The Old Farmer’s Almanac is 225 years old this month. So maybe it’s time for Editor-in-Chief Jud Hale to reveal how we do our weather forecasting and how we do not.
“The amazing thing is that the Almanac has never missed a single year since it first appeared in the fall of 1792, when George Washington was still President. And during all that time, its weather predictions were always an integral part of each annual edition but especially during the past fifty years.
But, as we all know, forecasting the weather is full of hazards. Particularly if you rely on “the signs,” which are everywhere, particularly beginning this month of September (long after the Almanac has been printed and distributed across the country). For example, when wasps build their nests high off the ground, we say we should expect a heavy, snowy winter. The wasps, we figure, don’t wish to have their nests buried by all the snow they know is coming. On the other hand, if the wasps build their nests low to the ground, some of us will also expect a heavy, snowy, cold winter. Wasps may well be aware of the insulating value of snow and may therefore instinctively want their nests located down in it for that purpose. No doubt, most wasps know what they’re doing, but …
The number of nuts gathered by squirrels in the fall is another commonly used winter indicator. Many nuts, tough winter. The problem, of course, has always been to count the nuts gathered by an individual squirrel and to judge that amount in comparison with the number of nuts gathered by the same squirrel during the previous fall. Latch onto a lazy or sick squirrel in either year, for instance, and the entire forecast is skewed.
Then there are the wooly worms. The width of its black stripes as well as the distance between stripes are seen by some as indicators of the severity and length of the coming winter.
Perhaps I should state here that The Old Farmer’s Almanac weather forecasts are not – and never have been – based on any so-called “signs” in nature, even though I believe some of the signs could be valid. As I have indicated, the Almanac has always gone to press long before the “signs” show up. So what, you might ask, are they based on? Well, in a word: the sunspot cycles. But, for a full explanation, see page 117 of the current 2017 anniversary edition, just out and on newsstands everywhere.
But back to the wooly worms … When I used to tour the country in the fall, talking on television and radio about the most current edition of the Almanac, I would often bring along a wooly worm in a jar as a sort of conversation piece. The television people seemed to like it even though I assured them that wooly worms played no part in our annual forecasts. One year during a morning television show in Cleveland, my host wanted to actually examine my wooly worm. So while on air, I removed it from the leaves I’d put in the jar and placed in on the desk of said host who then proceeded to poke it with his pen – hoping it would move, I supposed – at which point my wooly worm broke in half. It was dry as a bone. Must have been dead for nearly a week.
Sure, I was embarrassed. But, of course. with weather forecasting, you have to expect the unexpected.
Anyway, happy 225th birthday, Old Farmer’s Almanac! And from the quantity of acorns we’ve seen on our lawn lately, we predict it’ll be a fairly rough winter for some of us. But of course, we must hasten to add, the 2017 anniversary edition agrees.”