WASHINGTON – If almanac weather prognosticator Bill O’Toole is right, the coming winter will be almost as harsh as last year’s, with snow into March.
But the National Weather Service — and the state’s woolly bears — are not so sure.
For the record, the official National Weather Service outlook for the next three months calls for near-normal temperatures and precipitation.
Average for the Baltimore-Washington area means high temperatures of 56.3 degrees for November, 46 degrees for December and 41.2 degrees for January. Average snowfall for the region is 0.6 inches in November, 1.7 inches in December and 7 inches in January.
But O’Toole, the longtime forecaster for the Hagers-Town Town & Country Almanack, predicts 70 inches of snow this winter in Hagerstown, just 5 inches short of last year’s snowfall and almost twice the 38-inch average. He said this winter will probably not break records, but it will come close.
Not so, according to the almanac’s preliminary woolly bear analysis. Folklore says people can predict the harshness of the coming season by studying the length of the black bands on the furry black-and-orange caterpillars.
The almanac has a contest to gather woolly bears every October. Almanack business manager Jerry Spessard said he has studied just a small sampling of this year’s caterpillars, but so far they are indicating that the first half of winter will be harsh, followed by a milder second half.
The rival Old Farmer’s Almanac seems to agree with the woolly bears. The New Hampshire-based almanac predicts the beginning of the season will be the coldest, with Christmas and New Year’s temperatures 6 degrees below normal.
The farmer’s almanac makes its predictions well in advance of the woolly bears’ appearance, but has faith in the forecasting power of that and other natural events, said senior editor Mare-Anne Jarvela.
“We do believe in nature and we believe in the signs,” Jarvela said.
Signs of a harsh winter ahead include a lot of acorns on the ground and thick skins on onions and corn husks, she said. Squirrels eating — instead of storing — nuts in the fall usually indicates a mild season ahead.
Because the farmer’s almanac goes on sale in mid-September, however, forecasters there turn to longer-term meteorological computer models, sun-spot data and historical trends to predict the weather.
At the National Weather Service, computer models compile the seasonal outlook, said hydrometeorological technician Calvin Meadows. As for the almanacs, he said, “We don’t touch that.”
Jarvela said the Old Farmer’s Almanac predictions are right about 70 percent of the time for winters and 65 percent of the time for summers, but she admitted that “because we’re working that far ahead, sometimes we do miss a trend.”
O’Toole, a computer science professor who has been predicting weather for the Hagerstown almanac for 35 years, said his forecasts are right about 60 percent of the time.
He shrugs off critics — and he has had plenty over the years — who scoff at his methodology, which uses changes in moon phases, sun-spot data, weather patterns like El Nino and plain-old gut feeling.
“Lighten up,” he said. “I don’t tell them how to do their job.”