Wild Ideas: It’s a wonder-about-winter land

It was a beautiful day. The temperature hovered just above 70 degrees, and down at the pond fish were jumping out of the water to snack on the many insects that flew above it. A bumblebee was exploring some sumac berries nearby and a groundhog was purveying his domain. A couple of nights later, spring peepers were hopping on the roads after a day of rain. Not unusual weather for May or September, but this was during the first couple of weeks in December.

Many species depend on stable weather patterns, especially when it comes to food and shelter. A warm winter can bring animals out of hibernation when food is not available, or trigger unseasonal reproduction in plant or animal species, both of which can spell disaster for species that are slow to adapt and even for us highly-adaptable humans. Mild winters, especially when followed by mild springs, usually lead to explosions in insect populations, including ticks and other parasites and disease vectors.

Cardinal point: Back in February of 2010, bird lovers helped the state bird of Virginia cope with the state’s heaviest snowstorm in years. Photo by Nol Putnam.
Cardinal point: Back in February of 2010, bird lovers helped the state bird of Virginia cope with the state’s heaviest snowstorm in years. Photo by Nol Putnam.

While Virginia has had pretty brutal winters sporadically in recent years, the trend has been toward warmer and more unstable weather here and elsewhere on the planet. Even with this trend, local weather in any given year, or season, can still shift back and forth. If anything, these mood swings of Mother Nature have become more frequent and, in some cases, more pronounced. Most of us here in the mid-Atlantic had never heard of a “derecho” storm until one blasted through our area this summer; Sandy wound up as the worst hurricane in recorded history in some areas.

Increasingly unstable weather is also increasingly less predictable. While last winter was mild, will winter return with a vengeance this year?

I’d been hearing rumors of about an onslaught of snow and cold but hadn’t taken the time check up on this, so I headed to the Farmers’ Almanac website  (farmersalmanac.com) to get the real skinny. Under the headline “Will Winter Return with a Vengeance?” the almanac’s prognosticator, Caleb Weatherbee, predicts a winter “of contraries, as if Old Man Winter were cutting the country in half.” The eastern half of the country, it says, will see “plenty of cold and snow,” while those in the west will experience “relatively warm and dry conditions.”

Actually, I don’t rely on the almanac’s predictions. While this durable source of weather prognostication is a fun read and undoubtedly contains some useful information, I have no clue who “Caleb Weatherbee” is, since, as the almanac admits, this has been the pseudonym for its many forecasters, and the methodology behind the predictions is shrouded in secrecy. As Jason Samenow, a member of the Capital Weather Gang at the Washington Post, wrote on the paper’s website, “As far as I know, neither the Old Farmer’s Almanac nor the Farmers’ Almanac have ever published a peer-reviewed study demonstrating the accuracy (or inaccuracy) of their forecasts.” This does not exactly inspire trust in those of us who favor scientific methods for trying to make sense of the world.

Even forecasters who rely on modern technology like radar, satellites and computer modeling, have trouble predicting the weather reliably within a few days of its occurring. Still, an Oct. 17 headline on accuweather.com, which does use modeling for its forecasting, read, “Winter Forecast: Not Mild, But Wild for Eastern U.S.” The article quotes AccuWeather’s lead long-range forecaster Paul Pastelok as saying, “I-95 this year in the northeast and mid-Atlantic will have more snow than they did last year,” with “above-normal snowfall . . . from New York City on south and west.” The article doesn’t give the basis for the forecast.

There is one natural phenomenon, El Nino, that meteorologists do look at in trying to predict seasonal weather trends. El Nino is a “disruption of the ocean-atmosphere system in the Tropical Pacific having important consequences for weather and climate around the globe,” as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) website on the phenomenon (elnino.noaa.gov) puts it. It is associated with warmer than normal water temperature. During El Nino year, winter temperatures in the U.S. were typically cooler than normal in the southeast and warmer than normal in the northwest; a sister phenomenon, La Nina, is associated with the reverse in water and continental temps. Both phenomena are variations from what is considered the norm for ocean currents and tend to swing back and forth and vary in strength over time, with “normal” periods occurring in between.

In its Nov. 13 “Prognostic Discussion for Long-Lead Seasonal Outlooks,” NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC) basically said that El Nino/La Nina conditions are likely to be “neutral” this winter, and that “the latest observations and model predictions emphasize a high degree of uncertainty in some areas of the U.S. for the upcoming winter and subsequent seasons.” While CPC singles out certain areas in the east, including Florida and the Tennessee Valley, as having “strong or reliable climate signals,” for the rest of the east, including Virginia, “equal chances for below-normal, near-normal, or above-normal seasonal mean temperatures is predicted.”

In other words, according to CPC, the weather in Virginia this winter is a crap shoot.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 340 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”