lexington, Mass., home. “It's the weather porn phenomena. There are people glued to The Weather Channel.”

Experts are not too worried about weather warnings being ignored if this storm fizzles, because fizzling seems unlikely.

Decades ago, storms like this would come with at most a day or two of warning. But now because of satellite technology, high-powered computers and better data and modeling, forecasters are seeing storms several days in advance, said Uccellini, co-author of two books on snowstorms.

Computer model forecasts accurately predicted last autumn's Superstorm Sandy about a week in advance, and with this blizzard, the first models were showing trouble brewing 10 days out, Uccellini said.

With so much warning, there are days of waiting for a storm with little news to report, sometimes leading to exaggeration. On occasion, someone will overemphasize one of the scarier computer model simulations — there are dozens— while the weather service and others use a combination that's more conservative and has more scientific consensus, Uccellini said.

“The longer you have to watch the storm, the more anticipation you're going to get, the more interest it's going to generate,” Masters said.

In that way, the lead-up to the storm has been the atmospheric equivalent of the week before the Oscars or the Super Bowl.

And now it even has the catchy Nemo name.

“By definition, when we give things a name, it does allow us to connect with it,” said Heidi Cullen, chief climatologist at Climate Central, a nonprofit science journalism group. She's also a former Weather Channel expert. “It gives it a narrative. We're hard-wired for stories, and we can turn these weather events into stories.”

The name Nemo was getting significant use, trending on Friday on Twitter. The Huffington Post website fully embraced the name, trumpeting “Nemo Cometh” in a morning headline.

But it was an easy target for jokes, too. CBS News' Major Garrett mused on Twitter: “I thought only Dairy Queen named Blizzards.”

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