Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Weather Whys Wednesday: The Almanacs

In recent days, we've begun seeing stories about the various Farmers Almanacs releasing their winter outlooks, even forecasting a possible White Christmas for the Delaware Valley! So how seriously should you take the prediction? Well, if recent history is a judge....not very. What we know about seasonal weather forecasting is that it's extremely difficult, challenging, and tough to nail. Last week, I talked about the NAO and AO and how they're extremely difficult to predict more than a couple weeks in advance, though they're extremely important signatures for our weather in winter. Another thing we know is that people "in touch" with the land and sensitive to weather can often understand larger picture changes, be it in how animals behave or plants grow. Everyone has a method of predicting the upcoming season. The various Farmers Almanacs try to marry those ideas.

Just for point of clarification: There are two primary Farmers Almanacs.... the "Old Farmer's Almanac" and the slightly younger "Farmers' Almanac." Both are independent publications. I will reference them below specifically as "Old Farmer's Almanac" or just "Farmers' Almanac" to differentiate.

Farmers' Almanac's Winter Outlook.
Credit: Farmers' Almanac
The Almanacs are tried and true to many, but how have they faired recently? The wonders of the internet allow us to do a nice examination of the Almanac's track record. And Jan Null at Golden Gate Weather Services did such a study. While the "Old Farmer's Almanac" can occasionally hit, it clearly missed the heat of this record hot summer; sort of a big deal. Golden Gate also did an analysis of NOAA's outlook as well (link can be found on the bottom of the Almanac's analysis). They didn't exactly nail the forecast either. A previous analysis of the "Old Farmer's Almanac's" accuracy in a 1981 issue of Weatherwise magazine showed it being equal to, essentially "chance." I agree with these assessments. While I respect the ability of those working the land to predict certain aspects of the weather.I don't particularly see the Almanacs providing a skill advantage over any other seasonal outlook...despite their claims of accuracy and apparent formula refinement over the years to include more meteorology and solar parameters. The hype over the Almanacs is more likely due to the fact that we're in a "boring" weather regime usually from mid-September to mid October, and we're looking for ideas on what the winter will bring.

Still, the "Old Farmer's Almanac" is going on 220 years old in 2012. It was first published in 1792, and eventually differentiated itself from its competition by placing the "Old" in the title in the 1800s.

The slightly younger "Farmers' Almanac" is going almost 200 years after first being published in 1818, originally in Morristown, NJ. According to the Wiki article on the Almanac:
"The Farmers’ Almanac publishers are highly secretive about the method used to make its predictions, only stating publicly that it is a "top secret mathematical and astronomical formula, that relies on sunspot activitytidal actionplanetary position and many other factors." The identity of the Farmers’ Almanac weather forecaster is also a secret. The Almanac’s forecaster is referred to by the pseudonym Caleb Weatherbee."
One thing we can say about the Almanacs is that they are certainly filled with interesting and fun information about weather, astronomy, farming, the planet, etc. So while I wouldn't particularly recommend it for a seasonal forecast, it's still a fun publication. Speaking as a frequent giftee of these publications, it's also a very simple gift to give to the meteorologist in your life!