Forecast for the winter of 2005-2006:: Part I, the woolly bears

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 1:52 PM GMT on November 08, 2005

And now for something completely different: the woolly bear caterpillar forecast for the coming winter. After months of focusing on the death and destruction wrought by the fury of nature's hurricanes, and now tornadoes, it's time to take a break. The tropics remain quiet again today, allowing us to indulge. The political discussions can wait until another day.

According to legend, the severity of the upcoming winter can be judged by examining the pattern of brown and black stripes on woolly bear caterpillars--the larvae of Isabella tiger moths. If the brown stripe between the two black stripes is thick, the winter will be a mild one. A narrow brown stripe portends a long, cold winter.

The Hagerstown, Maryland Town and Country Almanack has been publishing weather forecasts and weather lore for 209 years. The Almanack sponsors an annual woolly bear caterpillar event, where local school children in Hagerstown collect woolly bears. A panel of judges examines the collected specimens and issues a woolly bear forecast for the upcoming winter. Gerald W. Spessard, the Town and Country Almanack's business manager and one of this year's two judges, observed that the middle brown stripes on the 20 caterpillars collected this year were thicker than usual. "There's not a whole lot of black at either end, so we both agree this should be a fairly mild winter," Spessard said, according to an AP press release.

Naturally, this forecast only applies to the Hagerstown, Maryland area, so other locales will need to do their own woolly bear work to gauge the local winter forecast. The Hagerstown critters have had mixed success the past three years with their forecasts--they've been correct about half the time. This is only slightly worse than the official NOAA long range forecasts.

Several scientific studies have been done on woolly bear caterpillar forecasts, including one by the American Museum of Natural History. None of these studies have shown any correlation between woolly bear markings and the severity of the upcoming winter. According to Ned Rozell, science writer at the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute, Biologist Dr. Charles Curran began studying woolly bear markings and the severity of winters in 1948. For the first three years, the caterpillars had wide brown bands, correctly forecasting three consecutive mild winters. The caterpillars failed the next year, and Dr. Curran gave up the study in 1955 after finding two groups of caterpillars living near each other that had vastly different predictions for the upcoming winter.

So, you're probably better off using the official NOAA long-range forecast for the upcoming winter--although not by much. I'll discuss the official NOAA forecast for the upcoming winter tomorrow, and talk about how well they've done in past years.

Jeff Masters

wooly bear catepiller (Olbetsy)
These are all over in the fall
wooly bear catepiller

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39. stormydee
6:33 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
ya rub it in least I only have a 1/2 day. :-)
Member Since: August 25, 2005 Posts: 39 Comments: 517
38. mobal
6:31 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
I freind of mind says she saw an all black wooly bear in MOBILE!
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37. weatherdude65
1:04 PM EST on November 08, 2005
I have a short week...we are closed Friday for Veterans Day!!!!!
36. weatherdude65
1:02 PM EST on November 08, 2005
..and the weekend is looking great stormy.....highs near 80 and no rain!!!!
35. stormydee
5:58 PM GMT on November 08, 2005


Oh yeah, thats right, Im at work....gonna have to wait till this weekend....bummer!
Member Since: August 25, 2005 Posts: 39 Comments: 517
34. rwdobson
5:58 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
If there was an oil slick on the gulf, there wouldn't be any seafood left to avoid...
Member Since: June 12, 2002 Posts: 0 Comments: 1653
33. weatherdude65
12:57 PM EST on November 08, 2005
wake up stormy!!!! :-)

The beach does sound very nice though
32. rwdobson
5:54 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
Stormy--tornadoes also need moisture, in addition to the interaction of cold and warm air. Same with any storm, really. If the gulf was shut off, there wouldn't be enough moisture in the plains to spawn big t'storms.
Member Since: June 12, 2002 Posts: 0 Comments: 1653
31. stormydee
5:52 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
Aahhh!!! I wish i could go to the beach!!! (daydream...zzz)
Member Since: August 25, 2005 Posts: 39 Comments: 517
30. Snowspotter1923
5:46 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
I am located in the snow belt south of Buffalo. We had our usual over the road migration of wooly bear catapillars here in late October, they seem to like to cross the road on sunny days. I checked some out and they looked like the ones in Hagarstown too so maybe it will be a mild winter.

On the other hand, the temperature of Lake Erie is still really high so if we start getting some colder winds across the lake, we will see lots of snow no matter what the wooly bear thinks. We are due for a potential lake effect event this Thursday, we haven't seen snow yet this year, or a hard frost and that is pretty late for this area, still seeing record warmth.
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29. stormydee
5:50 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
this year has been unlike no others....wait till next year!
Member Since: August 25, 2005 Posts: 39 Comments: 517
28. stormydee
5:36 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
rwd - so no more tornadoes? Well, most are spawned by cold air and hot air spinning together, by frontal bounderies...I don't think the gulf filled with oil could stop the arctic air that pushes into the warm air of the south. However, we'd have to close our seafood restaurants cause heaven knows I wouldn't dare eat seafood if I knew the govt did that to any ocean...imagine the kinds of cancers the fish would carry and then pollute into our bodies when we ate them...and the greenhouse gases would rise at an alarming rate...
Once again, I truly hope man butts out! Hurricanes are a natural process of the Earth. PERIOD!
Member Since: August 25, 2005 Posts: 39 Comments: 517
27. weatherdude65
12:45 PM EST on November 08, 2005
In that case...enjoy the mild temps. I am sure that winter will make its appearance soon.
26. rwdobson
5:43 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
Amazingly enough, we are not even expecting rain, let along severe weather. A front is coming through, lots of moisture in place, but no rain. The forecast discussions says:

"NAM bufr soundings show that a pronounced elevated mixed layer has advected across the plains and will remain in place through tonight. A very warm/dry 800mb inversion will suppress any chance of a dry
frontal passage is forecast."

We didn't get any t-storms on Saturday night either...the surface low formed just east of us and raced away.
Member Since: June 12, 2002 Posts: 0 Comments: 1653
25. weatherdude65
12:39 PM EST on November 08, 2005 guys under the gun for any severe weather today?
24. rwdobson
5:34 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
Speaking of gulf moisture, it is 72 degrees in KC right now with a dewpoint of 62. Sixty-two! That's a May dewpoint, not November....
Member Since: June 12, 2002 Posts: 0 Comments: 1653
23. weatherdude65
12:32 PM EST on November 08, 2005
stormy....yeah, the bosses are happy. They hate to see people with not much work to do.
22. rwdobson
5:29 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
Maybe we should go hypothetical...what would the weather be like in the US if the gulf was coated with oil?

For one thing it would be a heck of a lot drier anywhere between the Rockies and the Appalachians. I guess we would no longer have to worry about tornados since almost all of them are fueled by gulf moisture.

We wouldn't have to worry about a small area of hypoxia (low dissolved oxygen) in the Gulf, b/c the whole Gulf would become anoxic.
Member Since: June 12, 2002 Posts: 0 Comments: 1653
21. stormydee
5:29 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
ya 65, Ive been busy too...well the bosses are happy, Im sure!
Member Since: August 25, 2005 Posts: 39 Comments: 517
20. stormydee
5:23 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
hey sub...I see 21 answered.
HI everyone :-)
RWD - I agree, it would be an environmental disaster if they put oil in the oceans to stop/interfere with a hurricane...Let mother nature do what she wants...when man interferes, she will only get angry and cause havoc some other way (i.e. unimaginable dead sea life from the oils). We can only prepare for, not prevent Earth's cycles...when we think we can prevent, we'll only cause more damage.....but man thinks he is so smart...Sorry, my vote is for Mother Nature!
Member Since: August 25, 2005 Posts: 39 Comments: 517
19. ofieldstream
12:18 PM EST on November 08, 2005
SpyRI ...

Post photos and we'll see if we can identify your mysterious little caterpillars.

les O'fieldstream
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18. ofieldstream
9:42 AM EST on November 08, 2005
Jeff ..
Thanks for this reminder of one of our most colorful heritages; the use of insects and other natural phenomena for predicting weather... known as phenology.

les O'fieldsteam
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17. weatherdude65
12:01 PM EST on November 08, 2005
Hello 21.....lurking at the moment. Work strangely increased today
16. Pensacola21
5:00 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
Subtropic - Oriondarkwood rec'd. an email from Palmbeach and she's okay..
Member Since: September 16, 2005 Posts: 30 Comments: 3912
15. Pensacola21
4:53 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
Hey all... I will be in and out...

How are you guys today? :-)
Member Since: September 16, 2005 Posts: 30 Comments: 3912
14. rwdobson
4:20 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
Re: using oils to stop hurricanes...

It wouldn't work, and even if it did, it would be an ecological disaster.

Does anyone actually think that we could coat an ocean with enough oil to stop a hurricane without completely messing the entire biochemical balance in that ocean? If the coating is thick enough to stop evaporation, it's certainly going to be thick enough to interfere with the exchanges of oxygen, CO2, and other gases between the ocean and atmosphere. Plus it would change the amount and nature of sunlight entering the water, which would affect the photosynthetic plankton, which would affect all the animals that eat plankton.

And this assumes that we even could get enough oil out there to do this, and keep that oil where we wanted it to be. Which is doubtful.
Member Since: June 12, 2002 Posts: 0 Comments: 1653
13. subtropic
11:12 AM EST on November 08, 2005
Hey stormy, If you're still lurking, have you (or anyone) heard from palmbeacher lately?
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12. Cregnebaa
3:49 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
Thanks Dr, reminds me of Groundhog Day

My predition for winter in Grand Cayman this year is warm (26-28 C) with little rain and lots of sun.

Can't wait for hurricane season to end and start enjoying the weather.
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11. Astinus
9:41 AM CST on November 08, 2005
Long time lurker. Followed hurricane seasons from my comfortable chair in front of my computer, but was compelled to post from a unexpected jar to my memory.

I grew up in Hagerstown MD and completely forgot about this event. So an unexpected shock to read my childhood hometown being mentioned this morning.

We would go out to the woods surrounding our school and grab a couple and talk about what kind of winter we would have. Good times...
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10. weatherdude65
10:40 AM EST on November 08, 2005
morning stormy :-)....lurk away lol
9. stormydee
3:31 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
fuzzy wuzzy was a bear
But this fuzzy has some hair.
Good morning everyone :-)
Just lurking right now....
Member Since: August 25, 2005 Posts: 39 Comments: 517
8. Hecker
3:17 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
That species of ladybug, the vedalia beetle (Harmonia axyridis) that comes in swarms into people's homes in autumn is an Asian species which was introduced some years ago as an agricultural biocontrol. They are a nuisance where we live, too.
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7. SpyRI
3:10 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
The woolly bears around here have looked about the same as the one Dr Master's has a pic of, but I have had a ton of smooth brown caterpillars trying to get in my house! They are freaking me out, and I can't identify them on any of the insect sites.
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6. squeak
2:59 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
Ladybugs work for me. I have no idea if any studies have ever been done on ladybugs.

In the autumn some years ladybugs are a positive nuisance, with mass quantities trying to get into the house before winter and hibernate. Other years, not so much. I noticed a rough correlation in that the years with a high indoor ladybug population were a harbinger of a colder winter here.

So, my conclusion is that it's not going to be such a cold winter in Mpls this year (even though we'll always have the 10 day period of below -10 in Jan/Feb).
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5. StellarCyclone
2:54 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
Based upon a "global warming" hypothesis, I'll predict another mild winter followed by another higher than normal hurricane season energized by above normal ocean temperatures. Yes this prediction/explanation is too simplistic, limited, and very incomplete. But it makes a clear prediction that can be tested by near-term events and it challenges others to come up with a more predictive, more complete explanation of the weather.
4. mctypething
2:57 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
Dr. Masters

I was wondering if you could discuss the following topics prior to the end of hurricane season. The tropics seem to be settling down, so I figured we could see your thoughts on these:

1) What is your opinion on the global warming debate related to hurricane intensity?

2) I'm not sure if you saw this on the Discovery channel, but during a recent hurricane documentary, they showed a scientist from Columbia who was hypothesizing that we could use biodegradable oils in the ocean waters, which would hinder the evaporation/convection process and mitigate hurricanes. What do you think about this and other theories of stopping hurricanes?

If you see this and have any thoughts on the above issues, I would love to see your thoughts.

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3. weatherdude65
9:41 AM EST on November 08, 2005
I remember seeing them when I lived up in Maine
2. gbreezegirl
2:32 PM GMT on November 08, 2005
I've never seen them anywhere I have lived in the South. Must be a Northern fuzzy wuzzy.
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1. LpAngelRob
8:02 AM CST on November 08, 2005
Where in the world have you guys seen these? I'm relatively sure I've never seen these in Illinois.
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Dr. Masters co-founded wunderground in 1995. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters 1986-1990. Co-blogging with him: Bob Henson, @bhensonweather

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