Scientists are launching a new way of rating snowstorms, a scale with five categories of intensity that won't be used as a warning tool but will allow storms to be compared with others.
But rather than being based only on weather factors like wind or storm surge, it also includes the impact on people.
Unlike the hurricane scale, which is used in forecasts to warn specific areas of the need for evacuation, the purpose of the snowstorm scale is to assess the impact of the storm right after it occurs.
There are no immediate plans to try and use it as a warning tool, said Jay Lawrimore of the National Climatic Data Center, which is responsible for calculating the scale.
The scale ranks storms from 1, Notable; 2, Significant; 3, Major; 4, Crippling and 5, Extreme.
Developed by Paul Kocin, a winter storms expert at The Weather Channel, and Louis Uccellini, director of the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Prediction in Camp Springs, Md., the rating factors in the number of inches of snow, the land area affected and the number of people affected.
The scale was developed for the Northeast because of the economic and transportation impact such storms have on the whole country.
Lawrimore said there are plans to extend the scale to other regions, but that needs further study because winter storms develop in different ways in various parts of the country.
Two Northeastern storms in recent years fall into the extreme category under this scale.
One was the storm of March 12-14, 1993 in which nearly 67 million people were inundated with 10 inches of snow or more, almost 20 million were affected by 20 inches of snow and 1.8 million suffered 30 inches or more of snow.
The other, Jan. 6-8, 1996, affected a somewhat smaller land area but dumped 10 inches of snow on 66 million people, 20 inches on nearly 40 million and 30 inches on 5.1 million people.
On this scale, the infamous Blizzard of 1888 that staggered New York City on March 11-14 of that year would have ranked in category 4, Crippling, as would the Blizzard of 1899 that affected coast areas from the Carolinas to Maine in mid-February.