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How Farmers’ Almanac's figure out Mother Nature

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This NOAA satellite image taken Monday, Aug. 18, 2014 at 01:45 AM EDT shows a storm off the shore of northern New England that is extending a cold front into the Carolinas. (AP Photo/Weather Underground)

It’s been said that you can’t fight Mother Nature. And no one can quite figure her out, either.

But for close to 300 years, varying incarnations of the annual farmer’s almanac have tried to do just that, and then some. But is it really relevant to the 21st Century? Its supporters certainly think so.

One of the first almanacs, Poor Richard’s Almanack, was published by Benjamin Franklin, under the pen name “Richard Saunders,” from 1732-1758.  And today, despite all of the scientific advances in long-term weather prediction formulae and technology, it continues to claim an 80 percent accuracy rate in foretelling Mother Nature’s whims and fancies a year ahead of time, based on a “secret formula.”

“We do serve a purpose -- people want to know what is coming 12 months down the road,” says Sandi Duncan, managing editor of the Lewiston, Maine-based Farmers' Almanac, which has been published since 1818 without interruption. It is one of the two almanacs still in major circulation. Both will be releasing their 2015 editions at the end of August.

The Farmers' Almanac -- over 2 million retail and promotional books printed each year -- features not only a master calendar with 3-day blocks of forecasting, but seasonal overviews for the year, and helpful hints on living and “best days” to do everything from gardening to cutting hair and quitting smoking, based on phases of the moon and other astronomical factors.

So how do they do they predict the weather? Mareanne Jarvela, spokeswoman for the Dublin, N.H.-based Old Farmer’s Almanac, the largest almanac, boasting 3.5 million printings a year in the U.S. and Canada markets, says despite the snubs and chortles from the scientific community, this is not your grandmother’s almanac.

“We are using more of the modern technology in our predictions,” she tells Foxnews.com.

But since the beginning, the specific formulae used for both the Farmer’s Almanac and the Old Farmer’s Almanac have been closely guarded secrets. The former got its secret formula – based on sunspots, astronomy, tidal activity and moon phases, from founder David Young in 1818. The latter got its methods from founder Robert B. Thomas in 1792.  That one was based on sunspots, astronomy and moon activity, too. Both Jarvela and Duncan said both rubrics are locked in “a black box” and known to only a few.

While the Farmer’s Almanac continues to utilize Young’s old methods (with modern “tweaks and changes,” said Duncan), Jarvela says the Old Farmer’s Almanac doesn’t do much with moon phases anymore, but it does incorporate some of the computer-generated analytics used by meteorologists today.

“People believe in the information we put out,” she said, plus “it’s tradition, it’s something that’s comforting… we haven’t missed a year.”

The farmer’s almanac’s came into popularity because they were really the go-to for farmers who were trying to plan for the annual seeding, growing and harvesting seasons. In 18th Century America, the colonial farmers had two books, the bible and an almanac – or so goes the lore. Over the years, it grew to include homespun tips and remedies, recipes, gardening and farming advice. But the weather prognostications always remained, as has, so it seems, the almanac’s popularity.

“It’s great entertainment and many people want to believe this stuff because it’s like horoscopes for the weather,” said Dr. Jeff Masters, a meteorologist who served as an official Hurricane Hunter with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) before co-founding the popular WeatherUnderground.com website.

“It makes sense to people, and it looks good and we want to believe we have the power to forecast long-term weather,” he tells Foxnews.com. But going past two weeks, not even NOAA, which runs the National Weather Service, has the tools to accurately predict the weather, even with the most sophisticated technology at their fingertips, he added. “There is a fundamental chaos barrier we have never been able to get past,” Masters, said. In other words, you just can’t second-guess Mother Nature.

Some scientists, like San Francisco-based Jan Null, understand the folksy appeal of the almanac but get a bit peeved when they hear them boast about the “80 percent accuracy.” So he takes it on, laying out the predictions of the previous year with the actual weather, along with NOAA’s seasonal forecasts.

“I’ve been a meteorologist for 40 years. I’ve given lots of talks across the country,” and invariably hears, “well the farmer’s almanac says this,” he tells Foxnews.com. “I say, this is what they forecast, and this is what occurred.”

For example, he writes that The Old Farmer's Almanac (OFA) precipitation forecast for November through March 2014 “missed the record dry conditions in California,” predicting  “a wet or snowy forecast for the remainder of the US west of the Continental Divide, which ended up drier than normal over all but Montana and northern Idaho.” 

He added that the “OFA precipitation forecast for middle third of the country was about half right,” with a “somewhat better” forecast of mostly ‘wet’ or ‘snowy’ forecast conditions that were either above of near normal in the East. But any of this good forecasting was “obliterated” when OFA called for mild winter temperatures in the Great Lakes region and Midwest. The reality was a winter of record cold temperatures.  Likewise, temperatures in California were much warmer than normal, putting OFA’s call for “cold” on its head.

If the almanacs “had something real” in terms of formula “then it would be vetted by the scientific community,” said Null. “There’s nothing there.”

Null and Masters say if there were really a way to predict long-term seasonal forecasts, someone would be very, very rich, as a third of the U.S. economy is weather sensitive.

The best the National Weather Service can do is gauge long term climate trends by studying El Nino and La Nina (warming and cooling of ocean water surface water, respectively) and how it might affect weather patterns, as well as developing different models that use atmospherics and historical data to come up with predictions. But they are a long way away, say the scientists. 

But the almanac’s supporters don’t seem to be worried. While they embrace the past in part, they have adapted quite eagerly in other ways. Both the Farmer’s Almanac and Old Farmer’s Almanac have been online for years – including Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest -- and now offer digital versions too. They both say they cater to a growing organic DIY movement, with features on how to grow your own food and natural health care. 

Meanwhile the Old Farmer’s Almanac even provides new apps to look at old stuff like moon phases and “advice of the day.”

And yes, there is still plenty of lore and folksy prognostications to go along with it. “We really have tried to keep the things that have always been appealing, and that are of interest in the 21st Century.”

“We never said we could take the place of local meteorologists,” said Duncan. “But we do serve a purpose.”