Mark Bennett: 'Season of shivers' or a 'flip-flop' of extremes? Coming winter a mystery, for now

·5 min read

Sep. 17—The mystery of the coming winter's weather sounds blissful right now.

Not necessarily the weather itself. Just its element of surprise.

The omniscience of digital technology tends to wring the what-ifs out of daily life. There are positives in the depth and speed of the riddles instantly solved on our cellphone and computer screens, of course, like alerts of severe storms and road closings.

Still, the idea of envisioning the twists of three months of winter — months in advance — feels like a Ouija board exercise. And that's good.

With summer's end coming Tuesday, it's also the winter prediction season. Thoughts of snow accumulations, wind chill factors and icy roads don't seem as ominous when it's still too hot for jackets and sweatshirts. Besides, the venerable prognosticators — The Old Farmer's Almanac, its rival Farmers' Almanac (yes, they even disagree on the placement of their apostrophes) and the National Weather Service — view the approaching winter of 2021-2022 differently. So, mystery abounds.

Parkas might be in demand around the Terre Haute area, at least in the The Old Farmer's Almanac outlook. The periodical forecasts that "winter will be colder and drier than normal" in the region that includes Terre Haute and its surrounding communities. Temperatures will be below-average in November (by 5 degrees), December (by 4 degrees), January (by 7 degrees), before a relatively warmer February (2 degrees warmer than average).

Old Farmer's Almanac describes this coming winter as "a season of shivers."

Some people probably stopped reading with that news. There's more to winter than the thermometer readings, though. The Old Farmer's Almanac also predicts below-average precipitation levels in November (1.5 inches less), December (1.5 inches less), January (1 inch less) and February (1 inch less).

Of course, that doesn't mean no snow. "You're still going to need a shovel," said Sarah Perreault, senior editor at The Old Farmer's Almanac. In fact, the magazine predicts snowfall in every month from November to March. That includes "snowy periods" from March 10 to 17 — yes, right in the middle of the Indiana boys high school basketball tournament.

Terre Haute sits at the bottom edge of the almanac's Regions 6. Its map shows "cold and snowy" weather for Region 7, just south of Terre Haute.

Perreault is in her 18th year at The Old Farmer's Almanac, which bills itself as "the oldest continuously published periodical in North America." Robert B. Thomas founded the magazine in 1792, and his serious visage is still featured on its cover along with a serene Benjamin Franklin, whose "Poor Richard's Almanack" inspired the genre. Its mainstay topics are gardening, astronomy, folklore, some sports and, especially, predictions of the weather. It also contains trends, and quirky tips such as "how to de-skunk a dog" and the best days to start logging or quit smoking, based on the moon's phases. The latest edition, the 230th, also features the story, "Remains to be Seen." It details preserved bodies — from Roy Rogers' horse Trigger to Vladimir Lenin — on public display.

"We want to inform you," Perreault said, "but we want to entertain you at the same time." She spoke by phone last week from Dublin, New Hampshire, where The Old Farmer's Almanac and its publisher, Yankee Publishing, are the heart of the town of 1,500 residents. "Not much else happens around Dublin," Perreault said.

Amid that solitude, the craft long-range weather predictions based on Thomas' formula of solar activity (like sunspots), climatology (weather patterns) and meteorology (the atmosphere), along with modern technology. It also takes into account climate change. "So it's the old married to the new," Perreault said, "and it seems to be working."

The almanac claims an 80% to 85% accuracy rate. That's been questioned by climatologists through the years. A 2012 NPR report suggested the almanac's accuracy might be half its billed rate. The almanac calculated its accuracy for last winter's forecast at 75%.

Its rival, the Farmers' Almanac, asserts its seasonal weather predictions also hit the mark 80% to 85% of the time. Its accuracy rate also has been questioned by climatologists.

"We're not 100% accurate, but who is?" managing editor Sandi Duncan said by phone Wednesday.

That periodical has published annually since 1818 from its base in Lewiston, Maine, where poet, teacher and astronomer David Young founded it, along with publisher Jacob Mann. Its 2021-2022 winter forecast calls for a "frosty flip-flop" season, with wide variations from month to month.

The Wabash Valley can expect snowstorms in late January and late February. Otherwise, "we don't see anything too extreme as far as snow goes or the chills go," Duncan said of west-central Indiana and east-central Illinois.

Farmers' Almanac uses an "exclusive mathematical and astronomical formula, that relies on sunspot activity, tidal action, planetary position, astrology and many other factors." Climate change isn't one of those "other factors," at least not yet, Duncan.

"Right now, we haven't changed the way we do our weather forecasting, even though there are extreme things going on," Duncan said.

The last word on the winter ahead will go to the National Weather Service. Its official winter forecast will be released Oct. 21. However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — which oversees the National Weather Service — has long-range predictions on maps through its Climate Prediction Center.

Those maps call for a 50-50 chance of above-normal temperatures and precipitation from December through February. NOAA also has year-ahead forecasts, as pointed out by Lauren Gaches, a NOAA public affairs spokesperson. "The skill of those outlooks is continually refined over time," she added.

Until then, we'll have to cope with a little mystery.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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