By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
HAGERSTOWN, Md. -- They call themselves "prognosticators," people who study the phases of the moon and the height of wasp nests, then declare there will be showers on Oct. 18, 2009.
Prognosticators create long-range weather charts for the handful of surviving farmer's almanacs -- an old job, done an old way. They eschew Doppler radar and weather satellites and look for clues in the timeless rhythms of nature.
But now, the world and the weather don't look as timeless as they used to. Scientists say the planet is warming, threatening to make droughts more widespread, heat waves more punishing and hurricanes more severe.
So one of the country's most fervently unmodern subcultures has had to confront climate change. Prognosticators are deciding how -- or if -- they should factor greenhouse gases into weather-predicting formulas that are two centuries old.
Traditional methods "worked really well for hundreds of years," said Bill O'Toole, prognosticator for the Washington area's local almanac, J. Gruber's Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack, founded in 1797. "Global warming has kind of messed it up," said O'Toole, who has started predicting shorter winters and less snow than in the past.
But yesterday, one of the giants of the almanac world pronounced in the opposite direction. The Old Farmer's Almanac, based in Dublin, N.H., predicted "global cooling" for the next two decades. The forecast was based on an expected change in sunspots and ocean temperatures, still better-understood factors than climate change, said the almanac's editor, Janice Stillman.
"We're looking forward to cooler-than-normal conditions for quite some time," Stillman said in a telephone interview. "We just simply don't predict what kind of effect greenhouse gases . . . may have on that."
Across the country, this is almanac season. The 2009 versions of these old-timey books are arriving in stores, from such behemoths as the 3.5 million-circulation Farmers' Almanac in Maine to the struggling almanac in Hagerstown, which will print 75,000 copies.
Almanacs were designed as both entertainment and how-to books for frontier families. They still have old eclecticism: brisket recipes, corny jokes, lists of the vice presidents. And the weather predictions remain a big draw.
The forecasts are far-reaching and, not surprisingly, tend to vary from book to book. "Blustery and colder" is the Maine almanac's prediction for Dec. 31, 2009, in the Mid-Atlantic. "Cloudy, not as cold," the Hagerstown almanac says.
If this kind of ultra-long-range forecasting sounds improbable, the U.S. government says it's impossible.
"In the opinion of most scientists in the field, you cannot say anything about individual daily weather more than about a week out," said Mike Halpert, of the Climate Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Prognosticators contend that the government's not looking in the right places.
Some of them say the secrets of the weather can be traced in cycles of sunspots -- dark spots on the sun related to changes in magnetic activity. The idea is that shifts in the sun's energy eventually effect the climate on Earth. Another school studies the movements of the tides, believing that they signal changes in the weather in roughly 18-year cycles.
Others look closer to home.
"This year, I find . . . the squirrels are not shaking the nuts out of the trees," said Gerald S. Lestz, 94, editor of Baer's Agricultural Almanac & Gardener's Guide in Lancaster, Pa.
Lestz said he also noticed that wasps were building their nests relatively close to the ground, perhaps indicating that snow would not pile up too high.
This winter "looks a little on the mild side," he said.
Almanac staff members say their predictions are trusted by the public, often consulted by brides-to-be, members of the clergy, horse racing promoters and other people who want to know if the rain will fall on a special day that might be months or years off.
They contend that they're correct more often than not.
In Hagerstown, the weather isn't even the most astounding thing the $3.50 almanac predicts: it boasts a formula to identify the sex of an unborn child, using the birthday and Zodiac sign of an older sibling.
"I've never, ever had anybody tell me I was wrong" about that, said Jerry Spessard, almanac's business manager. About half of the booklet's customers, he said, live in the Washington area.
But for prognosticators, climate change is a problem on a much bigger scale. It threatens the very bedrock of their craft -- the idea that nature is repeating itself.
Scientists around the world have concluded that average temperatures could rise 3 degrees or more by 2100, as mounting levels of carbon dioxide and pollutants trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere. That change is expected to raise sea levels, alter long-established weather patterns and affect plant and animal life.
In Hagerstown, O'Toole said he realized that the old ways had to change. In recent years, he has revised the way he uses the old chart of the moon's phases, predicting that summer conditions will come earlier and stay longer.
"I forecast less snow. I forecast the first snow later in the year and the last snow earlier in the year," said O'Toole, a retired math and computer science professor from Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md.
O'Toole, a man used to slow changes, has become alarmed, and he urges people to do their part to stop climate change.
For O'Toole, the arrival of Tropical Storm Hanna on Saturday was just the latest evidence of the change. His forecasting methods, based on centuries-old charts keyed to the phases of the moon, predicted storms this month. But they didn't foresee anything like Hanna, which dropped seven inches of rain in some spots in Northern Virginia. His forecast had been "fair, cooler."
"I was surprised at the intensity," O'Toole said. He said it was part of a new pattern: "Storms will become more numerous and stronger; that will be the general trend."
But other prognosticators haven't gone as far in accepting climate change.
"Our formula basically is about 200 years old, and it's worked pretty well for us," said Sandi Duncan, managing editor of the almanac in Maine.
Duncan said the almanac prognosticator's formula is a secret, even to her. The aim is to prevent people from saving the $5.99 and forecasting the weather on their own. But she said the prognosticator, known only by the pseudonym "Caleb Weatherbee," had not considered climate change as a major factor in the forecast.
"It hasn't really played that much of a curve into our weather picture," said Duncan, whose almanac, like the one in New Hampshire, is calling for a cold winter.
At the almanac in Lancaster, Lestz said he had seen signs that temperatures are warming, but "we're going to give . . . climate change a little more time to get organized." He said he would include it in his forecasts as a minor factor.
"On a scale of one to 10, three," he said.
What about the wasps and squirrels?
"They're nine and 10," Lestz said.