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The Old School Winter Prognosticator: Nature

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For many years, both meteorologists and enthusiasts alike have been trying to nail down long range Winter forecasts… most of whom have experienced both success and failures along the way. After all, seasonal forecasting is to be used as a guide, and is typically a snapshot of the overall pattern. But if you ask any seasoned meteorologist, they will tell you without hesitation that Winter forecasting is the most popular of all seasons to forecast to the general public, and highest in demand from their constituents and loyal followers.

Today we have supercomputers that will collect a tremendous amount of atmospheric data. Collecting such data as the ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation), past analogs, sun spots and solar activity, teleconnections, strength and position of the SJT (southern jet)… and the list goes on and on. These supercomputers will gather data from both the troposphere (where we live and where weather occurs) and the stratosphere, which extends from between 30,000 feet and 160,000 feet above the Earth’s surface. Long range data is then run through these supercomputers, and a long range forecast, often volatile and variable, will be generated.

At EPAWA, we rely less on long range forecast modeling and have had more success analyzing the overall pattern and observations. We have had tremendous success doing it this way with the longstanding weekly long range outlooks. A lot can be determined in long range forecasting just by taking a look at what’s going on around you, and focusing on actual observed data vs. a model projection. This data is then compared to analogs – which are years in the past where similar data matches the current year. While this too is not clear-cut, and every year is unique in its own way, it is a good starting point. One of those main ingredients are Sea Surface Temperatures (SSTs) in the equatorial Pacific east of the International Dateline. This is the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and is the main driver in our weather patterns in the U.S. This year in particular, La Niña is grabbing a lot of attention of late. While it is only one ingredient in making a “cake”, La Niña in this analogy would be the “flour”, and the most important driver of climate. Below are the latest SST anomalies in the eastern Pacific. It is clear to see that waters are at least slightly cooler than average, indicated by the blue/green anomalies in legend:

Current SSTs in the Equatorial Pacific

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Many have seen the Farmer’s Almanac prediction for this upcoming Winter, and in case you didn’t, the image is below. Although scientifically we don’t put much stock into predictions like these, and despite some experts arguing otherwise, the Farmer’s Almanac paints a picture of cold and snowy weather this Winter that will rival or exceed the past two Winters in our area:

Image courtesy farmersalmanac.com

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Nature predicting the Winter and long range forecasting

Back before we had the access to this comprehensive data, and long before supercomputers were invented, meteorologists had to rely on other sources to prognosticate not only seasonal forecasts, but also day to day, and week to week. What did Ben Franklin do to make his weather predictions? How did Robert B. Thomas, original founder of the Old Farmer’s Almanac make such bold predictions in 1792? Certainly there were no computers back then… in fact, light bulbs weren’t invented for another 87 years.

There were many theories used by both, and both had different approaches in their methodology. But the most common denominator between both of them is they were observers. Observers of patterns, winds, barometric pressure, the sun and solar activity, and of course, nature. Some of these indicators of the Winter ahead are listed below. Many of these observations were first made by gentlemen like these, and many other farmers and enthusiasts that followed. When you observe nature now and through the Fall, take notice to some of these natural indicators and perhaps you can outsmart the supercomputers.


The Banded Woolly Bear Caterpillar

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According to legend, the wider that middle brown section of the caterpillar there is, which is to say the more brown segments there are, the milder the coming Winter will be. Conversely, a narrow brown band is said to predict a harsh winter. Woolly Bear caterpillar are commonly abundant in the Fall in the eastern United Stated and in folklore have been an indication of the severity of the coming Winter for many years.

Spiders

Black and Yellow Argiope - Argiope aurantia. covered with early morning dew. Taken at the Watershed Nature Preserve, edwardsville. IL.
Take notice to spiders this Fall… if there are more spiders than usual, and spiders are spinning larger than usual webs, it could be another sign of a cold and harsh Winter ahead. Spiders entering houses in great numbers is also said to be an indication, as they are naturally seeking a warmer environment to survive.

Squirrels

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Squirrels will normally start gathering acorns and nuts in the Fall usually around the first time the first frost occurs. Almost as if that is their signal to start stockpiling for the Winter season. It is said that if squirrels are gathering nuts and acorns more frantically than normal, it is a sign of things to come and a harsh Winter ahead.

Geese Migration

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You have seen them every Fall migrating south for the Winter in their infamous “V” formations… it is said if their departure is earlier than normal, the Winter ahead is expected to be a harsh one. The same can be said about birds in general, as an earlier than normal departure is another indicator of a harsh Winter.

Corn Husks

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Farmers will tell you to look to corn husks and their thickness to determine how the upcoming Winter will go. According to folklore, the thicker the husks of locally grown corn is an indicator of a harsh Winter ahead. It is important to use locally grown fresh corn for this observation, as many grocery stores have corn shipped from locations outside the region. Judging store-bought corn may lead to a false positive or negative in this case.

Animal Coats/Fur

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Farmers will also tell you to look to the thickness of the fur of animals (cows, horses, dogs, rabbits, squirrels, just to name a few) to determine a harsh Winter ahead. The thicker the fur coat, the harsher the Winter will be. The thicker fur is their natural protection from the cold and allows the animals to endure the Winter season.

Trees and their leaves

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Pay attention to the trees this fall, not only for the pretty colors of Fall foliage, but also to determine when they fall. If leaves begin to fall from the trees early before they reach full foliage, it is a sign of a harsh Winter ahead.

Autumn weather predicting Winter

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Heavy and numerous fogs during the Fall has always been part of Folklore in predicting a snowy Winter ahead. Other weather folklore includes, but is not limited to: frequent halos or rings around sun or moon forecast numerous snowfalls; if September is hot, look for a mild winter at first, but the end to be very cold; mild Falls are followed by cold Winters; an abundance of thunderstorms during late Fall means a harsh winter; an early killing frost means a harsh winter to come.

Plants predicting Winter

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Plants have also been linked to Winter prognostication… such things as heavy holly and dogwood berry production; excess numbers of acorns, hickory nuts and walnuts; numerous pine, spruce and fir cones at the tops of the evergreens; weeds growing taller than usual in the summer; thick onion skins; fruit trees blooming twice. All signs of a harsh Winter ahead.

Other folklore predicting Winter

Additional folklore from the Old Farmer’s Almanac:

  1. Woodpeckers sharing a tree
  2. Early arrival of the Snowy owl
  3. Early migration of the Monarch butterfly
  4. Thick hair on the nape (back) of the cow’s neck
  5. Raccoons with thick tails and bright bands
  6. Mice eating ravenously into the home
  7. Early arrival of crickets on the hearth
  8. Pigs gathering sticks
  9. Insects marching a bee line rather than meandering
  10. Early seclusion of bees within the hive
  11. Muskrats burrowing holes high on the river bank
  12. “See how high the hornet’s nest, ‘twill tell how high the snow will rest”

If you are nature watching late this Fall, take notice to some of these items listed above. Only one or two of the items listed occurring may be coincidence, but several or many of them occurring at once may just be a sign of things to come. As much as we rely on computers and technology nowadays, it’s always a good idea to go back to the basics and roots… and do it like they did in the old days. Who knows… maybe you can outsmart the “experts” this Winter and prepare yourself for what’s to come!

We will have several takes on the upcoming winter from a science/meteorological standpoint, which is updated exclusively in the EPAWA Premium Forum. A freely available public long range outlook (less detail) is updated weekly every Friday. Click on the image below to sign up for the EPAWA Premium Forum, and interact with our team of meteorologists… and get involved in all discussions ahead of and during every Winter Storm this Winter!

EPAWA’s Winter Outlook will be released exclusively to subscribers of the Premium Forum on November 8th, 2017.

My Pocket Meteorologist text alerts and Premium Forum

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Forecaster: via EPAWA staff archives
Revised: October 4th, 2017, 9:00am


Tags assigned to this article:
coldEl Niñonaturesnowwinterwoolly bear