A Rich Tradition
Americans have relied on the Old Farmer’s Almanac since 1793, when George Washington served as President of the United States. There have been many other almanacs before and since that first publication, but the unique weather prediction system popularized by founder Robert B. Thomas proved more accurate and more useful than the competition.
According to the publication itself, the Almanac uses "a secret mathematical and astronomical formula," developed by David Young, who served as the Almanac's first editor. This secret prediction method involves observation of sun spots, tidal patterns, moon phases, and more. To this day, the formula has been revealed to no one but the publication's editors.
Other almanacs predating the Old Farmers Almanac could not match the accuracy of Young's method. This fact, combined with a winning addition of recipes, folk wisdom, and farming tips and tricks made the Farmers Almanac the new favorite, and put other publications out of business.
Historic Almanac Wins
Believers in the Old Farmers Almanac have a fair amount of evidence to shore up their trust in the publication's predictions. Consider the following eerily accurate claims:
- The 1956 edition of the Almanac predicted a humongous hurricane for the Northeast. This proved true when Hurricane Carol hit New England, one of the worst tropical storms in history.
- In 1988, the Almanac accurately predicted a mild winter. But it also claimed that there would be plenty of snowfall for the winter Olympics in Calgary. Even though the weeks leading up to the Olympics were mild and dry, a huge snowfall landed just in time for the Games.
- Regis and Kathy Lee discussed the Almanac on their show in 1995 because of an uncanny prediction that January would bring two very warm weeks to New York. The Almanac even coined the term Juneuary, to describe the unusual warm spell. New York did, indeed, see two weeks of balmy 70 degree weather.
Mysterious Methods Raise Doubts
Since the Almanac's forecasting methods are sealed away in a black box at the Farmer’s Almanac headquarters in New Hampshire, it's impossible for other meteorologists to evaluate its methodology or effectiveness. The almanac claims an accuracy rate of 80 percent, but there have been some notable blunders in the past. According to Jonathan Martin, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, "My guess is their success rate is more like half what they say. It's Middle Ages in terms of accuracy."
Consider, for example, that for the winter of 2012-2013, the Almanac predicted a cold winter in the West, and a mild winter in the East. In fact, the opposite occurred.
The 2011 edition claimed that the coming winter would prove to be unusually wet across most of the country, and dry in Texas. Again, the opposite occurred. Texas was hit with higher than average precipitation, while the rest of the country experienced a relatively dry winter.
Paul Knight, a meteorologist from Penn State says, "The ability to predict events that far in advance is zero. There's no proven skill, there's no technique that's agreed upon in science to be able to do that."
It might help the Almanac's credibility if it would share the secret scientific techniques behind the predictions, but given its history of silence, that isn't likely to happen anytime soon. Instead, the Almanac makes vague, broad claims, which meteorologists say are impossible to measure empirically. For instance, it might predict that three months out of the year will be sunny and cool, with no indications of the actual temperatures, or how often it will be cloudy as opposed to sunny during that time. The lack of specific information makes its accuracy hard to prove or disprove.
The predictions for 2014 have a few amusing claims. One of which is that the Superbowl will fall in the middle of a string of brutal winter storms. Since this year's game will be played outdoors, that could cause a problem, if true. Unfortunately, only time will tell whether the Almanac's prediction is correct or not.
The almanac also claims that this winter will prove bitterly cold all around, with the exception of a few Southwestern states, which should experience mild weather. The Farmers Almanac fails to note exactly what 'bitterly cold' means, and since it paints North, South, East, and West with the same broad words, it could mean any number of temperatures and conditions.
What if It's True?
If the Almanac is to be believed for the coming winter, it would be a good idea to weatherproof your plumbing, prepare your roof for snow, and make sure your chimney is clean and ready for wood fires. You might also want to place a few strategic bets on the team you think would fare better in a Superbowl blizzard.
But in all likelihood, this winter will have as much chance of being "bitterly cold" as any other winter. It's probably safest to listen to your local meteorologist a day or two at a time than to try to plan your life around a 200-year-old forecasting method.