WASHINGTON – Mary Sue Shaw looks for cool nights and sunny autumn days to produce the ideal crop of apples at Shaw Orchards in Harford County, with maybe a little more rain.
But when it comes to forecasting this fall’s extended weather, the Shaws and others are largely on their own: Weather services say the lack of a dominant system makes it impossible to predict this year’s fall outlook.
“Could be really bad, or could be really good,” said Russell Martin, a meteorologist with the Climate Prediction Center for National Weather Service. “Unfortunately, that’s the way it is a lot of times.”
Meteorologists say fall and spring are always hard to predict, and Martin said the lack of a significant El Nino or La Nina current this year makes it even harder for the to make a long-term forecast.
Ken Reeves, a meteorologist and director of forecast operations for AccuWeather, agreed that there is no conclusive fall forecast for Maryland.
“For the next week or so, it looks like it will probably be cooler than normal, followed by a chance of moderation. Then it’s hard to say what will transpire,” Reeves said.
But what the scientists won’t predict, the almanacs will. Both the Old Farmer’s Almanac and the Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack are calling for a fairly typical autumn.
“I think fall is going to be pretty much average temperatures, but still on the dry side until November,” said Bill O’Toole, the weather prognosticator for the Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack. “I think November is going to be considerably colder than normal, with some snow early in the first two weeks.”
O’Toole expects Maryland leaves to change color in the first two weeks of October, but warned that the region’s recent dry weather would prevent a vibrant show. He is also predicting “a lot of snow this season, spread out between November and April, with the heaviest snow in February. Of course, the Old Farmer’s Almanac is saying light snow in February, so we’ll see who is right.”
O’Toole uses what he calls “the best long-range” prediction methods, including an ancient algorithm that relates weather to moon phases and he studies sunspots, which are storms on the sun, much like Earth’s hurricanes. A lot of sunspots indicate that the Earth is in for warm temperatures, while a few make for cold weather, said O’Toole.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac has its own centuries-old formula that also tracks sunspots to predict the long-range forecast, but now it also uses more scientific methods with satellites and computer models.
“Usually when people ask us about accuracy, we say we are 80 percent correct,” said Mare-Anne Jarvela, a senior editor for the Old Farmer’s Almanac. “Last year, we were 91.7 percent accurate for temperature. For precipitation, we were 63.3 percent accurate.”
Meteorologists like Reeves are not convinced.
“They (almanacs) use proprietary techniques that take into account a variety of weird things like moon phases and sunspots,” Reeves said. “They occasionally get it right, because when you look at forecasts, they are so generic, it’s like reading your horoscope.”
Jarvela said because Maryland is on the Atlantic coast, it is a little bit harder to predict long-term weather.
“About the only thing you can do at this point, is look at the daily forecast,” Martin said.
That’s exactly what Shaw Orchards does. The orchard gets its forecasts from Sky Bit, a computer program that uses up-to-the-minute satellite imaging. Shaw does not rely on long-term forecasts, because current weather conditions are more important factors in the fall’s apple crop.
Shaw said cool nights help ripen the apples, while sunny days help sweetness. Snow is bad if it comes before the leaves are off of the trees and hail is particularly bad, damaging not only the fruit, but also the buds for next year’s crop.
“We’re hoping to have a little bit more rain to make them larger,” Shaw said. “But no hail. We call that a four-letter word.”