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NOAA Ranks December Snowstorm a Category 3 on the Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale

January 8, 2010

Snowfall accumulation from Dec. 18-21, 2009 storm.

Snowfall accumulation from the Dec. 18-21, 2009 storm.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

To the surprise of no one affected by the Dec. 18-20, 2009 system that dumped heavy snow from the mid-Atlantic to southern New England, NOAA has rated the storm a Category 3 or “Major” winter storm on NOAA’s Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale, also known as NESIS.

NESIS characterizes and ranks Northeast snowstorms, using data calculated by NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, based on the following factors: how much snow falls (must deposit at least 10 inches); the scale of the area impacted; and the population of the impacted area. NESIS ranks these storms on a five-tier scale ranging from Category 1 “Notable” to Category 5 “Extreme.”

“While snowfall from the December storm ranked in the top ten for Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia, the storm only provided a glancing blow to the New York City and Boston metropolitan areas and overall affected a relatively small area. This led to it being classified as a Category 3,” said Louis Uccellini, director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction – a division of NOAA’s National Weather Service – and co-developer of NESIS with Paul Kocin also with NCEP in Camp Springs, Md. Both Uccellini and Kocin are published winter weather experts.

Last month's storm was one of only five in the past decade that ranked Category 3 or higher, added Kocin. The others being: December, 2002 (Category 3); February, 2003 (Category 4); January, 2005 (Category 4); February, 2006 (Category 3) and February, 2007 (Category 3).

Topping the NESIS scale - and the only storms rated Category 5 - are the “Superstorm” on March, 1993 followed by the “Blizzard of ’96” in January, 1996. The scale, developed in 2004, catalogues storms dating back to 1888.

NOAA understands and predicts changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and conserves and manages our coastal and marine resources.