Long ago and far away in another world and another time, weather forecasting was a different animal. Tribal folks, nomads, even city dwellers got their hopes up or down by observing the heavens or remembering age-old trends or even spur-of-the-moment happenings.
That latter would include, for instance, that if in the middle of the day, the sky all of a sudden turned pitch black and the wind started howling, then Ogg in his cave or Caesar in his palace could pretty well figure out that a big honkin’ storm was on the way and appropriate action such as tying down the camel should take place pretty soon.
Later as life became more civilized, folks started writing down weather histories and trends and teaching them to the next generation. Some of that has survived even to this day. My dear departed mother — bless her heart and soul — was fond of quoting to me and my brothers something about “Red sky at night, sailors’ delight; red sky at morning, sailors take warning.” Since I never joined the Navy, there was not much I got out of that but she liked it and on occasion would remind me that the storm we were enduring at that moment was brought to you by that proverb.
Included among those trends, of course, is the latest edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac. According to the folks there, the Almanac has been in business since George Washington was president and has been predicting temperatures and precipitation with, they say, “amazing accuracy.” I guess if you don’t believe in yourself, there’s no point in being in business.
Anyway, the Almanac goes on to say its “historical average rate for ‘forecasting the direction of temperature and precipitation from normal’ is 80 percent.” Almanac publishers say they do their work, forecasting 18 months in advance, through a combination of several methods.
One is a “secret formula” devised by Almanac founder Robert B. Thomas in 1792. Thomas believed Earth’s weather was influenced by sunspots — magnetic storms on the surface of the sun. He made notes about those storms; those notes are today kept in a locked black box at Almanac offices in Dublin, New Hampshire. Exactly how Mr. Thomas was able to spot those storms in those days isn’t divulged.
Almanac officials go on to say that since those first days they have refined the formula with state of the art technology and modern science and now use three scientific disciplines in making their predictions: solar science, the study of sunspots and other solar activity; climatology, the study of prevailing weather patterns; and meteorology, the study of the atmosphere.
Anyway, words like “climatology” and “meteorology” are words that Big Weather or Mike Maze toss around on the TV as they click their computer gizmos and put up maps with big letters and squiggly lines all over them as they explain to us what it all means, all the while leaving them on display for about two seconds so we don’t have enough time to take it all in.
So where does that leave us today as we now march boldly into mid-February?
I’m glad you asked that question.
The answer, of course, is Punxsutawney Phil from the same named town in Pennsylvania, actually from a suburb, the colorfully named village of Gobbler’s Knob, or, on a more local level, Sir Walter Wally of Raleigh. These two groundhogs, rumored to be twin sons of different mothers, are in the weather forecasting business — specifically, if they saw their shadow earlier this week, then we’re in for six more weeks of winter weather. Personally, I’m inclined to believe that since we haven’t had all that much winter yet, that it’s far from being over, despite what Phil or Wally may say. Besides, it may be sunny where Phil is and cloudy for Wally. So who’s right?
I say all the above to say this: weather forecasting is tricky business. I watch the forecasts as a way to help plan my days. Will it be OK to go out in short sleeves to feed the cows, or should I bundle up like I was in the North Pole? Should I have Shirley bring in more firewood or is she OK to lug it up as needed? Do we have enough coffee — forget the milk and bread — to make it through the coming blizzard? These and a host of other questions figure front and center as the forecasts are made.
So pay attention to the sunspots, groundhogs and squiggly lines on maps and tune in later.
And, oh by the way, the Almanac says February will be sunny, cold, rainy, sunny, mild, rainy, snow, cold, sunny, cold, mild, sunny, rainy, mild, showers, cool — in that order.
More from Phil later...
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