Predicting the Future

BY SHEPHERD OGDEN

 

As we all know, weather can be fickle week to week or month to month, even if over the long term it shows some sort of climatic regularity. This known, we can consider predicting the weather a fool’s game or a wise man’s game; experience certainly shows that to be the case.

This truism holds true weather whether [sic] you are a trained meteorologist — with all the latest data and technology — or (just) an experienced outdoors person attuned to the turn of a leaf or the pelt of a Woolly Bear.
The editor of this magazine came to me a few months ago, knowing I had not yet put in the wood with which I heat my shack, and mentioned that she had heard it was going to be a cold, wet winter. As you might imagine, I asked where she heard that.

“I just heard the Woolly Bear bands were thin this fall and that means a hard winter,” she said.

“But who told you?” I asked, numbering among our mutual acquaintances many people who might or might not have the basis for such a prediction.

“I don’t remember,” she said.

So I checked around. It turns out that this woolly prediction method (examining the alternate color segments of the coat on the moth larva of the species Pyrrharctia isabella) has a significant basis in folklore and perhaps some basis in fact, although not completely what we might expect.

For eight years starting in the late 1940s, Dr. H. C. Curran, curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, collected Woolly Bears each fall from nearby Bear Mountain State Park and measured the width of the brown bands of bristles that encircle them. Apparently, he found an almost 80% correlation, although he was quick to point out that his sample was way too small to have any kind of scientific certainty.

In fact, one of the few scientists who did entertain the idea of a correlation between Woolly Bear bands and the severity of the winter was an entomologist at the University of Massachusetts, Dr. Michael Peters.

As reported in the 2013 – 2014 Old Farmers Almanac, his analysis took a slightly different tack: “The number of brown hairs has to do with the age of the caterpillar — in other words, how late it got going in the spring. The [band] does say something about a heavy winter or an early spring. The only thing is… it’s telling you about the previous year.”

The various almanacs published in the United States over the past two hundred-plus years have been a fount of weather prediction, using a number of different methods, usually related until recently with “cosmic” forces like sunspot or Saros (eclipse) cycles that are thought to have large-scale effects on land and ocean systems, and thus trigger atmospheric changes (i.e., weather).

More recently, some U.S. almanacs have incorporated more “scientific” cycles, like the El Niño and La Niña water temperature cycles in the Pacific Ocean (there are many others as well), which are predicated on Earth-based, empirical data collected by government agency satellites, balloons and many other sources rather than mathematically derived (though still observational) cycles.

There is always some art in the so-called science of prediction, though, as well as a certain art of expression that ties forecasting back to its agrarian or pastoral sources.

“No worries: It’s only flurries. Mild and beamy, then the opposite. A thaw feels dreamy. Rain (just a drop of it). Snow bursts, at worst. Drip, drip, mixed precip. Bright, bracing for toboggan racing.”

The interline poetic rendition of January 2014 weather from page 125 of The Old Farmers Almanac

Even the most modern, scientific expressions maintain their own specific vocabulary that is unique, as in this forecast (below) for December 8, 2013, from the National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NOAA_Forecast

Predicting the weather is also big business, even outside the ads we see in almanacs selling home health cures. Any mail-order nursery that can afford it hires a weather service to predict temperature and precipitation at the customer’s home around shipping time so they can ensure the plants arrive at the optimum time for planting. Pizza delivery companies use weather reports to predict when they may have increased demand (people stay home during storms) so they can buy extra supplies and schedule more drivers.

That may be a good cash flow for the data provider, but it’s insignificant compared to larger internet plays. The same kind of weather data that feeds into product delivery businesses also provides strategic guidance for such diverse industries as electric utilities (where should we station our crews as a storm approaches?) and global investment firms (especially insurance and re-insurance firms) whose future profitability depends on accurate predictions of future weather at given locations.

In all of this, “data provider” means just that, and in a very limited way. Historical and real-time temperature and humidity and barometric pressure information that any of these services (this includes Fox TV weather forecasts) depends on data from government sources. Cut the funding for this data acquisition and all these data-driven services (and sources of morning commuting information) go away. They serve not only the gardener, but the farmer, the processor, the shipper and the consumer.

Fact is, it seems that most of us would rather have a solid prediction about the future (even if wrong) than to stick with the daily ambiguity that would otherwise be our lot.

I am guessing that my local report of hard winter weather (and thus why I should get to work on my firewood) was based on a “Morning Edition” radio story that aired back on October 15th about the annual Woolly Worm Festival in Lewisburg, PA. After all, who is a better friend to the desk-bound editor than National Public Radio, another source of government-supported data?

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