Putting the January 22–24 Snowstorm in Historical Context

January 22–24, 2016, Regional Snowfall Index Map

February 18, 2016, CORRECTIONWe have upgraded the Regional Snowfall Index rank for this snowstorm from a Category 4 to a Category 5 event for the Northeast. The RSI value for the Northeast was updated from 17.758 to 20.138, making it the fourth most severe storm to affect the region. For the Southeast, the storm remains a Category 4, but the RSI value was updated from 12.616 to 13.776. The storm now ranks as the 12th most severe for the region.

From Arkansas up through New Hampshire, the January 22–24, 2016, snowstorm affected nearly 103 million people—around one-third of the entire U.S. population. The storm dumped over 20 inches of snow on 21 million people in the Northeast and over 10 inches on about 5.6 million people in the Southeast. But, how did this snowstorm compare to the most historic storms in these two regions?

To place this storm and its societal impacts into historical context, we used the Regional Snowfall Index or RSI to rank it on a scale from 1 to 5—similar to the Fujita scale for tornadoes or the Saffir-Simpson scale for hurricanes. Our scientists base these ranks on the snowfall amount within the region’s borders, the spatial extent of the storm, and the relationship of these elements to the area’s population.

The Northeast

Affecting a total of about 53 million people in the Northeast, the RSI value for the January 22–24 snowstorm is 20.138, which makes it a Category 5 or extreme event for the region. With that value, the storm ranks fourth out of the 199 snowstorms since 1900 that we’ve analyzed for the Northeast. Even though the overall footprint of the storm in the Northeast was not large by historic standards, some of the heaviest snow fell on highly populated areas, driving the high RSI value.

Affecting nearly 59 million people, the late February snowstorm of 1969 remains the strongest storm to hit the Northeast, with an RSI value of 34.026 making it a Category 5 or extreme event. The March 1993 “Storm of the Century” remains the second strongest snowstorm to hit the Northeast, with an RSI value of 22.117 also making it a Category 5 event.

The Southeast

Affecting a total of around 25 million people in the Southeast, the RSI value for the January 22–24 snowstorm is 13.776, which makes it a Category 4 or crippling event for the region. With that value, the storm ranks 12th out of the 153 snowstorms since 1900 that we’ve analyzed for the Southeast. Around 3.4 million people in the region saw over 15 inches of snow—in RSI terms, 15 inches in the Southeast is equivalent to 30 inches or more in the Northeast. As in the Northeast, some of the heaviest snow fell on highly populated areas, driving the high RSI value.

Affecting over 31 million people, the early January snowstorm of 1996 remains the strongest storm to hit the Southeast, with an RSI value of 26.373 making it a Category 5 or extreme event. The March 1993 “Storm of the Century” remains the second strongest snowstorm to hit the Southeast, with an RSI value of 24.433 also making it a Category 5 event.

Learn more about the Regional Snowfall Index and use our interactive mapping tool to see RSI rankings for almost 600 snowstorms since 1900.