Old Farmer’s Almanac makes unbelievable predictions: A reliable outlook or wishful thinking?

“Winter will be cold again,” the 2016 Old Farmer’s Almanac, released Monday, boldly claims. This beloved book of astronomy and agriculture forecasts “below-normal temperatures along most of the Atlantic seaboard and in the Ohio Valley, Great Lakes, Pacific Northwest, and southwestern states” in the months to come. If this is true, it’s a welcome foretelling for skiers, but many scientists warn that the Almanac’s forecast must be taken with reservations.

2016 Old Farmer's Almanac

2016 Old Farmer’s Almanac

The Old Farmer’s Almanac has a relatively mysterious technique for predicting long-range weather. Its methods employ a “secret formula” kept in a black box at Almanac headquarters in New Hampshire and the expertise of Robert B. Thomas, founding author of the Almanac who passed away in 1846.

In contrast to this fortuitous winter prediction, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tells of a significant El Niño cycle this year. El Niño conditions are currently strengthening and could become one of the strongest cycles since 1997. By NOAA’s calculation, the Northwest may experience warmer than usual weather, the Southwest wetter weather, and the South/Northeast drier weather.

“As of August, NOAA and IRI [International Research Institute] forecasters are predicting this El Niño will peak in the late fall/early winter,” NOAA explains. “If this forecast comes true, it will place the 2015 event among the strongest El Niños in the (admittedly short) 1950-2015 historical record.”

A blizzard hits the Northeast [Photo] NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Thousands of school children wearing their pajamas inside out made this 2015 blizzard in the Northeast possible. [Photo] NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

These contradictory predictions raise the question of which weather forecasting technique is more reliable. On Climate.gov, NOAA’s forecasting strategies are explained:

“The Modeling, Analysis, Predictions, and Projections (MAPP) Program’s mission is to enhance the Nation’s capability to understand and predict natural variability and changes in Earth’s climate system. The MAPP Program supports development of advanced climate modeling technologies to improve simulation of climate variability, prediction of future climate variations from weeks to decades, and projection of long-term future climate conditions.”

The Almanac does clarify that they use more modern techniques in addition to the black box of weather lore when making their long-range forecasts: “We employ three scientific disciplines to make our long-range predictions: solar science, the study of sunspots and other solar activity; climatology, the study of prevailing weather patterns; and meteorology, the study of the atmosphere.”

So how much stock should we put in the black box and the ghost of Robert B. Thomas? Probably as much as forecasting rain with the adage “When sheep gather in a huddle, tomorrow will have a puddle.”

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