December 17, 2009 in Washington Voices

Almanac’s weather forecasts correct 80 percent of time

Pat Munts
 

Find the almanac

Print copies are available at bookstores or for download at www.almanac.com and the companion Web site, www.almanac4kids.com, just for kids.

As I write this, heavy snow is expected on the Palouse. Even so, the professional meteorologists have predicted a drier winter than the last two. But then, they didn’t predict last year’s Big Dump either. Predicting the weather is a challenge even for professionals. But what did our ancestors rely on for their forecasts?

The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

For the last 218 years, this little publication has been an authority on long-range weather forecasts.

“People come to us for our weather forecasts because historically we are 80 percent accurate,” says Janice Stillman, the 13th editor of the almanac.

An almanac is a calendar of the heavens. “Being a calendar, it predicts and announces events in the year: sunrise and sunset, moonrise and moonset, length of day, astronomical events such as conjunction of planets and other celestial bodies, meteor showers and bright stars.” Before technology and easy communication, almanacs were critical sources of knowledge on all kinds of astronomical data and weather forecasts. “We had an agrarian society back then,” said Stillman. “They really looked to a calendar book, a farmer’s almanac, to help them with that kind of information.”

The Old Farmer’s Almanac took this a step further though. Creator Robert B. Thomas began adding weather forecasts to information about how to build a fence, keep financial accounts for the farm, how to calculate interest payments and home remedies and cures for whatever ailed man or beast.

To create his forecasts, Thomas combined observations of cyclical sunspot activity with historical weather data. “He did not then have access to the kinds of information like satellite data and ocean temperatures,” Stillman said. “He did believe in the sun’s influence on weather patterns and, in particular, (that of) the sunspots.” He believed the cyclical increase or decrease of sunspots had a corresponding cyclical effect on weather patterns. Meteorologists, climatologists and astronomers at The Old Farmer’s Almanac still follow this method.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac creates regional long-range predictions of temperatures and precipitation and then breaks those predictions into blocks of dates within a month. It then forecasts whether the temperatures and precipitation will be above or below normal ranges during each period.

“We aren’t going to tell you how much rain you are going to get or how much snow is going to fall or what the temperature will be, but we will tell you how it will be relative to normal,” said Stillman.

So how is a book developed for the agrarian societies of 200 years ago still relevant in our modern, high-tech society? “It’s a handy reference tool. It provides all of the basics for weather, astronomy and gardening. It’s a snapshot of the year,” said Stillman.

So what is the 2010 Old Farmer’s Almanac forecast for our region? Overall, the next two months are going to be a mix of snowy and mild periods with above-average precipitation with temperatures a little above average.

Pat Munts is a Master Gardener who has gardened the same acre in Spokane Valley for 30 years. She can be reached by e-mail at pat@inlandnwgardening.com.

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