Winter Forecasting: Indigenous Prognostications and Old Wives’ Tales

Long before The Game of Thrones made “Winter is coming,” a hashtag, people have been looking for ways to predict how cold, snowy, wet, warm, or long an impending winter might be. As we head into fall, I thought it would be a nice break from talk of hurricanes and disasters to review a few of the more popular and interesting ones.

little bird, big snow

A little bird searches for seed under a birdfeeder in the author’s backyard on December 26, 2016 after a big snow by Raleigh’s standards.

Persimmon seeds

This one popped up on my Facebook feed, yesterday, and it’s one I had never heard of. Maybe that’s because I haven’t lived in the Ozark mountains where persimmons must be somewhat popular trees. (I have to admit, I even had to look up whether the fruit was edible.)

According to a post on Buffalo National River’s Facebook page:

Early settlers of the Ozarks would often predict winter weather using a persimmon seed. If the kernel inside the seed was shaped like a spoon, they predicted an abnormally wet and snowy winter. If it was shaped like a fork, they would expect some dry, powdery snow and a mild winter. If it was shaped like a knife, they said that icy wind would “cut” the winter air.

Based on the photo that goes with the post (follow the hyperlink to see it), the Ozarks might expect “an abnormally wet and snowy winter.” Someone, please remind me to see how that turned out next spring.

Woolly worms

North Carolina folks will be more familiar with this one because Banner Elk has an annual Woolly Worm Festival in October. According to the website, the wooly worm is a caterpillar that becomes a tiger moth. “In the American Northeast, it is believed that if the woolly worm has more brown on its body than black, it will be a fair winter. If the woolly worm has more black than brown, the winter will be harsh.”

For the record, last year’s Woolly Worm Festival winner was named Hans Solo, and according to the festival’s website, he predicted week 1 to have normal temperatures with light snow, weeks 2-4 to have below normal temperatures with accumulations of snow, weeks 5-11 to have above normal temperatures with little or no snow, and weeks 12-13 to have average temperatures with light snow.

How did the winter turn out?

Looking at Sugar Mountain Resort’s snow history for the season, there was no snow reported the first week of winter, 22 inches of snow during weeks 2-4, five inches in weeks 5-11, and none recorded during weeks 12-13. For the science-minded and curious, according to the National Weather Service’s archived data for Asheville, which is the closest NWS climate reporting station, December 2016 had below average precipitation, January had slightly above normal precipitation (by 0.72 inches), and February and March had below normal precipitation. All four months experienced above normal temperatures.

The Farmer’s Almanac’s signs of a hard winter

The Farmers’ Almanac is famous for folklore and unscientific predictions about winter. One blog post from 2008 lists “20 signs of a hard winter.” A few that I have noticed here in Wake Forest that happen to be on the list: thicker than normal corn husks, heavy and numerous fogs during August, and spiders spinning larger than usual webs and entering the house in great numbers (shudder). Of course, the only one of these that is scientifically verifiable – as opposed to being based upon memory of past encounters with web-spinning spiders and how thick corn husks seem to be when I shuck my own corn – is “heavy and numerous fogs during August.” If you drive over the Neuse River as early in the morning as I do, you may have noticed those foggy mornings, too.

The Climate Prediction Center uses real science

To contrast woolly worms and creepy arachnids, I like to look at the Climate Prediction Center’s forecast, and I like to keep in mind that 3 months in advance, I don’t expect a great deal of accuracy from it either. The CPC considers things like El Nino/La Nina, global trends, and other large scale oscillations when making long-range seasonal forecasts. The forecast for the months of December through February show above-average chances for above-normal temperatures for most of the country including North Carolina, as well as mostly equal chances for average precipitation. In plain English, that means we will probably have a warmer-than-normal winter with about the usual amount of rain and snowfall.

Truly, only time will tell how this winter stacks up.