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Folklore or Science? A look at the truth behind long-range weather forecasts

Tuesday at 11 p.m. on 10TV News, find out what the two most prominent weather almanacs suggest will happen this winter in central Ohio.
Credit: 10tv

The number one question meteorologists like myself get this time of the year is what will this winter be like? It's not even fall yet, but we're now starting to getting emails and messages about how much snow we will get, will it be a bad winter or will there be any "big" snowstorms for the upcoming winter season.  

First off, I don't blame you for wanting to know what the weather will be like this winter and trust me, I wish had the exact answer you are looking for.  

When these questions about the winter get brought up, they often start with, "The Farmers' Almanac says this.." or "The Old Farmer's Almanac says that.." about the upcoming winter.

And my short, but honest answer is we don't know yet.

Both the Farmers' Almanac and the Old Farmer's Almanac come out every year near the end of summer with their surplus wealth of knowledge. 

Whether you're looking for tips on how to improve your home garden, staying healthy with healing herbs or natural immunity boosters, learning some tips and life hacks for around the house, learning more about astronomy, the weather and mother nature or maybe you just want to read something that's enjoyable; then the Almanacs are a great wealth of knowledge for any one, young and old. 

There is a reason why these publications continue to grow and become a staple of any curious weather enthusiast year after year. Often times the winter weather outlook is what takes the cake for the most talked about topic.

Before we discuss the woes of long-range forecasting, let's briefly look at each almanac.

Farmers' Almanac

Credit: farmersalmanac.com

Established: 1818

Founder: David Young

Based: Lewiston, Maine

Claimed accuracy rate: Around 80%.

Predictions made: 1-2 years in advance for seven climate zones in the U.S. and five in Canada.

The Old Farmer's Almanac

Credit: almanac.com

Established: 1792

Founder: Robert B. Thomas

Based: Dublin, New Hampshire

Claimed accuracy rate: Around 80%

Predictions made: 1-2 years in advance for 18 regions in the U.S. and seven in Canada.

Some similarities and some differences as you would expect, but there is both a high claim for accuracy rate (forecast verification) for each publication that puts together their outlooks 1-2 years in advance. Also, both claim to have a "secret formula" that helps them put together their long-range outlooks.

Science sprinkled in with some folklore, but the truth is predicting the weather is hard just days out let alone several months or in this case, a year or two. 

Without knowledge about how weather models work then it's probably easy to believe these long-range outlooks.

The almanacs aren't the only ones known for their long-range forecasts, though.  

The Climate Prediction Center (CPC) has a plethora of long-range weather information on their website.

Credit: https://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/

Forecasts like this have been shared on our station with what the CPC thinks our weather will be like in the extended forecast. In this case, this is a forecast for September 23-27 on temperatures. 

There are no exact day by day temperature forecasts on this graphic, rather a probability of what temperatures will be like during this extended period. 

The graphic shows that there is a 33-40% probability of us experiencing above average temperatures during that time period. However, we could have a day or two that is actually near or below average, but the bulk of those days will amount to what is likely to be above average.

This isn't the greatest example for us, because there's not as much confidence in that temperature trend, but there is enough to lean towards the warmer than average side. 

The northern states, however, hold strong probability for above average temperatures and will likely be above average through the duration of that forecast period.

The Climate Prediction Center (CPC) has a wealth of forecast and weather information, with outlooks beyond two weeks. 

Credit: https://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/forecasts/

You can see the lengthy forecast outlooks under their seasonal tab and you'll see similar graphics like the one I just mentioned on the probability for temperatures or precipitation to be above, below or equal chances (above, below or average).

In these forecast situations for percentages of above/below average temperature conditions are more accurate than just predicting on what the exact outcome will be for each day. 

Averages can help to reduce the uncertainty.  

Michelle L'Heureux, Physical Scientist for NOAA has a great example:

"You can’t predict the outcome of one coin toss, but predicting the average outcome of 100 tosses is more doable."

Now I know you might be thinking (hypothetical situation), "But wait! The Farmers' Almanac talks about a big snow storms coming to the Midwest on the 28th-30th of December!" 

You have to ask yourself a simple question, are the odds of knowing today's weather outcome as clear as 3 months from now?

Predicting the weather is hard and there's a reason why we have a 10 day (which is still hard to forecast post 7 days out for specifics) forecast instead of a 14- or 21-day forecast.

Credit: NOAA CPO graphic adapted from original by Elisabeth Gawthrop and Tony Barnston, IRI.

The graph above depicts the prediction skills (Y axis) and the prediction lead time (X axis) for weather events, S2S Extremes (tropical cyclone activity, heat waves, storm tracks, severe weather threats) and seasonal outlooks.  

Our typical weather events have extremely high accuracy the closer to an event occurring. That makes sense because forecasting the weather for today is significantly easier than lets say, 4-5 days from now.  

The 2 weeks up to a season or two months is very hard to forecast events such as tropical cyclone activity, heat waves, storm tracks, severe weather threats. There are a lot going into these events and for something that could be this far out from occurring, it's extremely difficult to get the specifics on when a cold front will bring severe to central Ohio 2 weeks to a month from now.

Under 2 weeks, we have more information available and better initial conditions(knowing exactly what the weather is at the time it is occurring) to put into these weather models to better understand what our weather could be over the next couple days. 

For example, let's say there's a cold front in the Dakotas that will bring severe weather to central Ohio in the next 24 hours.  The weather models that this "current" weather data from these storms and then places them into a mathematical formula with lots of science and calculations that help put together a forecast on where this front may be heading over the next day or so.  

Not all weather models are created equally, though.  Some models may tweak variables in the calculation process or estimate initial conditions on the weather, which may lead to a untrustworthy model run.  

And when I say model run, I mean that models are constantly getting updated every hour of the day, so that they can perform better on predicting the weather for a given area. 

And then finally, you can see how seasonal outlooks show a very low prediction skill with time, and for good reason.

That's where climatology and averages over not just months, but years can help provide us with a good base on what we could possibly be looking at down the road.

For Seasonal outlooks, it means accurately predicting La Nina/El Nino events, trends (caused by us humans or naturally over the years), and sea surface temperatures, soil moisture, ice cover and even snow cover.

Credit: NOAA Climate graphic, adapted from original by Paul Dirmeyer.

These changes happen slowly and are not as fast as what we see in Ohio over the course of a couple days in our weather. These types of events take time and while they happen slowly, they still experience fast moving weather events during these slow changes! 

That's why the predictability of weather such as a cold front or a severe weather event becomes so unclear as time goes on. 

These long-range forecasts are not as "easy on the eyes" of let's say the Farmers' Almanac winter outlook or it's counter part, the Old Farmer's Almanac; but they're the best products we have available for our extended forecasts as of now.

With both Almanacs claiming high accuracy for long range outlooks and for being so popular, it's worth taking a look at their outlooks and see what they think as well as reading through all of their other resourceful tips & tricks on making life fun and enjoyable. 

The question now is, what do they think our winter will be like for Central Ohio? Do they agree and can we trust them?