Rebranding winter

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The clickable #bombcyclone takes Manhattan


  • Photo: Colin Poellot, via flickr

  • Photo: MTA New York City Transit, via flickr

Even a non-partisan snowstorm needs a little spin.

Well before the first snowflakes fell, the “bomb cyclone” created a tempest in a teapot. First I Googled it. Then I checked Twitter to see if it was trending. Then my mother texted me. Bomb cyclone ... wear your hat ... layer up the baby. When would the hybrid storm, its name conjuring the worst of natural and man-made disasters, make landfall? If I knew anything about “bombogenesis” — wait, what? And so on.

Old Man Winter is surely laughing at our attempt to gussy him up. But how else to make this year’s big storm more interesting — and more clickable — than last year’s than by giving winter a sleek rebranding fit for the digital age?

Over the course of my thirty-something winters, I’ve noted the evolution of the season’s image. A cold snap is now a polar vortex. Winter hurricanes have replaced snowstorms. My hometown, Chicago, became “Chiberia.” Even the temperature, that number upon which daily wardrobe decisions hinge, became the wind chill and AccuWeather’s RealFeel. Subzero, glacial, arctic. Wonky meteorology terms are now modern parlance. The way we talk about winter has become more extreme, even though, my mother swears, today’s winters are mild compared to ones she grew up with.

Undoubtedly, the internet shaped winter’s new brand. Social media encourages the documentation of minutiae, therefore a snowy branch elegantly dripping with icicles isn’t simply a scene in winter’s ephemeral performance. It’s an Instagram photo with a filter accentuating whiteout conditions, #brr #wintervibes #snowycentralpark.

Weather once played a supporting role on the evening news; now it has its own blockbuster franchise, The Weather Channel. To maintain audiences, storms get narrative arcs, and each winter there’s a new bone-chilling villain. Hence, the #bombcyclone.

Perhaps I’m cynical about the clickbait-y rebranding, but (I can’t believe I’m writing this) I’m a little nostalgic for my childhood winters. I recall the anticipation of waiting for my elementary school’s name to scroll across the chyron on the evening news. A snow day was a rarity; most storms were meant to be braved. If school wasn’t canceled, my sister and I took turns waiting outside for the bus, then scurrying back home when it came into view to tell the other one to make a run for it.

Now, there’s an app for tracking the bus. I received an email and a text notifying me that my daughter’s day care would be closed. I will probably turn into my mother, and someday tell my daughter her winters are a piece of cake compared to mine. But it’s true. With weather updates constantly at my fingertips, winter loses a little edge, a little mystery.

But just a little. Storms are still storms. They always start with a whiff of moisture in the air, climax with a bluster, end with the stillness of fallen snow, and then there’s the slushy epilogue. Nature is inherently dramatic. In the rush to rebrand, did we forget that?

When the worst storm in New York history struck over a century ago in 1888, the play-by-play was documented in a New York Times article titled “In a Blizzard’s Grasp.” The reporter gives a compelling account of a city at a standstill that’s worth reading in full. Back in 1888, precipitation was “boisterous” and the streets were impassible to men or horses. No hyperbole or fancy terms needed. Back then, storms were braved in terrifying isolation. Today, we watch the weather unfold collectively in real time.

Technology surely mitigates some of winter’s threat, but global warming, the backdrop against which all weather events occur, is our modern supervillain. There is real drama in wondering whether New York’s bomb cyclone and freezing temperatures are related to melting ice caps and rising greenhouse gases.

Amid real threats to our environment, there’s something a little precious about storms curated for maximum clicks. Winter: It’s cold and snowy, long and harsh. Period.

And then, year after year, winter ends. With any luck, I’ll be complaining about sweltering heat and the stench of hot garbage before I know it.

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