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Predicting The Weather Not Always High-Tech

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Some say pain in their joints or a caterpillar on the window sill tell them rain is on the way. Others rely on The Old Farmer's Almanac, which has been predicting U.S. weather since 1792 with a top-secret formula. But do folk methods actually work? What do you use to predict the weather?


If you want to know whether it's going to rain on your wedding day next May, or if the winter ahead will be harsh or mild, you can turn to any one of a variety of sources: the Weather Channel, the report of a particular groundhog come February, well, may be folklore that's been passed down in your family for centuries. Many turn to the "Farmer's Almanac" for its long-term weather predictions.

Today, we'll talk with Paul Knight, state climatologist for Pennsylvania, about how - just how accurate long-term forecasting can be. So what do you use to predict the weather's season ahead? Is it the stockpiling habits of squirrels, the coat on a caterpillar? 800-989-8255. Email: You can also join the conversation on our website at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Paul Knight is climatologist for the state of Pennsylvania, senior lecturer in meteorology at Penn State and host of the public television show, "Weather World." He joins us now from the Department of Meteorology at Penn State. And nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. PAUL KNIGHT (Climatologist, Pennsylvania): Thank you for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And which guide do you turn to?

Mr. KNIGHT: Well, I like the bunions, you know, how my knees are feeling today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So, direct physical indications.

Mr. KNIGHT: Absolutely. You know, sometimes - you know, I have a hard time sometimes finding the wooly worms and the acorns. I don't have any oak trees nearby so.

CONAN: I've heard a lot of spider web stories, what time various spiders start constructing their webs.

Mr. KNIGHT: Yeah. That's another piece of folklore that tells us a little bit about the upcoming season. Another one talks about when the oak trees finally loose their leaves that means that actually spring is right around the corner.

CONAN: Oh, okay. Well, I'll look for that then. I have a rooting interest in spring.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: There are a variety of farmer's almanacs, but the "Old Farmer's Almanac" has been around since 1792. Predictions are made years in advance by a forecaster who uses a top secret formula. He keeps his name secret, too. A formula stored in a secret black box. Is the secrecy worth it? Have these proved to be accurate over the years?

Mr. KNIGHT: Well, you know, the broken clock can be right twice a day, Neal. And, indeed, that does happen with the "Farmer's Almanac." But there really has never been any substantive reliability on the long range forecast, and especially when its get broken down into a week at a time, you know, that is a year in advance.

This passed year, in fact - that is the almanac that was issued September of last year - predicted that December 17th or the 20th of 2009 would have heavy rain and it would be warm. And of course, that was a great crippling blizzard that you might recall.

CONAN: I recall it well, yes.

Mr. KNIGHT: And then the February 6th storm, which of course shutdown the whole region, was forecasted to be rain to snow and then sunny and seasonable. And you can see that when one tries to be that precise, there's just not very much going in your favor.

CONAN: In fact, do meteorologists do any better?

Mr. KNIGHT: Well, we do better because we're smart enough to know that you can't do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So you're not playing in this game?

Mr. KNIGHT: No, no. I mean, you know, of course there are some things that happen with some regularity. For example, for me to say that in the Washington metropolitan area sometime between November 15th and November 30th, there will be the first frost and freeze for the reason, I'm going to be right eight or nine out of 10 times. But is that really useful information to you?

CONAN: Well, not if it happens that regularly because it's no surprise to me either.

Mr. KNIGHT: And that, I think, is part of the reliability of the almanac and why some folks will say, oh, it's right all the time, because they might remember a specific event where it is right. And of course, as they say, you know, the broken clock is right twice a day, and that can happen with the almanac.

CONAN: How far in advance do scientists predict the weather with some degree of accuracy?

Mr. KNIGHT: Well, as far as the specific events are concerned - that is, we're talking about a large storm or heavy precipitation or record heat or cold - it can be as far as seven to 10 days in advance. And sometimes even we can see the glimmer of it even 12 days out. Beyond that, precise events are really almost impossible to time.

CONAN: So we've all seen those storms spinning in the Caribbean and wondering what their track is going to be. But four days out, you don't know if it's going to hit or miss.

Mr. KNIGHT: No. And, of course, we've even seen that within the past week with Nicole and this storm which formed south of Cuba, and then it just kind of fell apart. Although its effects were felt, the actual storm itself never materialized to what anybody expected.

CONAN: Well, around the east parts, those remnants were pretty powerful.

Mr. KNIGHT: Yeah. And you see, that's the challenge, is that can we see that even more than three or four days in advance? And the answer is no, not really.

CONAN: Well, let's get some callers in on the conversation. Now, what formula, secret formula, do you use to predict the - how cold or warm it's going to be in the winter season? 800-989-8255. Email us: And Rock(ph) is on the line calling from Pason(ph) Oak - Arizona.

ROCK (Caller): Hello, gentlemen. Yeah, Rock here from Payson, Arizona.

CONAN: Payson, excuse me.

ROCK: Yeah. Growing up on a farm in Idaho back about 40, 50 years ago, I was taught, and my dad was taught, and his was dad taught that we could predict how bad winter was coming by the thickness of the coat on the horses and on the cows.

CONAN: Did it vary that much?

ROCK: Yeah. That - they said it did. And I, you know, I couldn't tell if it had 10 or 100 hairs per square centimeter, or whatnot, but that was what they said, the heavier the coat, the worse the winter.

CONAN: And Paul Knight, animals have been relied upon to predict, I guess, everything from winter weather to earthquakes.

Mr. KNIGHT: Yes. I don't doubt that there's some grain of truth in this. But I think that if we actually got down to the science and the details, wed probably have a hard time being able to - much like you said, could you count the number of hairs in a certain area? Wed probably not be able to document quite as well as you remember.

ROCK: No, you're probably absolutely right. But as I said, this is something that's been passed down for many generations. And so there must be a kernel of truth to it, or else we were just psychologically enhanced to go with that.

CONAN: Rock, do you have animals or horses there with you in Payson?

ROCK: No. No. I'm an artist. I don't even have a dog or a cat, because my lifestyle, I'm on the road all the time.

CONAN: Well, I suspect, in most parts of Arizona, they'd be pretty bald. Winters there are pretty mild.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROCK: Well, in Payson, we're at 5,000 feet, and we get snow.

CONAN: Okay. All right. I sit corrected. Thanks very much for the call.

ROCK: You bet. Thank you, gentlemen.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Mr. KNIGHT: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Here's Blaine emailing from Osceola, Indiana. My grandpa always taught me to watch the beehives. If theyre, on average, above six feet off the ground, that means the winter is going to be colder than normal.

Mr. KNIGHT: Well, that's a curious one, isn't it? I would tend to think that insects usually respond to their immediate environment, and therefore it may be more of a case of what happened over the summer rather than what the winter will bring.

CONAN: And they're not particularly active come winter time, are they?

Mr. KNIGHT: I hope not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's go next to Chris(ph). Chris with us from Hopkinsville in Kentucky.

CHRIS (Caller): Good afternoon, gentlemen. How are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

Mr. KNIGHT: Good.

CHRIS: I have a unique system my great grandmother - who grew up in the local area around here in Trenton, Kentucky, which is about 20 minute east of where I am - she has been keeping journals ever since she was a little girl. It was a hobby of hers to keep journals. Every day she would wake up, she would give wind direction, what the temperature was outside, how much cloud cover there was. And she kept these journals all the way up into her 80s. She died when she was 89. And we still posses those journals, and that's what we use sometimes when we want to figure if we're going to have a rainy weekend. And usually, they're about 95 percent correct.

CONAN: And these are long-term trends. When the first frost happens, how much snow you're likely to get over an average winter, that sort of thing.

CHRIS: Absolutely. Boxes and boxes of these journals that she kept. It was something that she enjoyed to do. And it was like a hobby of hers, and we have been utilizing those for years.

CONAN: Does she keep precise temperatures or just said really cold today?

CHRIS: She - no, she kept precise temperatures. She would wake up, she would record the temperatures. When she was able to do so, she would record the barometric pressure, wind direction, how much cloud cover there was, time and date of all these things. She kept a pretty detailed record of what she did. It's actually quite, quite fascinating.

CONAN: Paul Knight, it sounds like Chris' mother was in your business.

Mr. KNIGHT: She certainly was. And in fact, she's a tribute to the legacy of the field of climatology. It's her type of reports that really have helped to advance the science. So on behalf of my fellow climatologists, we say thanks to your family and especially to your late grandmother.

CHRIS: Oh, thank you. Thank you. I enjoy listening to your show. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for that, Chris. Let's go next to - this is Shane(ph), Shane with us from Dayton.

SHANE (Caller): Yes. Kind of a little bit away from what you're looking for. By the way, I just kind of use my knees as a guide for the weather.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHANE: It's not (unintelligible) its what that is. But I'm a construction worker, and generally they hurt a little quicker than the average Joe's, I think, when the weather starts to turn damp. But my main thing that I was hoping to get some insight from your guest there, is this prediction of the weather by the sun. I think I heard on a recent NPR show, they had a forecaster who was - who claimed to be able to predict weather two, three months out by the sun's pattern.

CONAN: The sun's spots, I think, was it?

SHANE: Pardon?

CONAN: Was it sun spots?

SHANE: Um, that's possible.

CONAN: Okay. Well, Paul Knight, what do you think?

Mr. KNIGHT: Well, I - certainly, all of our weather, in fact, all of our life on the planet, is there because of the fact that we have the sun. And there's no doubt that the sun is the main driver of the weather systems. The connection between these small changes on the sun, which actually are pretty big relative to our atmosphere, and the exact differences in temperature or storminess on the planet are still being explored. It is certainly something that we're wide open to and looking for answers. But right now, the physical relationship is still challenging for us.

CONAN: And you would hesitate before saying, a-ha, that many dark spots on the sun suggest it's going to be snow three months from now.

Mr. KNIGHT: Yeah. And especially where.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay, Shane. Thanks very much for the question, appreciate it. Here's an email from Matt(ph) in Anchorage. When I pass a cow pasture, the percentage of cows that are lying down equals the chance of precipitation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KNIGHT: Yeah, we heard that one before. And, you know, I have seen some perfectly sunny days with all the cows lying down. So I don't think there's much to that. I think they just have, you know, a stomach full of grass.

CONAN: And by the way, those who are wondering how many pastures there are in Anchorage, he says formerly of Georgia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We're talking with the state climatologist from Pennsylvania, Paul Knight. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Chris(ph) is on the line calling from Kalamazoo.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi, gentlemen. How are you today?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

CHRIS: Well, this isn't something that's as good as Chris' from down south. My grandmother didn't keep records, but we use Lake Michigan to find out how much snowfall we're going to get all winter long. Basically, it's like this. The warmer the lake is at the end of the year as winter comes in, the more snowfall we're going to get because we're in the lake effects (unintelligible) snow area.

CONAN: So if there's open water and when the storm blows through, it'll suck up more moisture and dump it on you.

CHRIS: Exactly.

CONAN: That...

Mr. KNIGHT: That's a very good one. In fact, that has good physics behind it as well. And in fact, an interesting part about this is that at least much of Lake Michigan, and for that matter, Lake Superior this year, were their all-time highest temperatures. So I would expect the down wind in Michigan and both the Upper and the Lower Peninsula that there is likely to be some record amount of lake-effect snow, especially in the early half of the winter.

CHRIS: Yep, that's why I got a new snow blower this year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KNIGHT: Good for you.

CHRIS: Thank you.

CONAN: Chris, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go next to David(ph). David calling us from Tulsa.

DAVID (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, David. Go ahead.

DAVID: I had a co-worker last year, cut open a wild persimmon. I mean, they're only about as big as a golf ball.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DAVID: And then you split the seed, and what you have is an image of a knife, a spoon or a fork. We researched it on the Internet. The spoon means a lot of snow and the knife meant a lot of wind. I can't remember exactly, but has your guest ever heard of using persimmon seeds to predict the winter?

CONAN: Persimmon seeds, Paul Knight?

MR. KNIGHT: Well, I've not heard about persimmon seeds. I have heard about a folklore - this maybe more of Pennsylvania Dutch - that spoke about cutting six onions in half and then pouring salt in each one of the halves seeing which ones dissolved and which ones didn't - this is on the first of January - as a predictor of which of the next 12 months would have rain - or above or below normal rainfall.

DAVID: Sounds more like I Ching.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVID: Okay. I'll take the rest of your comments off the air.

CONAN: Okay, David.

DAVID: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate the call. I did look up the forecast for October of next year exactly at this time. The "2011 Farmers' Almanac" says October 4th through 7th will bring clear and incisively chilly weather to the northeast, fair weather to the southeast, a surge of colder air will move in into the south central region, fair chillier weather to the northwest and fair colder weather to the southwest. So if you wanted to know what's happening a year from now, there it is. You don't even have to buy the book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Judy(ph) in Sierra Vista, Arizona, writes by email. We used to live in a small town at the edge of the Navajo Nation and we would hear what the medicine man predicted for the winter, et cetera. And he was very accurate. Obviously, for, well, Native American tribes, the - this was a big responsibility to tell the people what kind of season was coming up.

Mr. KNIGHT: It certainly was. And of course, the more familiar you are and the more your family have a history in an area, the more attuned you are to small changes that can certainly have a huge impact in the upcoming weeks and seasons. And of course, in a place such as in Central or Northern Arizona, where the climate does not vary in a huge way - and I know it does vary by elevation - but there that sort of sensitivity can really be amplified if you have a kind of a working knowledge of what the local climate is.

CONAN: All right. Let's go to John(ph). John from Madison.

JOHN (Caller): Hey. My brother has been a broadcast TV meteorologist for 44 years now. And the first winter he predicted was with a dart board, and people got a kick out of that. But he predicts the first frost, or he says it's pretty accurate, by when cicadas first start to think. He says 90 days after the cicadas start to sing, you can count on the first frost within a day or two.

CONAN: John, that's fascinating. Did it work out?

JOHN: Well, he says it has. And he keeps meticulous records, much like your earlier caller. And he says that it - he has watched this over the past few years, and it's been remarkably accurate.

CONAN: All right. John, thanks very much. Appreciate that. Let's see if we can squeeze in one last caller Carl(ph). Carl calling from Wrangell Mountains in Alaska.

CARL (Caller): Yes. We just watch the fireweed here when it - as it cottons out, as it gets to the top. We've got three, four days till the first snow. And if it cottons out quickly, then we're going to have lot of snow this winter.

CONAN: And just...

CARL: What it is this year? We had snow last Monday.

CONAN: On Monday. So is that early?

CARL: Yeah. Well, sometimes we can get it in September, but it's early for the last few years.

CONAN: Carl, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

CARL: You bet.

CONAN: And finally, this email from Matt(ph) in Honolulu. I'm a surfer from Hawaii. I've heard some of the old timers here say that a good mango season precedes a good summer of surf. I don't know if it's part of the broken clock adage, but this summer I didn't see any mangoes and the waves are terrible. Last summer, though, was amazing, both in wave quality and mango density. So, Paul Knight, I think you're going to have to relocate to Hawaii.

Mr. KNIGHT: Yes. I'll be glad to.

CONAN: Paul Knight, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. KNIGHT: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Paul Knight, state climatologist for Pennsylvania, worked on the team that produced the weather page of The New York Times for 23 years. And he joined us today from Penn State.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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