If you put stock in the weather predictions of the Farmers’ Almanac – which claims to use a secret forecasting method incorporating the positions of the planets in our solar system, the movements of the tides, and sunspot activity – this winter you're going to need a good, warm coat.
The Farmers’ Almanac -- not to be confused with its competitor, the Old Farmers’ Almanac – doesn’t actually claim to know how accurate its forecasts are, but it notes on its website that “many longtime Almanac followers claim that our forecasts are 80% to 85% accurate.” But most scientifically minded weathermen think the real rate is far lower. Even modern forecasting methods, with radar, satellites and computer simulations in the mix, can’t give too much detail on what the weather will be like months in advance.
“Caleb Weatherbee,” the pseudonym for the Almanac’s forecaster, announced last week that cold, wet weather will grip much of the U.S. this winter, with only the Southwest largely escaping the chilly trend. The Almanac is also predicting possible heavy winter storms for the first 10 days of February, which could put a damper on next year’s Super Bowl, set to be played at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2.
Jason Samenow, chief meteorologist at the Capital Weather Gang, noted that the Almanac’s recent track record means readers shouldn’t depend on its predictions.
“The Farmers’ Almanac forecast for last winter was less than stellar. It called for cold weather in the East and mild weather in the West,” Samenow wrote in the Washington Post. “The opposite occurred. The eastern two-thirds of the U.S. had a milder-than-normal winter, and it was cooler than average in parts of the West.”
Penn State meteorologist Paul Knight pointed out in a 2007 interview with his university’s news service that the Almanac’s predictions are often worded a bit vaguely. Leaving such wide room for interpretation makes it much harder to gauge the Almanac’s accuracy.
If, for example, the Almanac predicts that from Nov. 5 to Nov. 10, a given area will be “sunny/cool,” there’s some wiggle room within that prediction.
"If one day is sunny and cool, does that count?” Knight asked. “Does every day have to be sunny and cool? If you held them to every single word for the entire area and every word for the entire period, then I say they might not even be right one-third of the time. In fact, they might be right 10 percent of the time." But, he says, "I don't think they're holding themselves to that degree of accuracy, and I don't think other people are either."
Meteorologist Dan Satterfield was a little more strident in his critique. Over at his blog, Dan’s Wild Wild Science Journal, Satterfield castigated CBS and the Associated Press for running what he considered an uncritical rundown of the Almanac’s winter-weather predictions. He also posed a few questions for the Almanac’s editors:
"1. What exactly IS your method, Farmers' Almanac?? If it’s so good, why don’t you publish it?? Why not sell it and make millions?? I can assure you that an accurate method of predicting winter weather is worth many times the income your magazine will sell in 50 years! Wall Street alone would pay multi-millions for it!
2. What exactly is your definition of a 'bitterly cold winter'? Is it the same for Key West as it is for Green Bay? If not, why not?
3. Is all of the U.S. going to have a bitterly cold winter, or just part of it? If part only, why?
4. Has any independent body conducted a test to see if your method works?? How can I know precisely if your forecast was right or wrong?? Is a negative average temperature anomaly for the winter over the U.S. of three degrees enough?? How about one degree?? Is it for climatological winter or astronomical winter? Both maybe??”
5. Just how exactly is it possible for the position of the planets or sunspots to affect our winter weather. When does the effect start? Does it not work in summer or fall?? If not, why not? How did you discover this effect?"
Roxanne has liked science ever since she started watching "Bill Nye the Science Guy" on Saturday mornings over a bowl of sucrotic O's. She especially likes writing about...