Wild Ideas: Are we finally due for a cold winter?   

After recent mild winters, we should get a cold one this year, right?

Many factors affect weather, and the upward-trending global temperatures complicate whatever might be considered the “norm,” making forecasts problematic at best. Taking that into account, looks like we’re not heading toward a cold plunge this winter.

Looks like another mild winter is heading our way, unlike in 2003, when the Presidents Day snowstorm left behind several feet of snow in Huntly. By Pam Owen

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that studies and forecasts climate and weather, every winter gives the odds, based on computer data modeling, on whether the United States will have higher or lower than normal temperatures and precipitation. According to NOAA, Virginia has a 33-40 percent chance of having higher temperatures than normal this winter (December-February). And, except for the southeast — which has a 33-40 percent chance of being drier than normal — the odds do not tilt in one direction or the other in terms of precipitation.

NOAA cautions that they just deliver the odds, not what is “expected.” And NOAA doesn’t suggest the extent of any change in heat or precipitation that may occur.

La Niña, which NOAA says has a 55- to 65 percent chance of developing before winter sets in, seems to be the “biggest wildcard” again this year. La Niña and El Niño are climate patterns affected by the temperature of the ocean surface combined with atmospheric conditions. In Spanish, El Niño means “little boy,” but also has come to refer to the Christ child. It’s characterized by unusually warm water appearing off northern Peru and Ecuador, typically in late December, so close to Christmas. “La Niña” then came to be analogous for the opposite conditions, a cooling of ocean surface temperatures in those mid-latitudes.

In the United States, these patterns indicate a shift in the path of the mid-latitude jet streams. It’s not so much about how much they change temperature and precipitation but where. La Niña generally brings colder, wetter air to the north and warmer, drier weather to the south; El Niño brings the opposite.

NOAA says both the temperature and precipitation outlooks for this winter “lean on typical La Niña impacts, particularly those of the past 30 years, and bear some resemblance to the outlooks issued for last winter.” Those outlooks came to fruition last year.

“Old” was added to name of The Farmer’s Almanac, the oldest continuously published farmers’ almanac, in 1851. Courtesy image

The forecast from the Old Farmer’s Almanac, written by Michael Steinberg, focuses more on sunspots. “We at The Old Farmer’s Almanac use solar activity as the driver of our long-range weather forecasts,” Steinberg writes. “We believe that changes in the Sun’s output, although relatively small, are sufficiently amplified in Earth’s upper atmosphere to strongly influence Earth’s weather patterns.”

So how are the sunspots looking for this winter? “The current cycle is comparable to the very low levels of solar activity that occurred in the early 1800s (the period referred to as the ‘Dalton Minimum,’ which coincided with the ‘Little Ice Age’) and early 1900s, which was also a cool period,” the Steinberg says. So will temps be lower here this year? “Colder than last winter,” Steinberg writes, “they will likely still be above normal in the eastern and north-central states.”

And what does Caleb Weatherbee, over at The Farmers’ Almanac have to say? Temps and precipitation are supposed to be back to “normal” here. But it also says the Southeast will see “below normal winter temperatures . . . with above-average precipitation” and “from the Great Lakes into the Northeast, snowier-than-normal conditions are expected.” The Census Bureau puts us in the Mid-Atlantic, which together with New England is considered the Northeast region, but we also border the Southeast region. And the map with the forecast on the Farmers’ Almanac website has “wintry chill, wet & white” emblazoned across the Old Dominion, so . . .?

“Caleb Weatherbee” is the pseudonym under which various writers give their forecast at the Farmers’ Almanac. As editor Peter Geiger, Philom. (an old term, short for philomath, which means a student of mathematics and philosophy), explains the almanac’s forecast, “Our winter outlook is a tradition that, for two centuries, has been celebrated with cheers and jeers, depending on what type of winter activity you enjoy.”

With global warming increasingly causing instability, and therefore unpredictability, of these patterns, the modeling NOAA does becomes tougher, and NOAA doesn’t always get it right. Steinberg, too, notes that the warming climate does have an effect on our weather, sunspots or not: “Despite the low solar activity, the first half of 2017 was 3.4 degrees F above average across the United States, the second warmest January to June period on record, behind only 2016.”

How accurate are the almanacs’ predictions? That depends on who you ask, according to InfoGraphic Journal: “Meteorologists are skeptical of the almanacs’ weather forecasting methods, while others swear by them.” Being a fan of the scientific method, I like to keep in mind what Jason Samenow, the Washington Post’s weather editor, once wrote about these almanacs: “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.”

The upshot is that it’s just plain hard to predict weather more than two weeks out, and the general trend toward a warmer climate complicates the effort,so I would suggest keeping both shorts and skis handy. Or you can do what Fast Eddie, the Wyoming cowboy who taught me how to cross-country ski did — wear shorts while skiing. He was one tough cowboy.

© 2017 Pam Owen

The Old Farmer’s Almanac vs. The Farmers’ Almanac

While there have been lots of other farmer’s almanacs over the years, the best known and oldest surviving ones today are the Old Farmer’s Almanac and The Farmers’ Almanac. Both almanacs provide weather forecasts, along with farming and gardening information. And both are now available online. Never clear on the difference between the two, I went a-googling and fell down the rabbit hole, but here goes:

The Old Farmer’s Almanac and was founded in 1792 by Robert B. Thomas, who also served as its editor, and used to be called The Farmer’s Almanac. In 1832, Thomas added “Old” to its title because of the almanac’s having outlasted others, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Although the cover that year was apparently aquamarine colored, judging by photos of it, by 1850 the cover had been changed to yellow, with the date in large letters, and has remained that way.

The Farmers’ Almanac (note placement of the apostrophe), a young upstart, was founded in 1818 by editor David Young, Philom., and publisher Jacob Mann. I noted, in looking at the original 1818 cover, that it was called The Farmer’s Almanac there (again, those pesky apostrophes), yet I find no mention about the migrating apostrophe anywhere, including on the almanac’s website, and decided to exit Almanac Wonderland at that point.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 346 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.”