Weather Signs

I first saw The Old Farmer’s Almanac as a kid, sitting on my Aunt Doris’ screened-in porch in Brooklyn, Wisconsin. This was the house where my father grew up, in a town of fewer than 800 people, a long way from New England. She subscribed to Yankee Magazine too. They seemed both exotic and cheesy: rusted, rainwater containers of folklore and salesmanship–the advertising and editorial content barely separable.

The yellow-covered Old Farmer’s Almanac was my favorite.  Years later I moved to New Hampshire and discovered that there is a competing publication: the Farmers’ Almanac.  Both easily qualify as “old” (1792 and 1818 respectively), and apostrophe placement notwithstanding, they are both famous for their long-range weather predictions.

The “Winter Outlook” of both magazines is published every year in September.  The OFA defines 16 climate regions for the lower 48; the FA categorizes 7 (with no predictions for Alaska and Hawaii).

How do they purport to do this? The Farmers’ Almanac uses “a top secret mathematical and astronomical formula that relies on sunspot activity, tidal action, planetary position and many other factors.” They proclaim their track record to be 80 to 85% accurate.

"Woolly Bears"

Both publications have always had a close relationship with their readers, and those readers share a strong proclivity for the kind of seasonal predictions that call for consultation with mice, spiders, ants, squirrels and, of course, woolly bear caterpillars.

Leading to this respectful disclaimer: Here at the Farmers’ Almanac, we acknowledge and appreciate weather lore, but do not use it when we make our long-range weather predictions. We don’t count acorns or fogs.

Spiders and Crickets and Bees, oh my!

For generations, the editors in Dublin, NH and Lewiston, Maine have received bushels of mail reporting late summer observations from all over the country—dispatches from the leading edge of winter. These days, of course, those observations show up as long comment strings on their websites.

Sharon: So far this year in southeast TN I have seen more spiders than usual. We have had 19 fogs here thus far, and the squirrels are very busy hiding walnuts in odd places.

Mike: I live in Cleveland Ohio and I have been noticing a lot of halos around the moon and sun lately. When I drive the roads at night I do run into a lot of ground fog. To me it looks like it could be a long winter for most people in the NE Ohio. Note to all of you–I was a trained weather observer/Tech in the US Navy.

Brad: I live in the Northwest and there is crickets everywhere! Also the bees are staying very close to there hives unlike usually around here. My cat is starting to get some very thick fur, thicker than I have ever seen on him before. So I really hope winter is going to be cold and VERY snowy this year, I’m waiting.

These and plenty more from the last few weeks are on the Farmers’ Almanac website under the headline: “Can’t take the heat? Think about winter.”

True lore/False lore

Most weather lore is about what’s coming tomorrow—a very local, short-term forecast: the domain of meteorology.

Those sayings, passed down for generations, have been well-parsed for scientific legitimacy, and in the cases where they hold up, it is because they’re observing the actual physics of current atmospheric conditions.

Morning or evening?

For example, this chestnut stands up well:
Red sky at night, sailor’s delight,
Red sky in morning, sailors take warning. [1]

Others do not—because they claim to look further into the future:
Onion skins very thin
Mild winter coming in;
Onion skins thick and tough
Coming winter cold and rough.

Most of these prognostications have entered the storehouse of “weather lore” only by virtue of selective memory: people remember when they seemed to work and forget when they don’t.

But if we put aside the idea that folklore can predict the weather beyond the next day or two, are we left with anything?

Weather lore and climate change

Folklore predictions fascinate me because they are made by people who closely observe the world around them—like any naturalist. That also puts these folks in a position to be first observers of changes in their local flora and fauna, whether due to climate change or any other cause.

Is there a correlation between these unscientific observations by regular folks, and the long-range predictions of climate scientists?

In her new book The Weather of the Future, climate scientist Heidi Cullen writes:
Prediction is an odd thing. Depending on your personality, predictions are a source of either comfort or anxiety…We can’t stop the weather, but we can at least prepare for it. Ultimately, this preparation is what the science of prediction—be it climate or weather prediction—is all about.

When will our weather start to reflect our predictions about the climate? The short answer is that it already has.

Do the readers of the almanacs know that spring now arrives an average of 10 days to 2 weeks earlier than it did 20 years ago?

These are folks looking one season ahead. Are they also folks who are thinking one or two generations ahead? Do they have grandchildren?

A Longing for Winter

There is a common thread in the weather lore observations on the almanac message boards: a longing for winter. Dave in the North Carolina mountains is typical: So hot and humid this summer, I say bring on the snow. We had lots of snow last winter and I loved every flake that fell.

Longing is a powerful emotion. So is nostalgia. Are observers of weather lore likely to become witnesses of climate change across the land? Could they speak in a language that their neighbors–climate skeptics among them–would hear?

Editorial (Dis)Stance

The editors of the Farmers’ Almanac have so far decided to stay out of the fray over global warming. They state: Surprisingly, we really haven’t noticed any effects of climate change, at least from the standpoint of our issuance of annual forecasts.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac takes a stronger stand.  Their contributing meteorologist is Joe D’Aleo, a well-known climate skeptic.  He presents evidence for global cooling: We at the Almanac are among those who believe that sunspot cycles and their effects on oceans correlate with climate changes. Studying these and other factors suggests that a cold, not warm, climate may be in our future.

Still, wouldn’t it be a fine thing for both almanacs to invite their readers to keep their eyes open, talk about what they see over a cup of coffee at their local breakfast nook, and spread the awareness that the seasons are not what they used to be?

Both almanacs are predicting a bitterly cold winter for New England. We’ll be ready. Tomorrow the guys come to blow insulation into the walls of our 1848 wood frame house–made possible through a low-interest loan from the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund.

You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.


[1] “Red sky at night” from Wikipedia’s “Weather Lore” article:  Weather systems typically move from west to east, and red clouds result when the sun shines on their undersides at either sunrise or sunset. At these two times of day, the sun’s light is passing at a very low angle through a great thickness of atmosphere, the result of which is the scattering out of most of the shorter wavelengths — the greens, blues, and violets — of the visible spectrum, and so sunlight is heavy at the red end of the spectrum. If the morning skies are red, it is because clear skies to the east permit the sun to light the undersides of moisture-bearing clouds coming in from the west. Conversely, in order to see red clouds in the evening, sunlight must have a clear path from the west in order to illuminate moisture-bearing clouds moving off to the east. There are many variations on this piece of lore, but they all carry the same message.


About John Wackman

A writer since I learned to hold a pencil (no, not like that...hold it like this!). Long-time writer/producer for television, now organizer of Repairs Cafes in the Hudson Valley (13 & counting!) -- Program Manager of Solarize Hudson Valley, non-profit, state supported, community sponsored renewable energy program. We're all re-inventing ourselves. It's a sci-fi world, isn't it?
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1 Response to Weather Signs

  1. John Wackman says:

    I recently discovered these lines in a poem titled “Local Knowledge” by Delores Hayden:

    Sap moon, grass moon, milk moon, rose moon–
    from March to June, the almanac
    weds farms to skies.

    [American Yard, poems by Delores Hayden, 2004: David Roberts Books, Cincinnati

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