Ah yes farmers, famously gifted meteorological soothsayers, whispering with their plants and compiling the intel into handy compendiums about our natural world. Ask any farmer, and they (maybe) will tell you: the coming winter promises to be a real barn-burner; "a freezing, frigid, frosty winter," punishing in its intensity. Or so Farmers' Almanac editor Peter Geiger tells Gothamist.
On Tuesday, the Farmers' Almanac released its long-term predictions for Winter 2020, which — from where Geiger is sitting — looks like it'll be a "polar coaster": think temperatures that rocket up and down between "winter interludes," an emotionally exhausting cycle featuring "strong and gusty winds" and "frequent freefalling precipitation."
"The Northeast, including the densely populated corridor running from Washington to Boston, will experience colder-than-normal temperatures for much of the upcoming winter," the 2020 forecast reads. The end of January and beginning of February will reportedly be particularly miserable, with our section of the country getting "not only a good amount of snow, but also a wintry mix of rain, sleet — especially along the coast." Significant storms may materialize between January 4th and 7th, and then again between the 12th and 15th. Also, so so sorry, but winter may feel like it's going to last forever: "Occasional wet snow and unseasonably chilly conditions will hang on for a ride that you may not be able to get off until April!" Not that you won't want to.
Around these parts, the above prediction may feel more or less par for the course, but how do the Farmers know the details? Where do they get their information, who are their sources? And, more to the point, how reliable are they?
With respect to those first two, this secret sauce is not available for public consumption. But as you may or may not be aware from the decades of confusion you've passed on this planet, there are two Farmer-branded almanacs: the Old Farmer's Almanac and the Farmers' Almanac. And as you may have intuited, an older farmer penned the former: The OFA dates back to 1792, while the FA was founded in 1818, per its website. I cannot find any Internet evidence of a feud — perhaps because all farmers involved significantly predate the worldwide web, or perhaps because, according to Geiger, none exists. "There were literally hundreds of almanacs" in olden times, he explains, "and most were called 'Famers,' because that’s what everyone was. When the editor died, the almanac died. It just so happened that theirs [the OFA] and ours have survived," because new almanac custodians have successively taken over the gigs.
The most significant difference between the two seems to come down to methodology. Both offer folksy wisdoms — according to Tuesday's OFA bulletin, "a hard winter will come if moles dig holes 2.5 feet deep," while the FA advises that today is a good day to either cut your hair or your grass if you want to slow growth; to dig post holes; to harvest; and to pick apples and pears — and both operate on highly specific formulas, the precise details of which its authors will share with no one.
The OFA, for example, still relies on a formula its founder, Robert B. Thomas, derived in the late 18th century. Thomas firmly believed that magnetic storms on the sun's surface (you know, sun spots) governed the weather here on earth. (According to the National Weather Service, sun spots and their ultraviolet radiation are not unrelated to Earth's atmosphere, but a bunch of other factors complicate the weather.) He locked said formula in a box, where it remains to this day. The OFA's current keepers now use a more scientifically enhanced version for long-range forecasting, with what they claim is 80 percent accuracy.
The FA, meanwhile, deploys "a top-secret mathematical and astronomical formula, taking sunspot activity, tidal action, the position of the planet, and many other factors into consideration," according to the site. This, Geiger notes, is basically the same way the FA's originator intended things: mathematician-slash-astronomer-slash-farmer David Young put together the first Farmers' Almanac just over two centuries ago, using the same basic calculus that's still used today. "We’ve only had seven people do weather in 200 years," Geiger says. Now, that prognosticator — invariably christened Caleb Weatherbee — works with an expanded formula that includes the whole of North America within its scope, but at the end of the day, it's still just math.
These days, the pseudonymous Weatherbee uses the FA model to make long-term forecasts two years out: it takes time to put such a hefty book to bed, Geiger explains, but he nonetheless feels "it’s fair to say that we’re somewhere in the 75-80 percent [accuracy] range." Still, and it pains me to say this, there remains an eight-month slog between now and the end of April. Taken all together, it's an incredibly long time stretch that seems all the more ambitious when you consider NOAA's estimation that even a 10-day forecast will only be right about 50 percent of the time. A five-day forecast, meanwhile, may be accurate 90 percent of the time.
Before looking at the almanac's reasonably sound Northeast predictions for this week and last, I was inclined to say that the manual draws its broad resonance from the same source as magazine horoscopes — patterns framed in vague terms, wide-open to subjective interpretation — but hey, it's true that heavy rains gave way to cooler, drier air over the weekend. And even though the climate crisis undercuts the standard where normal used to live, making "colder-than-normal" a difficult qualifier to parse, it also supports what the almanac seems to be saying this year: Atmospheric warming does mean harsher, more erratic winters. Even if you don't buy the weather wizardry, though, Geiger hopes you'll give the other elements of the almanac their due. Do you crave natural, planet-friendly methods for melting ice; methods that don't involve leaching chemicals into the landscape? Do you want to know how to treat the poison ivy (which you maaaaaybe contracted thanks to the rash of hotspots aggravating our fair city this summer) using a potato, rather than another tube of (I'm sorry, what) $30 cream? Though I cannot vouch for the efficacy of any of its home-grown recipes, the almanac contains multitudes. Come for the "polar coaster," stay for the sustainable lifestyle tips: "Anybody who reads an almanac," Geiger says, "I’m happy."