David Phillips: ‘Polar coaster’ guaranteed, but little assurance on details

David Phillips
Reflections from my Notebook

The 2020 Farmers’ Almanac is predicting a “polar coaster” this winter because the thermometer will have so many ups and downs. The extended forecast of the annual publication is predicting another freezing, frigid and frosty winter for two-thirds of the United States, including Minnesota.

“The biggest drop — with the most freefalling, frigid temperatures — is forecasted to take hold from the northern Plains into the Great Lakes,” states the almanac. The coldest outbreak of the season should arrive during the final week of January and extend into the beginning of February.

The forecast has already made some people edgy in our area since last week we experienced weather that seemed more like late September than summery August. With the last winter extending into spring and summer starting off with so much rain, it seemed like summer lasted just a few weeks this year. Another cold, snowy winter isn’t what we want to hear.

Of course, there is a lot of skepticism about long-range predictions, especially when the daily forecasts can’t seem to get the weather for the next day right.

The almanac states that the weather forecasts are derived from a “secret formula” that was devised by the founder, Robert B. Thomas, in 1792. Thomas believed that the weather on Earth was influenced by sunspots, which are magnetic storms on the surface of the sun. Thomas was a farmer, mathematician and astronomer who came up with his formula to predict the weather two years in advance in order to help farmers plant and harvest their crops.

The current editor, Peter Geiger, states that in the 203-year history of the publication, which started in 1818, there have only been seven people who have learned to accurately use the formula based on sunspot activity, planet positions and the effect the moon has on the Earth. 

“Over the years, we have refined and enhanced that formula with state-of-the-art technology and modern scientific calculations,” states the almanac. “We employ three scientific disciplines to make our long-range 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. We predict weather trends and events by comparing solar patterns and historical weather conditions with current solar activity.”

It sounds like a convincing formula. The almanac claims an 80 percent success rate of its forecasts.

However, many take issue with that claim.

Several years ago, a professor emeritus in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois conducted a study testing the accuracy of the almanac’s monthly temperatures and precipitation forecasts by comparing them to the actual weather data over a five-year period. Results of this study found that 51.9 percent of the monthly precipitation forecasts and 50.7 percent of the monthly temperature forecasts were accurate.

In other words, a 50-50 coin flip would be nearly as successful in predicting the weather.

Dennis Mersereau, who writes about weather for national publications and websites, calls the forecasts “a bunch of malarkey.” He argues that the almanac is to meteorology what astrology is to astronomy.

The predictions are more like horoscopes — “they’re just vague enough (and the forecast regions are just large enough) that the predictions appear accurate when applied to any situation,” he wrote for the Vane, an online weather blog.

Still, astrology, even though it has been classified as a pseudoscience, has its fans. A significant number of people still believe that the alignment of the stars and planets influence their lives.

While the Farmers’ Almanac forecasts have followers, as astrology does, there are other long-range predictions from more scientific sources, although they don’t come across as guarantees and won’t have the headline-grabbing synopsis that gets the attention of so many people. They acknowledge the impreciseness of making forecasts so far into the future. For example the long-range forecasts of the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center are shown in “outlook probability” maps.

The probable outlook on these maps doesn’t look so bad for our area, even if they seem much less clairvoyant than a Farmers’ Almanac prediction.

The three-month period of December to February shows greater than 40 percent probability of above average precipitation for the Upper Midwest. However, while the rest of the country has probability of higher than normal temperatures, the prediction for the Upper Midwest is equal chances of above, below or normal temperatures.

That prediction isn’t going to grab the attention of Minnesotans since we already knew all that.

In every Minnesota winter we’re going to get snow. The only surprise is when and how much. Minnesota is also going to be cold. We just don’t know when, how long and how low the temperature will dip.

We also know every winter is going to bring wild extremes — even polar coaster dizziness. Minnesotans have learned to ride those out the best we can.

If you want to know more, you might as well flip a coin.