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Meteorologists turn up the hype with latest 'Monster Storm'

The fifth big snowstorm to hit the East Coast this season - forecast to begin Thursday - has meteorologists reaching for Thesauruses and trash-talking in their efforts to top one another. At what point does a legitimate warning of a 'Monster Storm' become hype?

By Ron SchererStaff writer / February 24, 2010

A pedestrian carries a shovel in Albany, N.Y., Wednesday. The first of what forecasters are calling a 'monster storm' has dumped more than a foot of wet, heavy snow on parts of eastern New York, closing hundreds of schools and knocking out power to more than 100,000 customers.

Mike Groll/AP

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New York

And, the Academy Award for the scariest description of a snowstorm this year goes to….

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OK, they are not giving out Oscars to meteorologists – yet.

But as the Northeast prepares for yet another winter storm, meteorologists are coming up with descriptions that might make Edgar Allan Poe’s hair stand on end.

Some of the forecasts for the latest storm, which is supposed to start Thursday: “You may never see a Big Daddy like this again,” “Monster Storm,” and “Snow hurricane.” (See the Monitor's coverage of the 'upside-down winter' that's led to record-breaking snowfalls and snow in all 50 states.)

All of this coming from people who usually talk about “unsettled weather patterns” and a 30 percent chance of rain.

Although most people are tired of hearing about blizzards and “snowmageddons,” “it’s good for my business,” admits Scott Bernhardt, a meteorologist and chief operating officer at Planalytics, which provides weather predictions for businesses. “This is nuts!!”

Mr. Bernhardt says weather forecasters have a responsibility to give people a time to prepare for bad weather. “You hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” he says.

But when is a forecast a warning to head for the grocery store to make sure you have milk, bread, and eggs, and when is it hype?

The approaching storm illustrates the problems faced by weather forecasters. A powerful low-pressure system, called a Nor’easter, is forecast to form off the North Carolina coast on Wednesday night. But the actual track of the storm is uncertain.

“It has not even developed yet,” says Henry Margusity, a meteorologist with AccuWeather.com in State College, Pa.

In a normal Nor’easter, the storm moves up the East Coast and then heads out to sea. But this time, the computer models are predicting it will curl back towards land. It may even do a “loop de loop” over Northeast Pennsylvania before heading deeper into New England, where it will dissipate after leaving ski areas with a ton of white stuff.

AccuWeather, however, based on its computer models, has issued a forecast for a “Super Storm,” suggesting hurricane force winds could buffet the East Coast, especially New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and upstate New York.

This prompted something of a meteorological food fight with the Weather Channel, which on its web site says a comparison to a hurricane is “just bad meteorology.”

Mr. Bernhardt says that AccuWeather “will hype a cloud – they hype everything.”

The Morning Call, an Allentown, Pa., newspaper, quoted a National Weather Service forecaster as saying it was not responsible to put out a forecast like that.

However, Gary Szatkowski, the meteorologist in charge at the Mt. Holly, N.J., office of the NWS, says the Morning Call report is not correct. “We don’t comment on other organizations' forecasts,” says Mr. Szatkowski. A subsequent story by the Call on its web site does not mention the quote, attributed to NWS forecaster Roy Miller.

However, the criticism of the language irks Margusity, who explains why AccuWeather is using such powerful imagery. He says the storm, the fifth big storm this season, has the potential to damage power lines and strand motorists.

“We are going to have very strong winds, and people are getting complacent about this,” he says. “This is a different animal, a different beast, and maybe we needed a little hype so people understand something is going on here that they need to be aware of.”

After the storm goes past, Margusity says, AccuWeather’s forecast is fair game if it turns out to be a nonevent, something other than a “life or death” situation. In the meantime, anyone for a “snowacane?”

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