The Farmers' Almanac: Fact or Fiction

NOTE:  Above is the Farmers' Almanac forecast for the winter of 2014-2015, not a forecast from the StormTrack 5 team.

The Farmers' Almanac has been around for quite some time, with weather predictions dating back to 1792!  According to their website, the weather predictions are based off of a secret formula, derived mainly from sunspot activity.  It is also said to be derived from other solar activity, climatology, and meteorology.  I learned a lot of different formulas and equations in the four years I spent at NC State University, but none of them taught me how to forecast months in advance!  Through this formula, it is said that the Farmers' Almanac long-range forecasts have 80% accuracy!

Wait a minute.  What is the basis for the purported level of accuracy?  Does it come from actual data, or does it come from "confirmation bias?"  "Confirmation bias", according to Princeton University's definition, is "a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true."  To sum that up, we believe what we initially think is true without researching. 

As meteorologists, we rely on the scientific method.  Its main principle isn't all that scientific, though.  That principle, as it has been taught to me, is that in order to take something as truth, you first need to do everything in your own power to disprove your initial thoughts about that 'something'.  If you cannot possibly disprove those thoughts, then what you believe is indeed truth.  This principle helps to counteract the confirmation bias.

With social media being such a strong presence in today's day and age, confirmation bias is equally as strong.  You are able to see something, and you immediately draw a conclusion about it.  Here is what I mean. 

This picture was taken after a snowstorm that hit central North Carolina last winter.  You have snow, abandoned cars on the side of the road, and a car fire in the background.

As a senior majoring in meteorology at NC State at the time, my friends and family all came to me claiming "This is the coldest winter Raleigh has ever had."  Is that so?  One good snowstorm makes it the coldest winter in Raleigh?  What about the three day stretch in February when high temperatures were above 70°, or the fact that we were singing "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas..." as birds were chirping in the 68° warmth on December 23rd?  Confirmation bias.  This picture allowed us to see the unusual weather and draw a bit of a drastic conclusion.

Let's come back to the important topic here: Farmers' Almanac.  The prediction last year essentially called for a cold and wet winter in the News 5 WCYB viewing area (as seen below).

Notice how the predictions are divided on state lines.  So, it was forecast to be just chilly and wet in Tennessee.  As soon as I crossed into Bell and Harlan County, Kentucky it was forecast to be biting cold and snowy?  Of course, I'm playing devil's advocate here, but this plants a seed in everyone's heads that "this is going to be the coldest winter we've seen in a long time!"

Here's how winter really wrapped up for us.  While I can't get data from everywhere, the data below is at least a good starting point:

It was cold, and it was wet. was winter!  We all remember the three days where low temperatures were below zero, right?!  Do we remember breaking a record high temperature on February 20th?  Nope!  Yet folks come up to me in the grocery store, still talking about the coldest winter this area has ever seen.  Confirmation bias. 

We forget the fact that the winter of 2009-2010 was colder and featured more than a foot and half of snowfall.

The Farmers' Almanac may not be so much a meteorological experiment as it is a social science experiment.  However, I get it.  It's fun!  We all wait for it to come out, because these predictions have been issued since the late 1700s!  Should we put stock in the predictions?  If you look at the graphic, there are different words that describe cold, and there are different words that describe precipitation in frozen form.  Put that together, and you have winter in the United States.

I have no doubt that this was a sought-out source back in its prime, but now it at least appears like something fun to draw some attention.  For the record, I am not trying to ruin anyone's day, or steer anyone from reading the Farmers' Almanac. 

What I am saying is that you can ask for information if you would really like to know!  Was it really the coldest winter, or am I just saying that?  Am I feeding into the "confirmation bias?"  If you message me on Facebook, stop me in the grocery store, or email me asking "Hey, has this been a cool summer for us?"  I will research the data eleven times out of ten!  

The science is what we live for.  We LOVE weather!  Ask the questions, because oftentimes we have the same questions and are looking for the answers.

---Meteorologist Chris Michaels---

Facebook: Chris Michaels WCYB

Twitter: @WCYB_Michaels



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