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Fogging Up Those Old-Time Forecasts

Traditional Almanacs Ponder Meaning of Climate Change

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2008; Page B01

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.

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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.


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