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Smackdown: Farmers' Almanacs vs. NOAA

by Bob Morris, published

Both Farmers' Almanacs (yes, there are two of them) are predicting a La Nina this winter, while the NOAA Climate Prediction Center says we’ll have an El Nino. This leads them to have differing weather predictions, with the two Almanacs saying winter will be much colder in the middle of the country and a little milder on the coasts. NOAA says it’ll be a generally milder winter most everywhere.

A La Nina is a cooling of the water in the tropical Pacific, which generally leads to a warmer US Southeast, cooler Northwest, and increased probability of Atlantic hurricanes. In contrast, an El Nino has warmer waters leading to increased precipitation in California and a colder Southeast.  If you live in an Atlantic hurricane or California drought area, this is not just of academic interest.

The Old Farmer's Almanac has  been published for 219 years and is based in New Hampshire, while their arch rival, the Farmers' Almanac is based in Maine.  Well, color me confused, because I grew up in New England and never knew until now there were two rival publications doing essentially the same thing.  They predict the weather, and include lots of folksy tips on gardening and planting as well as dorky jokes, droll Yankee understatement, and perky sentiments. They both are clearly doing something right as they sell over 3 million copies yearly each.  They have legions of followers who clearly pay no attention to those like me who are suspicious of their weather predicting techniques, as they don’t make them public, and they predict much further in advance than those tedious, fact-based forecasters at NOAA.

Be that as it may, opponents of climate change will no doubt be cheered to learn that the Old Farmer’s Almanac says 2011 will be characterized by a cooling of the atmosphere which will offset any warming caused by greenhouse gases. They will probably misrepresent this to imply that global warming is not happening at all. Even the weather, it seems, can have a political component, especially nowadays. A recent study even showed that people’s belief in whether or not climate change was happening fluctuated, depending on how hot or cold it was. If it was unusually hot, people tended to believe more that global warming was happening, with the reverse being true too. Cold weather meant that climate change theories were full of hot air, according to those polled.

This kind of short-term, subjective interpretation of long-term trends, of course, makes scientists go batty. But, they can have their own problems too. The recent Climategate brouhaha showed an unfortunate tendency by scientists to be arrogant, contemptuous of criticism, and so full of themselves that they were blindsided by the media assault and responded far too late. Repeated studies have since shown the scientists were essentially correct, but by then the damage was done.  What they needed was a Rapid Response Team that replied quickly and factually rather than what happened, which was stonewalling and paranoia, followed by a response that came far too late.

Weather predictions can be serious business. Farmers often rely on them for when to plant crops, as do agricultural commodity speculators, who use them to determine what trades to make. Long-term though, it seems clear that climate change is occurring. Even Bjorn Lomborg, “the skeptical environmentalist” just switched sides, saying that climate change is indeed real.

As for the battling weather predictions, we will know soon enough whether the Almanacs are correct in saying it will be a La Nina, while NOAA forecasts an El Nino.  I’m with NOAA.

What say you?


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