Winter forecast, part III: the Old Farmer's Almanac

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 2:23 PM GMT on November 24, 2008

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Since 1792, the Old Farmer's Almanac has been issuing long-range seasonal weather forecasts. This year, the Almanac is predicting that winter will be colder than average for 3/4 of the U.S., and above average over just 1/8 of the country. Only the Pacific Northwest and the upper Midwest near Minnesota are predicted to be warmer than average. For the Appalachian region that includes the three woolly bear forecasts I discussed last week, the Old Farmer's Almanac is siding with Oil Valley Vick and Kelly the woolly bear, forecasting colder than average temperatures. The Hagerstown Woolly Bears and NOAA disagree, predicting warmer than average temperatures are more likely.

How accurate is the Old Farmer's Almanac?
The Old Farmer's Almanac claims to have a secret formula developed in 1792 based on sunspots and climatology, which gives their long-range predictions 80% accuracy. I've heard a number of anecdotal stories about how uncannily accurate their forecasts are, and have always felt a vague sort of anxiety that maybe I should be checking them out when someone asks me what the upcoming winter will be like. However, the Almanac does not post any verification statistics of their forecasts. It is not hard to do a simple check of their forecast accuracy, though. Unfortunately, the results of my check and those done by several others show that there is little reason to believe that the Old Farmer's Almanac forecasts are any better than flipping a coin.


Figure 1. Observed departure of temperature from average for the period Nov. 2004-Mar. 2005. Superimposed in bold text is the winter forecast made in the 2004 Old Farmer's Almanac for the same period. The Almanac got four regions correct and eight incorrect, with two too close to call.

For example, for the winter of 2004-2005 (Figure 1), the November 2004 version of the Old Farmer's Almanac made a simple prediction of "cold" or "mild" for sixteen separate regions of the U.S. The original forecast map they presented only labels the U.S. in fourteen places, and I've overlaid these predictions on a temperature anomaly map showing what actually happened during the winter of 2004-2005. If we assume that "mild" refers to an above average temperature forecast and "cold" refers to a below average temperature forecast, then the Almanac got four regions correct, eight wrong, with two too close to call. Admittedly, I've "eyeballed" this, and it is a subjective verification. Still, I don't see any way that this forecast could approach even 50% (chance) accuracy. Their precipitation forecast fared better, with seven correct regions, five incorrect, and two too close to call. I also looked at the Farmer's Almanac forecasts for the winter of 2006-2007. They did much worse that winter, with only three of sixteen temperature forecasts verifying, and five out of twelve precipitation forecasts verifying (four were too close to call). For these two winters, the Old Farmer's Almanac made a successful forecast just 37% of the time.

Studies by Jan Null
Jan Null, a meteorologist who founded the private weather consulting firm, Golden Gate Weather in California, has evaluated the Old Farmer's Almanac predictions for San Francisco for three separate years. His first study looked at the forecasts for 1999-2000. His conclusion: "Even trying to be objective and giving the benefit of the doubt to cases that were close, I found last year's forecast from the Old Farmer's 2000 Almanac for San Francisco to be laughable at best and abysmal at worst. The Old Farmer's Almanac was wrong on their monthly temperature forecast 8 out of the 12 months (67%) and wrong on their rainfall forecast 5 of the 8 months evaluated (63%)". His grade for the Old Farmer's Almanac winter forecast for San Francisco during 2006-2007 was a D+. He also evaluated the Old Farmer's Almanac for two separate summers and winters for all sixteen regions of the U.S., and found mostly poor results. For the summer of 2005, just one of the sixteen Old Farmer's Almanac regional forecasts got both the temperature and the precipitation correct. He plans to post a verification of their 2008 summer forecast sometime in the next week.

Weatherwise magazine study
In the October 1981 issue of Weatherwise magazine, pages 212-215, John E. Walsh and David Allen performed a check on the accuracy of 60 monthly forecasts of temperature and precipitation from the Old Farmer's Almanac at 32 stations in the U.S. They found that 50.7% of the monthly temperature forecasts and 51.9% of the precipitation forecasts verified with the correct sign. This compares with the 50% success rate expected by chance.

Old Farmer's Almanac climate forecast
It's also of interest to note that the Old Farmer's Almanac believes that sunspot cycles and other factors suggest that "a cold, not warm climate may be in our future". Their climate forecaster is Joeseph D'Aleo, who was the first Director of Meteorology at the Weather Channel. Mr. D'Aleo is now retired, and is often quoted for his skeptical opinions about climate change.

Conclusion
The results of my forecast verifications and those done by several others indicate that there is little reason to believe the Old Farmer's Almanac claim of 80% accuracy. These verifications attempted to be fair, but one can justifiably argue they were not objective nor complete. However, unless the Almanac posts some scientific evidence to the contrary, I won't believe their forecasts are any better than flipping a coin. One's best bet for the upcoming winter forecast is to use NOAA's prediction, which calls for an an above-average chance of a warm winter across the center portion of the U.S. If you live in Banner Elk, North Carolina, it might be wise to go with Kelly the Woolly worm's forecast of a cold winter, though, given the success of her predecessors!

Tropical disturbance near Costa Rica
An area of disturbed weather (96L) has developed in the extreme southern Caribbean, near the coast of Costa Rica. Wind shear is a hefty 20-30 knots over the disturbance, which will keep any development slow. The disturbance will bring heavy rains to Costa Rica and Nicaragua through Wednesday. If the center can stay off shore, this disturbance has the potential to develop into a tropical depression. NHC is giving a moderate (20-50% chance) that 96L will develop into a tropical depression by Wednesday morning. The GFDL model does develop 96L, but none of the other models do. I'll have an update on the system this afternoon if it gets more organized.

Jeff Masters

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422. felixburke
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421. MissNadia
12:53 AM GMT on November 26, 2008
New BLOG !!!!!
Member Since: July 27, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 3002
420. theshepherd
12:44 AM GMT on November 26, 2008
***removed for judgement's sake***
Member Since: September 11, 2008 Posts: 9 Comments: 10095
419. Skyepony (Mod)
12:09 AM GMT on November 26, 2008
Kinda odd ESPI moving in the same direction as ENSO instead of like a reflection of it on this graph. Looking at climo, shouldn't keep it up much longer.
Member Since: August 10, 2005 Posts: 178 Comments: 38312
418. theshepherd
11:47 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
406 Cot
Having lived 58 years on the "Florida dartboard" and seeing science evolve first hand, I have zero interest or confidence in preseason forecasts. LOL...Don't get me wrong, I love your passion...LOL... "BUT", I remember Physics 101 and the characteristics of "meander". Dr Masters (a conservative steward) covered the shortcomings of short term dynamics quite well. It's the meander factor that prompts the flip of a coin. I see these predictions as well meaning , but it has a bit of a face of oneupmanship to me.
Just my two cents, but I think Omar should be retired for the interplay, at one brief moment, of three internal COVs that kept popping up and jockying for dominance and for the nebulous meander. Dollar value doesn't have to be the only factor.
Member Since: September 11, 2008 Posts: 9 Comments: 10095
417. Cotillion
11:42 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
Quoting all4hurricanes:

wow that is wierd did you really stay up till midnight just to find that out lol


Just a casual observation.

Anyway, have a good night all. -signing off-.
Member Since: August 23, 2008 Posts: 7 Comments: 5300
416. all4hurricanes
11:40 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
Quoting Cotillion:
Hmm. At 7pm, the temperature here was -1C.

Now it's 7C at near midnight.

How weird.

wow that is wierd did you really stay up till midnight just to find that out lol
Member Since: March 29, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 2373
415. Cotillion
11:37 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
Hmm. At 7pm, the temperature here was -1C.

Now it's 7C at near midnight.

How weird.
Member Since: August 23, 2008 Posts: 7 Comments: 5300
414. all4hurricanes
11:32 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
We got hit by Isabel and I will have my eye on Ida, Isabel surprised us but her daughter won't!
Member Since: March 29, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 2373
413. RobDaHood
11:32 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
...peeks into room

What Hurricane season is the worst is a very subjective thing...I would say 2004 since that is the only one that has ever had a significant effect on me and it also had a major effect on my entire state...TX or LA would probably disagree...Folks in Miami area that experienced Andrew would have a different opinion...

410. stormpetrol- I understand completely, and am sure folks in the Panhandle would agree.


slips back out...
Member Since: September 2, 2008 Posts: 97 Comments: 32391
412. weatherblog
11:20 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
Quoting CybrTeddy:

The worst Hurricane Seasons ever in my Opinions.
(the first two I can believe we all can agree.)
2005 Atlantic Hurricane Season
2008 Atlantic Hurricane Season
2004 Atlantic Hurricane Season
1999 Atlantic Hurricane Season
2003 Atlantic Hurricane Season

If I were to tell myself in 2007 how horrific this year would have been I wouldn't have believed it. 52 Billion dollars in damage, and the third most costly storm ever to hit the United states. 6 times in a row America was hit by a Tropical Cyclone. And we ended up with a Hyperactive season, 16 named storms.


In my opinion, this list is way off...especially if it is based off of every year in recorded history. The only year I can agree with is 2005. But, why do you have 2003 and 1999 but not 1992, 1950, or even 1933?

Also, I don't think this year is as bad as 2004, as the main storms of that year (Charley, Ivan, Frances, Jeanne) caused much more destruction/deaths of people in the caribbean and the United States than this year without a doubt.
Member Since: July 10, 2006 Posts: 27 Comments: 1623
411. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
11:12 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
406

danny
grace
ida
nicolas
sam
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 174 Comments: 54616
410. stormpetrol
11:08 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
Hurricane Ivan still haunts me, I personally thinks its probably one the most underrated hurricanes in terms of power and destruction,then again I experienced its wrath first hand so in that respect I would be bias.
Member Since: April 29, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 7935
409. all4hurricanes
11:05 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
I think the purpose of retiring is so that
A people don't panic when the name jogs memories
B so that historical or record breaking storms are not confused (ie if there was another Katrina that hit New Orleans in 2035 that would get very confusing )
Member Since: March 29, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 2373
408. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
11:05 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
Quoting stormpetrol:
96L is persistent for over a week now, even if the odds are stacked against it developing, its one of the most persistent areas of disturbed weather i ever seen.
that particular area been hot for a while since like mid oct
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 174 Comments: 54616
407. HadesGodWyvern (Mod)
11:00 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
A bill and a billy this 2009 season and maybe a fred and freddy.

Bill - Atlantic
Billy - Australia

Fred - Atlantic
Freddy - Australia
Member Since: May 24, 2006 Posts: 51 Comments: 45731
406. Cotillion
10:51 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
As we were touching 2009, here's a previous entry of mine to do with it:

Yup, it's a looong time away. We've got Thanksgiving and Christmas to go through yet. Even this season isn't officially done and dusted.

However, I hope you'll forgive me for presenting the first taste of what is to come. CSU usually presents its long-term prediction in the early part of December. Why, I've no idea. What will they say?

This year they predicted 13-7-3, and while it wasn't as close as the April revision, it wasn't too bad. (16-8-5.)

2007 their initial shot was the closest they ever got. 14-7-3. Actual activity was 15-6-2. Not bad, considering they were 7-8 months behind the season's start. 'Course, it just got more out from there.

Perhaps that is making up for badly getting 06 wrong, with 17-9-5... ending up with 10-5-2. Never mind.

So, what will they say this time?

A lot of December's forecast appears to be based on what is to come in terms of ENSO (A major factor in tropical activity) and the previous season. Yes, there are other things involved, but they are more refined come April. Current forecasts seem to show a strengthening of La Nina, to keep neutrality or even to a weak La Nina. Coming off this season, I would not be surprised to see a 'safe bet' 15-8-4 mooted. (The 95-07 average.)

So, expect a re-run? Perhaps not. History tells us that no two seasons are the same. So, don't take this next comparison too literally, but it's interesting regardless.

Let's look at the bastion of the current AMO, 2005. Compare it to the previous active phase of the oscillation's most active season, 1933. What do we see?

Well, the season before 1933, like 05, was deadly. While Florida wasn't adorned with Perfume de Huracan like it was in 04, Cuba and the Bahamas amongst others were hit hard. Texas also got its fair share.

Continuing with this line of inquiry, the following year. 2006 was 'surprisingly' inactive (Though El Nino has a lot to do with that.), how about 1934? Lo and behold, was not much to right home about either. While it did have 11 storms, no majors to speak of. 1935 (2007 in another dimension) has the Labor Day Hurricane, and a couple of other majors. Could that have been the Felix or Dean of the year? Although the era of pre-satellite comes with a warning of 'Expect at least 2 more storms', it wasn't particularly active, whereas 2007 had 15 storms. Though most stayed relatively weak.

1936? Well, this is the most compelling of all. 16 storms were mentioned (Possibly more), the exact same as this year. However, this season was far more intense, with 4 extra majors.

1937? Just 9 storms, no major. Though the links are tenuous, it makes for an interesting read. However, the previous '2005' to 1933, 1887, doesn't fit the pattern so well. 1886 was pretty intense (Including that Indianola Hurricane...), 1888 wasn't too bad... but 1889/1890 don't fit the pattern at all.

Any names grab you for 2009?

Ana
Bill
Claudette
Danny
Erika
Fred
Grace
Henri
Ida
Joaquin
Kate
Larry
Mindy
Nicholas
Odette
Peter
Rose
Sam
Teresa
Victor
Wanda

As CybrTeddy has pointed out, this decade seems to be the time of the I's... Isabel, Isidore, Ivan, Iris have been retired this decade alone, with Ike set to join them. Will Ida be one of these, or will it pass harmlessly?

What do you think may occur?
Member Since: August 23, 2008 Posts: 7 Comments: 5300
405. Cotillion
10:49 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
Quoting hurricanemaniac123:


They had a big debate on whether or not Fay would.

The reason why Dr. Lyons picked it was because it caused over 1 billion $ in damage and 36+ deaths.


I've not read any reports saying it caused that much damage. Could you direct me to any?
Member Since: August 23, 2008 Posts: 7 Comments: 5300
404. theshepherd
10:47 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
402
Floridians want that "witch" retired. As in adios, don't call us ,we'll call you. LOL
Member Since: September 11, 2008 Posts: 9 Comments: 10095
403. theshepherd
10:44 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
398 "ladiesman"???
Sure...flip a coin.
Member Since: September 11, 2008 Posts: 9 Comments: 10095
402. hurricanemaniac123
10:42 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
Quoting Cotillion:


He could be right, but I don't think Fay should. The other 3, okay.


They had a big debate on whether or not Fay would.

The reason why Dr. Lyons picked it was because it caused over 1 billion $ in damage and 36+ deaths.
Member Since: September 21, 2008 Posts: 9 Comments: 688
401. ladiesman101
10:40 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
i think that ike will not hannah
400. Cotillion
10:40 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
Quoting hurricanemaniac123:
I was watching storm session from the weather channel and Dr. Lyons said that Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike will likely be retired.

Dolly, Omar and Paloma were said to be less likely retired. But Dr. Lyons also said it's the WMO's decision.


He could be right, but I don't think Fay should. The other 3, okay.
Member Since: August 23, 2008 Posts: 7 Comments: 5300
399. pottery
10:40 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
Thats true, Stormpetrol. And it has not moved at all in all that time.
I think Omar did a long stopover north of Curacao as well. Dont remember how long for, but a week stationary comes to mind.
Member Since: October 24, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 24452
398. ladiesman101
10:38 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
does anything that ohio will have alot of snow.
397. pottery
10:36 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
Yep, a strange year really. And only 2 CV storms. Then 2 in the central Atl. Or would those be considered CV as well ?
Member Since: October 24, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 24452
396. hurricanemaniac123
10:36 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
I was watching storm session from the weather channel and Dr. Lyons said that Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike will likely be retired.

Dolly, Omar and Paloma were said to be less likely retired. But Dr. Lyons also said it's the WMO's decision.
Member Since: September 21, 2008 Posts: 9 Comments: 688
395. theshepherd
10:33 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
Yeah keeper, Omar was a goofball for sure. A textbook study in Washahari'(sic) effect and nebulous meander.
Member Since: September 11, 2008 Posts: 9 Comments: 10095
394. stormpetrol
10:32 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
96L is persistent for over a week now, even if the odds are stacked against it developing, its one of the most persistent areas of disturbed weather i ever seen.
Member Since: April 29, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 7935
393. pottery
10:32 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
LOL Sheph.
I drink to that as well...
Member Since: October 24, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 24452
392. theshepherd
10:29 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
389 pot
LOL...did that just for you Pot
Thought I'd make your elbow slide off the desk and snap you awake just for poops and grins.
Here's a rum to you...lol
Member Since: September 11, 2008 Posts: 9 Comments: 10095
391. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
10:28 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
we had a few oddballs shep to say the least
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 174 Comments: 54616
390. theshepherd
10:20 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
387 keeper
What an oddball Fay was.
The troughs were perfect for her to do that.
Member Since: September 11, 2008 Posts: 9 Comments: 10095
389. pottery
10:20 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
Ah, Ok Sheph.
Funny how a small thing, omitted, can throw me off...........
Member Since: October 24, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 24452
388. theshepherd
10:12 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
382 pot

Modified comment with post reference to 370
Member Since: September 11, 2008 Posts: 9 Comments: 10095
387. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
10:09 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
map of all storms 2008 season so far
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 174 Comments: 54616
386. theshepherd
10:08 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
Quoting pottery:
Sheph, the Sandhill Crane. They dont come this far. They winer in Mexico.
I think it was you asking......
thanx pot...yeah that was me. Last couple of years I was fortunate enough to be assigned to Lauderdale and spent the winters fishing in the Everglades when the mosquitos were low(low not nonexistent) and there were quite a few sand hills that stayed with me for the season. They were keen to alert me to movements in the water, kinda like turkeys alerting a hunter to a deer walking out.
Member Since: September 11, 2008 Posts: 9 Comments: 10095
385. RobDaHood
10:07 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
A couple of new pics in the comments section of my blog if you care to look...
Will return for the night shift, hope everyone has a safe and pleasant evening.
Member Since: September 2, 2008 Posts: 97 Comments: 32391
384. all4hurricanes
10:06 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
380 every season could have been worse, 2005 could have been much worse if Katrina hit New Orleans dead on as a 5 but I assure you it can always get worse
Member Since: March 29, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 2373
383. all4hurricanes
10:03 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
Your probably right 09 could be as bad as 08 but they were saying the same thing about 06
Member Since: March 29, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 2373
382. pottery
10:02 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
Sheph. 381. Wha ??
Member Since: October 24, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 24452
381. theshepherd
9:58 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
370
How many volcano eruptions figure in to your equation ?
Member Since: September 11, 2008 Posts: 9 Comments: 10095
379. pottery
9:56 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
Sheph, the Sandhill Crane. They dont come this far. They winer in Mexico.
I think it was you asking......
Member Since: October 24, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 24452
377. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
9:55 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
maybe worst
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 174 Comments: 54616
376. hurricanemaniac123
9:55 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
Quoting KEEPEROFTHEGATE:
lets wait till it becomes 09 before we write it off


You're right.

Who knows what will happen?
We could have 10 named storms, or 14 named storms, or 20 named storms.
We could have a 3 billion dollar damage total, 3 million dollar damage total, 300 billion (exaggerating a bit) dollar damage total.

Anything is possible.
Member Since: September 21, 2008 Posts: 9 Comments: 688
375. Cotillion
9:53 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
Quoting all4hurricanes:
2009 is going to be so lame compared to this year


Lame...?

It's going to be La Nina. Could be as bad as this year. And to be frank, I'm sure the places that have been hit would take a 'lame' year.

Member Since: August 23, 2008 Posts: 7 Comments: 5300
374. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
9:51 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
Quoting all4hurricanes:
2009 is going to be so lame compared to this year
lets wait till it becomes 09 before we write it off
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 174 Comments: 54616
373. all4hurricanes
9:49 PM GMT on November 25, 2008
post 371
did you think 2006 was exciting after 05?
Member Since: March 29, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 2373
372. Cotillion
9:46 PM GMT on November 25, 2008


Quoting CybrTeddy:

The worst Hurricane Seasons ever in my Opinions.
(the first two I can believe we all can agree.)
2005 Atlantic Hurricane Season
2008 Atlantic Hurricane Season
2004 Atlantic Hurricane Season
1999 Atlantic Hurricane Season
2003 Atlantic Hurricane Season

If I were to tell myself in 2007 how horrific this year would have been I wouldn't have believed it. 52 Billion dollars in damage, and the third most costly storm ever to hit the United states. 6 times in a row America was hit by a Tropical Cyclone. And we ended up with a Hyperactive season, 16 named storms.


Nope, I can't.

2005 is probably the worst. 2008 being the 2nd worst? Not in my opinion.

I don't believe the worst 5 seasons have come in the last 10 years. Yeah, they caused more damage in terms of money... but did they wreck more homes? No. Did they kill more people? No.
Did they end more livelihoods? No.



Member Since: August 23, 2008 Posts: 7 Comments: 5300

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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