Tornado trackers and hurricane watchers use a 1-to-5 scale to measure those storms.
Now, meteorologists in the Northeast have a similar scale to measure winter storms.
The National Weather Service last week announced it is using the Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale to help catalog the winter storms that frequently affect the huge metropolitan areas along the Atlantic Seaboard, Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
But the Weather Service forecasters in the Buffalo office long ago established their own 1-to-5 (mildest to meanest) scale to help characterize the lake-effect storms that have made "Buffalo" and "snow" synonymous to many who live outside the area.
"For eight years now, our office has used a somewhat subjective way of assessing the impact of storms on our regional area," said Tom Niziol, meteorologist in charge of the Buffalo office.
Niziol emphasized the word "subjective."
The "Lake Flake Scale," as it's dubbed, isn't as scientifically grounded as the newer scale for Northeast storms, which uses a precise formula that overlays snowfall totals on population maps.
For the Buffalo lake-effect scale, forecasters look at the amount of snow that has fallen, the population involved and the timing of the storm. Then they come to a consensus on where the storm lies on the 1-to-5 scale.
And, as is done with hurricanes, the Buffalo storm watchers name the storm, picking a theme at the start of the season and then assigning names connected to the theme in alphabetical order as the storms occur.
In 2000-01, the theme was trees. So the storm that stopped traffic throughout Western New York on a Monday in November that year -- the one frequently called the Gridlock storm -- was named Chestnut.
The next winter, the theme was birds, so the famous Christmas Week storm became known at the Weather Service office as Bald Eagle.
Both of those storms were given five flakes, a distinction earned by only five of the 73 lake-effect events the Weather Service office has ranked since it began assigning the rankings in 1998-1999.
The Lake Flake Scale has registered eight four-flake storms since its inception, the last one being this winter. The Dec. 7-8 storm didn't leave a lot of snow in Buffalo, but it did drop 29 inches on the Cattaraugus County community of Perrysburg.
Niziol said the Buffalo office is working on a project to refine its ranking system and make it more objective, like the new ranking system for Northeast storms.
"We'd like to more scientifically base our assessments so a better estimate of the economic impacts can be drawn more rapidly," he said.
The new Northeast Snowfall Impact scale was developed by Paul Kocin, winter weather expert for the Weather Channel, and Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service's National Centers for Environmental Prediction.
"The criteria are: How much snow fell, over how large an area, affecting how many people," Kocin said.
Mostly, this new scale will categorize the Nor'easters that sweep up the Atlantic Seaboard, where the combination of heavy snow and high winds endangers major population centers.
"What we were trying to do was [catalog] the large-scale storms and their integrated effects over a large area," Uccellini said.
Using old weather data, Kocin and Uccellini applied their new scale to characterize more than 70 historic storms. Only two were ranked category five, one in March 1993 and the other in January 1996. The 1993 storm was spread over such a large area that it became one of those rare coastal storms whose reach extended into Western New York.
"We picked up nearly 18 inches from that storm, and Rochester got two feet," Niziol said. "That storm impacted 90 million people."
While there will be no names assigned to storms under the new scale, the local Weather Service intends to continue its naming tradition.
The themes for past years have included minerals, scientists and Native American nations and leaders, and this is the winter of the cat.
The storm the region currently is experiencing has been named Javanese.