Instead of blindly trusting (or not trusting) the Farmer’s Almanac winter forecasts, shouldn’t we first look back and see how they performed last year? At the very least this will help us know if they have a track record of accuracy or a track record of baloney.
Before getting into the graphics, one quick note. During this analysis, I found out that there is not one but two Farmer’s Almanacs. The “Old Farmer’s Almanac” was started in 1792 while the “Farmer’s Almanac” begin publishing in 1818. In the spirit of completeness, let’s look at how both of them faired last season.
Now to the maps!
First, here are the forecasts from both Almanacs for the 2013-2014 winter compared to the actual temperatures recorded between November 2013 and March 2014.
Comparison of the forecast temperatures vs actual temperatures during the 2013-2014 winter. I placed a red X where the forecast was wrong and a green check mark where the forecast was correct.
The Farmers’ Almanac (top image) is relatively easy to verify since it breaks up the US into simple regions. They were incorrect across most of the west where they predicted cool temperatures while most locations were warmer than average. However, they did a pretty good job of predicting temperatures in the east.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac forecast map (bottom image) is like a smorgasbord, so it’s hard to find any patterns of right and wrong. They hit the temperatures correctly in some spots, but missed badly in others, like the northwest and over Texas.
Overall, neither Almanac offered consistently accurate temperature predictions last winter for the US. There are about the same number of red X’s and green check marks on each map.
Now, here are the forecasts from both Almanacs for precipitation (snow) last winter.
Comparison of the forecast precipitation vs actual snow/rain during the 2013-2014 winter. I placed a red X where the forecast was wrong and a green check mark where the forecast was correct.
Both Almanacs were wrong about California as it was very dry compared to forecasts of “snowy” and “near-normal precipitation”. In the east, both Almanacs did a pretty good job of predicting a snowy winter, but both missed the dry weather in the midwest and parts of the west.
Overall, neither Almanac offered consistently accurate precipitation predictions last winter for the US, and missing the continued drought in California is a glaring error.
In Canada, last winter’s temperatures were very cold over the eastern 2/3rds of the country and precipitation was about average for most areas.. The Farmer’s Almanac was accurate in predicting cold temperatures across the east while the Old Farmer’s Almanac was wrong about temperatures as it predicted above-average readings for the eastern part of the country. And neither Almanac was correct about snowfall. Whoops!
Here’s one more look-back before seeing what the Almanacs say about this season.
During this summer (June-August, 2014), both Almanacs predicted very hot weather for most of the US, and this was wrong as most locations have seen close to average temperatures with the central part of the country coming in a bit cooler than normal. Again, not a good forecast.
So what does all of this mean?
Since I see no track record of accuracy from the forecasts produced by the Farmers’ Almanac and the Old Farmer’s Almanac, I have zero confidence in their forecasts for the upcoming winter.
If you like these types of maps and holding weather organizations accountable for their long-range predictions, check out meteorologist Jan Null’s website (links on middle-right of the page). He presents many historical forecasts from the Old Farmer’s Almanac and compares them with the weather that actually occurred.
Thanks for reading and for not putting too much faith in seasonal outlooks! We’re only two months away from tossing any seasonal forecasts to the side and focusing on the consistently accurate forecasts inside of 5 days.
For the record, I do not like long-range seasonal forecasts because they're usually not accurate. For proof, see the end of this post.
When a forecast is not accurate, you can't use it to plan, so it's not very helpful. This is why I like to wait until 7-10 days before a storm to estimate the general timing and location of a storm's snowfall, then refine the forecast until 2-3 days before the powder day, because that's when the forecasts become much more accurate.
That said, it's late August and we're a few months away from ski season, so we might as well look at the long range forecasts, mostly for entertainment value.
To start, there will be an El Nino this winter. For more about El Nino and what it might mean for snowfall over the next 6 months, read this article that I wrote last week.
While El Nino is a major factor that will determine snowfall patterns this winter, long-range weather models take into account many other variables when making 3-9 month forecasts. So let's look at what some of these long-range models say will happen between December and February.
Since we know that long-range forecasts aren't that reliable, forecasters try to stay away from looking at just one model's forecast and instead take an average of many models. This "ensemble" approach to forecasting can be more accurate than putting all of your forecasting eggs in one model basket.
So, without further ado, here's the winter forecast from an ensemble (group) of models that were made in the US, and another ensemble of models from other countries.
In general, the model ensembles show a similar forecast with snowy weather in the southwest, dry weather in the northwest, and snowy/rainy weather in the southeast. The model groupings differ for the northeast, however.
These forecasts look rather credible to me because they are similar to how El Nino generally impacts snowfall across the country.
However, remember that these ensembles are just averages of many models. It's also useful to see the forecast from each individual model. If the individual model forecasts are similar to one another, we have more confidence in the overall forecast. But if they've very different, than averaging together a wide variety of forecasts can provide a false sense of certainty and confidence.
So, what do the seven individual forecasts that make up the US ensemble look like?
All of the models show average to above average snowfall (green colors) for various parts of the southwest, so that's a pretty good bet.
Five of the 7 models (71%) show below-average snowfall for the northwest, so that's also a pretty good bet but definitely not a certainty.
Four of the seven models (57%) show above average snowfall for Tahoe, while three of the seven show below average snowfall. In other words, "We don't know!"
For Utah and Colorado, four of the seven models show this area as being on the edge of below-average snowfall, while other models show no preference for above or below average snow. So again, "We don't know!"
And in New England, the models are about split between below average, average, and above average snowfall. A roll of the dice.
Whether you like these forecasts or not, you may be wondering, "Why should I trust these models anyway?" That's a good question, and one that too many forecasters ignore.
One way to assess the trustworthiness of the models is to compare their forecasts with the snowfall patterns that usually result during an El Nino year. If the patterns match the models, confidence in the models increases. If the patterns don't match, then we're left scratching our heads and should likely put lower confidence in any long-term forecast. For the upcoming winter, these model forecasts generally do match snow patterns during an El Nino, so my confidence is decent.
Another way to assess the models is by looking back in time to understand the accuracy of their past forecasts. So let's do that.
Here is the US model ensemble forecast for last winter. Specifically, the forecast was made in August 2013 and covers December 2013, January 2014, and February 2014. The bottom image shows the actual precipitation during this time.
The result of the forecast? The average of the US models provided a very bad forecast.
It incorrectly forecasted above average snow in the northwest and Tahoe while snowfall was below average.
It correctly forecasted the above average snow around Montana, Wyoming, and northwest Colorado, but was incorrect for the southeast and mid-Atlantic where it forecasted below-average precipitation while in actuality the area was hit with heavy snow.
Moving on, did the International model ensemble do a better job?
Yes, the international model ensemble was a bit more accurate, but far from perfect.
It hinted at below average precipitation along the west coast, but wasn't nearly bold enough to forecast the dryness that actually transpired.
And it also showed above average precipitation in the eastern US, but the location was wrong by ~400 miles as the heavier precipitation was along and east of the Appalachian mountains, not in the Mississippi River valley. Four hundred miles might not seems like a big distance for a model that covers the entire globe, but it's a big deal to a ski area that is only a couple of miles across, at most.
So, can we trust the seasonal forecasts from these models?
Based on last year, definitely not. However, since there will (should!) be an El Nino for the upcoming season, long-range forecasts can be a bit more accurate because El Nino forces the weather to behave in somewhat more predictable ways.
For now, treat all of this as entertainment and not a cause for celebration or as an excuse to grab a beer due to despair. It's still August, which means that you should go out hiking or biking and get strong for the snow that we hope will come in deep for the winter ahead.
I love getting excited for the upcoming season just as much as you do. And a big part of that is the ski movies that premiere each fall.
Over the past decade, I've seen a lot of ski movies. That means a lot of scenes with huge cliffs, deep powder, and super-amazing-insane-sick-epic conditons (!).
As you can tell, lately I've felt a bit of fatigue around many of these movies because they each focus on being more epic than the last, and that's a tough proposition. Sometimes I think that storytelling and communicating the emotional element of the sport has suffered at the expense of just trying to get a sticker shot. Sorry if I'm a buzzkill:-)
Scott Gaffney, the director of the Matchstick Productions "Days of My Youth", told me this in a recent email exchange:
I think the fun element has been fading from ski movies these days because everyone is so focused on being cinematic and "epic."
To go against the grain, Scott's movie is more about showcasing the joy and fun of the sport. The trailer will leave you feeling happy, and I can't wait to see the full movie. Enjoy the next 4 minutes, and tell me what you'd like to see more of in ski movies in the comments.
A strong storm (for August, at least) will move through southern Canada and the northern Rockies this weekend. Temperatures will run 10-20 degrees below normal in parts of Wyoming and Montana. Break out the sweatshirts!
In Bozeman Montana, the coolest temperatures will likely hit on Sunday through Monday. Keep in mind that the temperature scale below, on the left, shows the temperature compared to average, NOT the actual temperature.
The chilly air will drop snow levels down to 10,000-12,000ft, so the highest of high peaks may get coated, especially if the precipitation falls during the colder nighttime hours.
We still have a few months before ski season really kicks into gear, but it’s never too early to enjoy a few flakes!
Over the last few months there’s been a lot of talk about El Nino and how it will affect snowfall this winter. The punchline is that yes, we’ll likely see some flavor of El Nino, and yes, it will likely shift snowfall patterns to favor some mountains and not others.
Since I like to keep you, the powder-obsessed readers of OpenSnow.com, informed with the most credible information about weather and snowfall, I reached out to El Nino himself for more details on his plans for the winter.
Joel Gratz: Thanks for your time today. I’ll keep the questions brief.
El Nino: Yes, let’s hurry this up. I’ve been pressed for time all summer.
JG: What’s been keeping you busy?
El Nino: It’s that Jim Cantore guy from The Weather Channel. He texts me every day, threatening to knee me in the stomach if I don’t give him my plans for the winter. He wants to scoop Al Roker. Dealing with him usually takes up my entire morning.
JG: Ok, moving on. How would you describe yourself?
El Nino: I am warmer than average water in the central Pacific Ocean. Technically, I am at least 0.5 degrees Celsius above average temperature for three months in a row. Sometimes when I’m in my strongest form I am up to 2 degrees C above average, but this doesn’t happen very often.
JG: Where are you located?
El Nino: I am in the Pacific Ocean between Indonesia and Ecuador. Scientists take my temperature in a few specific areas, with the biggest focus on my “Nino 3.4” region.
JG: Do you take on different forms?
El Nino: I get moody for sure. Sometimes I run hot in the center region (3.4), and other times it’s my east side that warms up the most (1+2 region). You can’t box me in as a simple character because my hot water isn’t always in the same place. I like to mix it up.
JG: Why should we care about you?
El Nino: Your audience of skiers should pay close attention. I usually become strongest during the northern hemisphere winter season. My hot water changes the position of thunderstorms and wind patterns over the Pacific Ocean. This in turn changes the wind patterns all over of the world, which affects the storm track and ultimately where snow will fall. See, I’m kinda a big deal.
JG: What have past El Ninos meant for snowfall?
El Nino: That’s a tricky question. It depends how strong I am and where my warmest water is located. For example, here are precipitation patterns during the past six El Nino winters:
See what I mean? Each of these winters was an “El Nino winter”, but the heavier precipitation fell in different spots. I’m a complicated guy, you know.
Don’t think you can judge me by a few thermometers dropped into me from your buoys. You don’t know me, man. You don’t know how hard it is to float out here, get a lot of attention from the media one year, then the next year I’m chopped liver and nobody calls, nobody cares. It’s tough.
JG: Wow. You do have a hard life. Do you have any friends out there to keep you company?
El Nino: Well, despite my self-proclaimed status as “kinda a big deal”, I do have some friends in other ocean areas. One of them is my buddy up the street in the north Pacific Ocean. Her name is the “Pacific Decadal Oscillation”, or “PDO” for short. And I have another acquaintance over in the central Atlantic Ocean called the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, or “AMO”. She’s cool as well, but the distance between us is a real strain on our friendship. You should really talk with all of us, because it’s the combination of me, the PDO and the AMO that control the storm track and where the snow falls.
JG: Gotcha, thanks for the tip. So how strong are you going to be this season?
El Nino: I’m trying to muster up some power though it’s coming slowly. Earlier this spring people thought I’d be super strong by now, but that’s not the case. By the time winter rolls around, I’ll likely be in a weak state, maybe moderate if I can swing it. This generally means that I’ll be 0.5-1.5 degrees Celsius above average.
JG: So the million dollar question is what will you do to our snowfall this winter?
El Nino: You know I can’t give you the details right now as it depends how strong I am and the location of my warmest water. But I can say that in general I favor above-average snowfall for the southwest US, below-average snowfall for the northwest, and perhaps above average for the east coast.
JG: So should I tell OpenSnow.com readers to plan ski trips around this information?
El Nino: Ha, probably not. The atmosphere is temperamental and doesn’t always follow my lead. I will say though that mountains in the southwestern part of the US should do pretty well this year. During the past 6 winters when I was present, snowfall in the southwest was above-average 4 years, average 1 year, and below average 1 year. So the odds point toward above-average snowfall (67%, or 4 out of 6). Yes, I’m looking at you southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, southern Utah, and southern Colorado.
JG: Thanks for your time! I’ll check back in September for an update.
El Nino: You’re welcome. Call anytime -- I’m not going anywhere for a while.
JG: Can you share a picture of yourself?
El Nino: I’ll do one better: I made an autobiographical video a few years ago. Watch it here.