What weather will winter bring?
By Gretchen O'Donnell
WORTHINGTON — If one were a woolly worm, he’d probably take umbridge with the groundhog.
After all, the groundhog gets an entire day dedicated to his weather prognostications, but the lowly woolly worm is relegated to being known as one of many winter “old wives’ tales” — albeit a cherished one.
“If the brown band on a woolly worm is narrow — making the caterpillar almost entirely black — then it is going to be a bad winter,” said a local farmer who declined to be named. “It’s a sure-fire way of knowing the weather for the winter to come.”
Should an unnamed source be deemed ultimately untrustworthy, how about this predictor — the humble corn husk — instead?
“If the husk is tight around the ear,” said retired farmer Doug Anton, “then it’s going to be a bad winter. At least that’s what they say.”
Whoever “they” are, Hank Gruis, another retired farmer, is one of them.
“If the cornhusk is tight and thick, it’s going to be a tough winter,” Gruis said. “That’s about the only old wives’ tale I know.”
Another is remembered by retired farmer Harold Wass.
“Thick horse hair is supposed to mean a bad winter,” Wass said. “If the animal gets a heavy coat, he’s preparing for a bad winter to come.”
Many online sources agree, adding thick acorn shells, thick onion skins, thick animal fat and extra-bushy squirrel tails to the list. There are other animal predictors as well, like the largeness of a muskrat house, or the thickness of the north side of a beaver lodge. Apparently thickness of pretty much anything is a sure bet.
Or what about the number of pine cones on a tree? Or the size of the cones themselves? Or the location of a squirrel’s nest? Or leaves that wither on the branch before falling?
Find all that hard to believe? How about a foggy August? That’s known to be considered a bad sign. Or the shape of the seeds in a persimmon? If they’re knife-shaped, it’s gonna be a bad year.
Or, perhaps even more incredible — and certainly creepy — there’s the tale of taking the breast bone of a deceased goose and examining its length and color to determine the severity of the winter ahead.
So how is a person to determine the winter weather without descending into divination? Is there any way to accurately predict the winter of 2013-2014?
Wass swears by the “Old Farmer’s Almanac.” In fact, not a day goes by without him pulling it out to find out what the day has in store — or, at least, to enjoy a tradition that he’s kept up for years.
“We give it to him for his birthday every year,” said Nancy Flynn, Wass’s daughter.
And, as Wass turns 100 this week, that’s a lot of years of tradition.
The “Old Farmer’s Almanac” itself dates from 1792. (Talk about tradition!) The younger version of the almanac — the “Farmers’ Almanac” — dates from 1818. Both almanacs claim an accuracy rate of approximately 80 percent in their weather predictions, and that’s working two years in advance (at least in the case of the “Farmers’ Almanac”).
The “Farmers’ Almanac’s” weatherman — who determines the weather through a secret formula based on such things as sunspot activity, tidal action and planetary position — goes by the name of Caleb Weatherbee. He’s on Facebook, where he provides information on things such as the latest phases of the moon. (Don’t be fooled by his name showing up on Twitter — there are many imposters.)
Weatherbee’s predictions for the upcoming winter caused a bit of a stir when they came out several weeks ago. Turns out, a terrible storm is anticipated for the first week of February over New Jersey. Why does this matter?
If you’re a football fan you’ll understand. The Super Bowl might be doomed — although that likely won’t matter to Vikings fans. Still, Weatherbee went on to predict that our region this winter will experience “piercing cold with normal snowfall.” The people over at the “Old Farmer’s Almanac,” for their part, predict this region will be cold and snowy this winter, with below-average temperatures and above-average snowfall.
Who’s to know for sure? Woolly worms aren’t necessarily capable of giving any advice. Quantifying the size of the pine cones compared to last year’s crop isn’t simple, either.
Perhaps studying squirrel tails is the best way to plan? For believers of old wives’ tales, it may be as good a means as any of figuring out what’s in store weather-wise.