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Around the Bend: Weather forecasting is up in the air

When you ask people, “What’s this winter going to be like?” the respondents fall into two camps: Those who believe it’s going to be super-snowy, and those who believe it’s going to be a lot like last year. In other words, Camp A really wants to go skiing and Camp B hates to shovel.
But who’s right?
Well, the National Weather Service website shows a map of winter 2012-2013 in which the entire Northeast is covered by a big white oval. I’m inferring that this means lots of snow in our future, but I guess it could also be a giant party tent or a 1,000-mile-long swath of marshmallow Fluff. (I really should go back and read the key.)
The Old Farmers’ Almanac, in contrast, calls for a dry, cold winter in our region. Keep in mind that the 2011 almanac predicted very stormy, snowy weather for the Northeast last winter. Awkward.
But meteorologists are a contrary group; they can’t even agree on the short-term forecast. At the moment of this writing, one source says on Thursday we’re going to get slammed with a fierce nor’easter bringing heavy, wet snow and causing widespread power outages. Another source, however, says we’re going to get slammed with partly cloudy skies. If they can’t predict the weather two days from now, how can they tell us with any certainty whether this is the year to invest in a snow blower?
I’ll tell you how: science. If you want something hard to predict, ask whether I will remember to bring my shopping list with me to the store today; there’s just no way of knowing. But meteorologists have data. And computers. If they can stand in front of a green screen and make it look like they’re pointing at a map behind them — straight-up magic — they ought to be able to tell us whether we’re in for a white Christmas.
Instead, they try to distract us with current weather conditions — you know, the ones we have no way of determining on our own, unless we step outside. Given all their charts, computer models and satellite imagery, they ought to be able to accurately predict daily temperatures, cloud cover and snowfall totals from now through Memorial Day. That’s all I ask.
Towns need to know how much molasses to stock up on for their road de-icing mixture (and for cookies). The schools need to know whether to hoard snow days or hand them out like party favors.
And, yes, for purely selfish reasons I’d like to know what angle to take in my traditional winter-long harangue, which at the moment includes the phrases “jumper cables” and “ice dams,” as well as a few pointed expletives. My index cards are all over the place.
So far, I’ve heard amateur predictions about this winter ranging from “snowy, because it’s statistically impossible to have another winter like the last one” to “another winter like the last one, because, you know, climate change.” Then there’s Murphy’s Law of Winter, which states that if you recently bought snow tires, the winter will be unusually dry, and if you are short on firewood, the winter will be unusually cold.
At a loss to find two long-term forecasts that agree, I’m turning to a more reliable source: old wives’ tales.
Lately, bands of old wives have fanned out across Vermont to scrutinize key weather indicators. You might see them, kerchiefs wrapped around their wizened faces, counting acorns, measuring the thickness of walnut hulls, noting the dates of goose migrations and, most critically, examining woolly-bear caterpillars. Their findings should be published next week, and I’ll be eyeing them closely.
Meteorologists use a vast array of tools and data to generate elaborate winter weather scenarios. Old wives, on the other hand, go by the relative width of the brown stripe on the woolly bear (the narrower the stripe, the harsher the winter). It sounds silly, but then again, they also say if you eat your bread crusts you’ll get curly hair.
Fact: I’ve always eaten my bread crusts. And I have curly hair.
Sorry, Weather Channel. Clearly these broads know a few things you don’t.

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