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Winter wondering

Some folks say that the length or thickness of horse hair is an indicator of a bad winter. The hair on Mickey, a recent transplant from Montana, points to a mild winter, said owner Darren Barfield, manager of The Ranch at Mica Meadows in Mica Flats. 
 (The Spokesman-Review)
Some folks say that the length or thickness of horse hair is an indicator of a bad winter. The hair on Mickey, a recent transplant from Montana, points to a mild winter, said owner Darren Barfield, manager of The Ranch at Mica Meadows in Mica Flats. (The Spokesman-Review)

Federal climate scientists seem to think we’re heading into another mild winter. Although the analysts haven’t been able to pin down a long-term snow forecast – it could go either way, the computer models say – the temperatures are expected to be slightly warmer than normal.

The secret formula used by The Old Farmer’s Almanac also predicts a warm winter.

Pepper, a horse living near Coeur d’Alene, would beg to disagree. He’s grown an unusually long coat of hair in the last few weeks, said Pepper’s owner, Darren Barfield. “He thinks it’s going to be cold.”

So do mountain ash trees, which are bending under the weight of heavy clusters of orange berries this fall – some gardeners think it is a sure sign that a hard winter is about to return. Muskrat lodges also appear to be taller than normal. Even the markings on caterpillars seem to show snow and cold ahead.

Scientists scoff at such notions, but they also admit that the notoriously fickle Inland Northwest winter has yet to yield its secrets to any computer models. The region’s proximity to two 800-pound gorillas of weather – the Pacific Ocean and Rocky Mountains – make forecasting particularly difficult, said John Werner, meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Spokane.

“We try to stick to science,” he said. “Unfortunately, the science doesn’t give us a great deal of confidence when we go out that far into the winter.”

Sea surface temperatures are close to normal this year, Werner said, meaning there won’t be El Nino or La Nina effects. Computer models released this week by NOAA predict a slightly warmer winter, but the models say there are even odds for a snowy or a dry winter. About all Werner is sure of is that last year’s record dry weather was a fluke. “You can safely say that is not expected again this year.”

The 214th annual edition of “The Old Farmer’s Almanac,” which hit newsstands last month, is predicting “an exceptionally mild” winter for the Inland Northwest, said editor Janice Stillman, adding, “Snow in particular will be well below normal.”

The publication boasts an 80 percent accuracy rate. Its forecasters employ a secret formula that takes into account long-term oceanic conditions, atmospheric conditions and even the effects of sun spots and magnetic storms. Plant or animal indicators are not used, Stillman said, simply because their hints tend to occur too late for publication.

“I think they’re credible,” she said. “That’s Mother Nature. Nothing knows better than the animals and wildlife.”

Wondering about the winter ahead is a favorite Inland Northwest pastime. One reason is the weather can be so erratic – last year snow was seldom seen, while just a few years earlier, nearly 9 feet fell on Coeur d’Alene. Snow and cold also play huge roles for ski resorts, logging contractors, farmers and myriad other professions in the region, said Chris Schnepf, a forestry educator with the University of Idaho Extension.

“The weather is one of the few things that still impact our daily lives,” he said.

Schnepf has heard all about supposed natural indicators of winter weather, but he doesn’t give much credence to any of them.

“They’re fun to play with, but I suspect if you did a scientific analysis you wouldn’t find a whole lot of predictive value. People want that kind of silver bullet,” said Schnepf, adding later that he suspects the winter will be cold and snowy. “Purely on probability. … The last couple of years it’s just been balmy.”

Longtime nurseryman Dick Rifkind said he thinks the natural indicators are leaning toward a hard winter. But like many other people who try to read nature’s tea leaves, Rifkind hedged his prediction. “It’s all a bunch of old wives’ tales,” he said, speaking from his nursery along the Coeur d’Alene River. “The bottom line is nothing means nothing. It’s all a bunch of speculation.”

Still, Rifkind noted the squirrels were gathering pine cones earlier this year. And the wooly-bear caterpillars were more abundant this year – the width of the caterpillars’ orange bands is supposed to be an indicator of winter weather, but Rifkind said he didn’t remember if a wide or a narrow band meant bad weather. “I haven’t got it fine-tuned that well,” he said, laughing. “I think if you see a lot of those that means it’s going to be a hard winter. Last year we didn’t see hardly any. This year they’re all over the place.

“It seems to me we’re getting the signs of a heavy winter. Maybe it’s wishful thinking. I think a lot of us would like to see a hard winter.”

Some weather watchers keep an eye on migrating ducks. Dianna Ellis, manager of the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge in Bonners Ferry, said last year there were relatively few migrating ducks in the fall. “If there’s open water up north, there’s no reason to come down here,” she said.

This week, the refuge was packed with southbound ducks making stopovers in crop fields. “Maybe 10,000,” Ellis said. “This year looks like it’s kind of on track for what they’ve seen in past years.”

Many of the horses at a large training and boarding facility south of Coeur d’Alene appear to be putting on long coats of hair this fall, said Darren Barfield, manager of The Ranch at Mica Meadows. One of Barfield’s horses has long hair, while another – a recent transplant from Montana – still has a thin coat, Barfield said. “He’s decided the winter here’s not going to be bad.”

But Barfield’s gut feeling and the longer coat on most of the horses tells him the snows will be heavy, but the temperatures not as cold. “I’d call it a fair predictor,” he said.

One weather proverb jokingly pegs the severity of the upcoming winter with the size of an old timer’s woodpile. Temple Carnagey, who has lived in North Idaho for nearly 70 of his 85 years, has five cords piled next to his home in Hayden. Carnagey laughed at the idea of his woodpile serving as a barometer for what’s to come.

Carnagey said when he moved here in 1936, “A neighbor told me anybody that predicts weather in Idaho is either a newcomer or a fool.”


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