It’s a truth universally acknowledged that anyone who enjoys the snow is going to try to predict how, when, where and how much it’s going to snow in an upcoming winter. From measuring the height of skunkweed to counting grasshoppers to pestering wooly worms, people have been trying to forecast winter for years. And, while there may be some truth to these homegrown efforts, you can’t believe everything that you hear.
1. Speculate on Skunkweed
According to Denver’s Channel 7 meteorologist Matt Makens, basing a snow forecast on the elevation that skunkweed grows on the Front Range of Colorado during the summer isn’t super far off.
“That one was told me to by my dad,” Makens said. “Skunkweed is green and leafy at the bottom, has a big stalk and seed pockets on top. Apparently the Forest Service Rangers around here said that, depending on how high it grew, that would predict how high the total snow would be for the season. I also had a high school history teacher preaching the same thing.”
Dads, Rangers and high school science teachers aside, Makens said that were was some science to this myth. Skunkweed grows in the mid- to late summer into early fall. If the area experiences a lot of moisture due to a wet weather pattern, then that area will probably have a wet winter.
“Seasons really don’t change to rapidly,” Makens said, “So there’s a little science behind that one.”
2. Bet on the Bugs
Another common myth about predicting a snowy winter has to do with bugs, either tying the number of bugs that you see to a heavy or light winter or listening to the amount of grasshoppers to guess at snowfall.
Makens was on the fence about this one. Bugs may like a certain weather pattern, like a cooler and wetter habitat, he said. In this case, you’ll see/hear them more often in this climate. As that pattern will continue into the fall and winter, it makes sense that if it’s a cooler, wetter spring and summer (i.e., more loud bugs), then that could be an indicator for the winter.
This is tenuous approval, at best.
Note: Apparently you CAN find out the temperature by listening to how many times a cricket chirps: record how many times it chirps in 13 second intervals and then add 40 to the results and it’s pretty close to the outside air temperature. However, as crickets tend to bug out (pun intended) for the winter, this really does us no good at all. Stick with reading a thermometer to see if it’ll get cold enough for snow.
3. Caterpillars Call It
Keeping with the insect theme, people around Appalachia are fond of looking for wooly caterpillars (or wooly worms) and judging them for their brown stripes: the wider the middle brown stripe, the warmer the winter will be. If it’s a skinny stripe, be prepared to hunker down for a harsh winter.
While a study by the curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in the late 1940s and early 1950s seems to support this tale, shade has been cast on this experiment. It seems that the sample size wasn’t large enough and, try as they might, scientists haven’t been able to replicate the curator’s results.
Our recommendation? Leave the wooly worms alone.
4. Face the Facts: El Niño
While most meteorologists won’t attempt to forecast much more than 30 – 45 days out, there are some elements that you can look at: El Niño, for example. Looking at El Niño (which is Spanish for “the Nino,” according to Chris Farley) and the water temperatures off the coast of California, can give you a reasonable forecast for the coastal areas. When you get into Arizona, Utah and Nevada, the connection to El Niño starts to weaken; in Colorado, the storms come from a different direction, so a phenomenon like El Niño has little effect on the state. For those on the East Coast, it’s a whole different weather pattern to consider, so keep your worries about ““Godzilla” El Niño” at bay.
Makens also said that one thing that we can do is look at history.
“In most cases, every year has been seen before,” he said. “In most years, we can tie in our predictions to other years where we’ve seen similar weather before. Except for this year. We have not recorded El Niño and warm weather like this year.”
Well, maybe not.
When pressed to give his predictions for the winter, Makens said that California is certainly going to get a lot of rain, as will Arizona. In his home state of Colorado, he said that we get big snows, it most likely be in late October or November.
However, no matter how much you try to predict, whether by weeds, bugs or worms, Makens left us with this gem of truth:
“The underlying point is that there are wives tales and there are myths and we can look at things like El Nino, but in the end, Mother Nature does what she wants.”
Here’s hoping Mother Nature is ready for a snow-filled winter season.