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Winter Misery Index reaches 'extreme' level

Commuters try to stay warm, on Friday, Feb.

Commuters try to stay warm, on Friday, Feb. 28, 2014 in Mineola, as they wait for the train at the LIRR station. Credit: Howard Schnapp

If this winter were a hurricane, what category of severity would it be?

Try Category 5, meaning extreme, according to an index that one of its creators -- a National Weather Service meteorologist in Omaha -- nicknamed the Winter Misery Index.

Known more formally as the Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index, it does for winter what other such scales do for hurricanes, tornadoes and droughts, with categories ranging from 1, mild, to 5, extreme.

Not surprisingly, the metropolitan area's winter comes in as a Category 5, based on LaGuardia Airport snowfall and temperature data going back to 1950-51, said Barbara Mayes Boustead, co-creator.

Indeed, through February, meteorological winter's snowfall total was 52.1 inches, with 21.7 the norm for the December through February time frame, the National Weather Service said. The average temperature was 32.8 degrees, compared with the norm of 35.5.

This week's weather already has a familiar feel. Although a potential major snowfall failed to materialize, the high temperature reached the mid-20s yesterday on Long Island -- about 20 degrees below normal for this time of year, forecasters said. More of the same is in store for Tuesday.

It's "the fourth worst winter to date [for New York City], according to our analysis, falling squarely in the 'extreme' category," Boustead said. The index, still in development phase, does calculations for about 45 U.S. locations, none yet on Long Island, she said.

One of the index's goals, she said, is to help people put winters in perspective and answer questions such as, "This feels like the worst winter of my lifetime -- is that correct?"

As for Jean DeRosa, an executive assistant at Adelphi University in Garden City, she said she would have guessed this winter would be a Category 4, based on memories of past snowfalls.

Like so many others, she is "looking forward to spring, the sunshine, the beach," so much so that she has a countdown-to-spring poster in her office.

As for the index, other goals are to "quantify the severity of a winter season" to allow for correlation with various weather-related impacts, such as the number of car accidents, school days canceled, home heating costs and injuries, Boustead and co-developer Steve Hilberg wrote in a paper for the 2013 Conference on Applied Climatology.

The project has gotten much attention with this winter being so severe, said Hilberg, a climatologist at the Midwest Regional Climate Center in Champaign, Ill. The idea is to make the index "publicly available," with hope for "a limited version" to go online possibly by late spring, he said.

While Boustead might see the index in terms of misery, Hilberg is at the other end of the spectrum. Well attuned to the season's challenges, he said, "It's winter, and you can sit around and complain or try to enjoy it."

For him, the index measures winter's "awesomeness."

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