The Washington Post

Farmers’ Almanac drops ball on Super Bowl forecast; nails January cold

Back in August, I called the Farmers’ Almanac winter outlook – predicting “Days of Shivery” and a Super Bowl “Super Storm” –  outrageous.  I’m going to be half right and half wrong.

No significant storm will affect northern New Jersey within two days of the Super Bowl, rendering the Almanac’s specific prediction a total failure.  To remind you, here’s what the Almanac called for:

…on February 2, Super Bowl XLVIII will be played at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey’s Meadowlands—the very first time a Super Bowl will be played outdoors in a typically cold weather environment. We are forecasting stormy weather for this, the biggest of sporting venues. But even if we are off by a day or two with the timing of copious wind, rain, and snow, we wish to stress that this particular part of the winter season will be particularly volatile and especially turbulent.

In fairness, the Almanac also said “we are “red-flagging” the first ten days of February for possible heavy winter weather” in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast (not exactly a bold prediction though – as this is historically one of the more wintry times of the year). That could still play out as storms are possible in the region in the middle to latter part of next week.  But – even now – roughly a week away from this stretch, there are huge uncertainties about how much winter weather will actually materialize.  The big uncertainties in the short-term underscore the futility of trying to make such predictions months ahead of time.

“The ability to predict events that far in advance is zero,” said Penn State meteorologist Paul Knight in an article on the Farmers’ Almanac methods. “There’s no proven skill, there’s no technique that’s agreed upon in science to be able to do that.”

In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, let’s recognize its seasonal temperature outlook which is looking pretty sound so far.

Unless February brings a stunning reversal in temperature trends, the Almanac’s forecast for below average temperatures for the eastern two-thirds of the nation will be close to spot-on. December and January’s temperatures certainly behaved according to the Almanac’s prediction.

“A large area of below-normal temperatures will predominate from roughly east of the Continental Divide to the Appalachians, north and east through New England,” it wrote. “Coldest temperatures will be over the Northern Plains on east into the Great Lakes.”

Below is a map of actual temperatures compared to normal for meteorological winter so far (December and January) – it’s a pretty close match to the Almanac’s outlook (with the exception of the coastal Southeast and Florida).

December and January temperature differences from normal across the U.S. (High Plains Regional Climate Center)

Of course, before taking this praise too far, consider its seasonal temperature outlook for last winter was poor, as I documented in my August discussion.  Also, for this winter, it predicted near-normal precipitation in California which – thus far – has been exceedingly dry.

The saying goes if you throw enough darts, you’ll eventually hit a bulls-eye.  So the Almanac can celebrate  its solid winter temperature prediction for parts of the country, but that success has to be considered in a context of numerous other forecasts which have fallen short.  That’s the dynamic with such folksy forecasts – they’re fun to follow and occasionally right, but have no proven track record, and certainly aren’t a hallmark of credibility.

Jason is the Washington Post’s weather editor and Capital Weather Gang's chief meteorologist. He earned a master's degree in atmospheric science, and spent 10 years as a climate change science analyst for the U.S. government. He holds the Digital Seal of Approval from the National Weather Association.
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Steve Tracton · January 31, 2014

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