Snowfall scale is for winter wimps

Wednesday, February 1, 2006 Portland Press Herald
COLUMN: Bill Nemitz
(original story:

Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Weather question for the day: If 3 feet of snow fall on northern Maine in two days (which, for those who missed it, actually happened earlier this winter), is it a major winter storm?

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its private-sector cousin, The Weather Channel, the answer would be . . . nope.

"It might have been able to muster a 'one,' " said Paul Kocin, The Weather Channel's winter storms expert, when asked Monday to plug northern Maine's record-breaking storm of Dec. 25-27 into his new Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale. "It will make some people mad - we know that."

He's got that right.

News that NOAA's National Weather Service and The Weather Channel heretofore will rank major winter storms in the Northeast on a one-to-five scale may sound like a simple attempt to put our blizzards and nor'easters into some kind of perspective, but the truth is, Kocin & Company are venturing out onto very thin ice.

Unlike, say, the trusty hurricane scale, which uses wind and barometric pressure to distinguish - in advance - between a Category 1 and a Category 5, the Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale is about as solid as a foot of freshly fallen slush. Its sole purpose: To tell us, after the snow stops falling, just how bad it was.

The NESIS ratings - 1, Notable; 2, Significant; 3, Major; 4, Crippling; 5, Extreme - have as much to do with population as they do with precipitation. The more people affected, the higher the rating. The fewer people digging out, the bigger the yawn.

The scale, developed by Kocin and Louis Uccellini, director of the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Prediction, suffers from two inherent flaws.

First, when it comes to winter bragging rights, sparsely populated states like Maine lose big-time: Three feet of snow in Aroostook County gets, at best, a measly "notable." But a mere foot or two over, say, New Jersey, stops the presses somewhere between "crippling" and "extreme."

Put more simply, the weather wimps to our south win every time.

The second problem is the new scale's usefulness (or lack thereof) in preparing people for a coming storm. NOAA and The Weather Channel will employ the NESIS only to tell us how bad a storm was once it's over, not to warn us as it approaches.

And these guys call themselves weathermen?

Contacted Tuesday at the University of Maine, research professor and state climatologist Greg Zielinski tried hard to be diplomatic about the new scale. Two years ago, Zielinski perfected a one-to-five winter storm scale of his own that has everything to do with the storm and nothing to do with who is or isn't stuck beneath it.

"Theirs is a hindsight thing," Zielinski said. "Mine can be used both from a prediction point of view and after the fact."

In other words, Zielinski's scale has to do with the actual elements, while the NESIS panders to people who think The Weather Channel is all about them. People who wouldn't last half a winter in Aroostook County, where the well-seasoned populace is still too busy shoveling to turn on The Weather Channel.

"We expect criticism," said Kocin with a chuckle. "That's just fine."

If not notable.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

Original story about Zielinski's Storm Scale

ntacted at 791-6323 or at:

Original story about Zielinski's Storm Scale