FORT KENT, Maine — Put two or more Mainers in the same room and sooner or later talk will turn to the weather — current conditions, how they compare to the immediate past, what’s in store for the future and how best to tell what’s on the way.
From the amount of fuzz on caterpillars to how high the bees are building their hives to hardcore scientific measurements, everyone has their favorite portents of climatic conditions.
With all due respect to the caterpillars and the bees, this year in New England, the safe money would seem to be on the weather folks at the Old Farmer’s Almanac.
Based in Dublin, N.H., the publication has been predicting long range weather since 1792, and while trained meteorologists may debate the accuracy of those predictions, so far for the waning days of 2008, the almanac’s predictions have held up.
“We are able to predict with 80 percent accuracy,” Janice Stillman, Old Farmer’s Almanac editor, said from her New Hampshire office. “Locally we have done pretty well.”
December, according to the almanac, was forecast to be an average 7 degrees below average in New England.
According to data gathered for Bangor for the month to date by the National Weather Service, the average temperatures over the last 24 days have indeed been slightly below average.
The almanac is predicting this winter overall to be colder than normal in New England with near normal precipitation.
Frankly this comes as a relief to many given that earlier predictions by other almanacs for the year called for snow totals 5 feet above last year’s northern Maine record of 21 feet.
According to the weather prognosticators at the almanac, mid to late December would be snowy (check), and the biggest snowstorm for the year is coming in early March.
Weather forecasting at the Old Farmer’s Almanac began in 1792 with Robert B. Thomas and a secret formula he developed.
Thomas believed Earth’s weather is influenced by sunspots and magnetic storms on the sun’s surface.
Since then, weather watchers at the almanac have used what they call state-of-the-art technology to refine the formula combining solar science, climatology, prevailing weather patterns, meteorology and atmospheric studies to predict weather trends up to a year in advance.
Today, Stillman said, the almanac relies on a contracted meteorologist to interpret Thomas’ formula while incorporating more modern scientific models.
“He has 16 weather regions in the U.S. and five across Canada to predict,” Stillman said. “We subscribe to solar science and have seen the impact it can have on our planet.”
At the same time, Stillman said, the weather folks at the almanac study long-term weather trends going back decades and centuries.
“We also use satellite data and ocean temperatures just like the meteorologists you see on the evening news,” she said.
While much of the weather lore surrounding the almanac’s predictions is meant to entertain — like the timely nugget that warns it’s bad luck to dump ashes from the stove outside on Christmas Day — Stillman said she and her colleagues do not take their jobs lightly.
“We take our forecasts seriously and do it in earnest,” she said. “We are always amazed and humbled by how many people depend on us.”
The Old Farmer’s Almanac is by no means the only one in the country, with similar publications like Poor Richard’s Almanac founded by Ben Franklin and the Farmers’ Almanac published in Lewiston.
“Almanacs are as old as dirt,” Stillman said. “As long as there have been farmers there have been publications about weather, soil conditions and agriculture.”
But the Dublin publication stands out as the oldest, continually published periodical in the country, Stillman said, with a first edition on display at the Smithsonian Institution.
At the Caribou office of the National Weather Service, Meteorologist Lee Foster gives the almanac its due, but did point out its success rate is a product of factoring and averaging in generalized data over an entire year.
As for the reliability of those long-term predictions, he keeps an open mind, but did say, “We have trouble forecasting a couple of days out, [and] when you are a week out it can be real trouble.”
Weather prediction is a tricky business, Foster said, and can often fool even the most sophisticated of technology.
“We send up gear every day to take readings,” he said. “We develop computer models but there are just so many variables.”
“We are able to predict with 80 percent accuracy, but on some days that may not be the day,” she said. “Weather can be a constant surprise.”
For example, the almanac indicated a milder December for Edmonton, Alberta, and she got a call from a resident there complaining about the cold.
“Of course, what’s ‘mild’ in Edmonton could still be pretty darn cold this time of year,” she said.
At the same time, the predictions called for colder than normal conditions in North Carolina and Stillman heard from a resident there who was upset because it was warmer.
“So much of what we do in our daily lives revolves around the weather,” Stillman said. “But it’s the one thing we really can’t control.”