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Meteorologists smartly rip Old Farmer’s Almanac forecast for cold winter in the East

A woman shovels snow on Joy Street during a winter blizzard in Boston, Massachusetts February 15, 2015. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

The 2016 version of the Old Farmer’s Almanac is out, and with it is a set of unsubstantiated forecasts that meteorologists are prudently warning consumers take with a massive grain of salt.

The Almanac calls for colder than average winter for much of the East and Upper Midwest. Generally, it favors above normal snowfall in northern areas east of the Rockies and below normal snowfall in southern areas. This includes the Atlantic seaboard, which spans the I-95 corridor from Richmond to Boston. Yes, this would imply another snowy winter for Beantown (and not a lot of snow from Richmond to Baltimore).

Don’t expect much drought relief in California, the Almanac says. While the the early part of winter will feature significant rains in California, it expects the Golden State to dry out during the season’s second half, with below normal precipitation overall.

The forecasters for the Old Farmer’s Almanac appear to be thumbing their noses at the usual winter impacts of a strong El Nino event, which favor a mild winter in the northern U.S. and abundant rain in California.

[A strong El Niño could flourish by fall: Five ways it could affect our weather]

Meteorologists and knowledgeable science bloggers have wasted no time in pouncing on the Almanac’s predictions.

“[Here’s] your annual reminder that using the Farmers Almanac for a seasonal meteorological outlook is about as good as going to a psychic,” tweeted Matt Lanza, a meteorologist based in Houston.

“[It’s a] forecast that has as much accuracy as a Magic 8 ball,” wrote Connecticut broadcast meteorologist Ryan Hanrahan on his Facebook page.

[I]t’s basically the print version of a psychic reading on a 1-900 number,” wrote Dennis Mersereau, who pens Gawker’s weather vertical, The Vane. “The Old Farmer’s Almanac is to meteorology what astrology is to astronomy.”

Out of frustration that some people actually take the Old Farmer’s Almanac seriously, Marshall Shepherd, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia, penned a column for Forbes clarifying what modern weather forecasting actually is – in other words, everything The Old Farmer’s Almanac is not.

“[Weather forecasting] is a rigorous and quantitative science steeped in physics, advanced math, fluid dynamics, and thermodynamics,” Shepherd wrote.

It’s not to say the Old Farmer’s Almanac might not get some parts of its forecast right from year to year, but whether that’s for the right reason we’ll never know.

Consider what I wrote about almanacs and the transparency of their predictions in 2013, pertaining to both the Old Farmer’s Almanac and its closest competitor the Farmers’ Almanac: “Both almanacs claim high accuracy rates but have never published evidence backing them up. They lack transparency and keep their methods ‘closely guarded‘.”

The most dubious aspect of almanac predictions is not their take on whether a particular area will be colder or snowier than normal at some point a few months into the future. Those predictions can be reasonably attempted, based on prevailing weather and ocean patterns that sometimes last for several months. Rather, the almanacs’ efforts to forecast specific weather events like snowstorms and rain events on individual dates have no credibility or established scientific basis. Thus, they’re often wrong.

For example, I looked up the Old Farmer’s Almanac forecast for Washington, D.C. – made some time ago – for the current period, spanning August 16 to 19. “Rain, then sunny, cool,” it predicted. Of course, it is hot with no rain in the forecast until the end of this period, the opposite of the Almanac’s outlook. (It also forecast for August 10-11 a “tropical storm threat, mainly southeast”. Nope!)

Looking ahead, the Almanac foresees snow in the period around Christmas for the eastern U.S. “Just about everybody who gets snow will have a White Christmas in one capacity or another,” editor Janice Stillman told the Associated Press.

A White Christmas for the East would put a smile on many faces, but I’d be careful about getting my hopes up.

“Old Farmer’s Almanac: Fun to read, but not to be taken seriously,” tweeted Ed Piotrowski, a broadcast meteorologist in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He’s spot on.