How accurate are Farmers' Almanac forecasts for metro Detroit?

Posted at 3:49 PM, Oct 13, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-13 15:49:21-04

As the days get shorter and the leaves start falling, people start wondering what kind of winter we're going to have. They've been doing that around here, as if by instinct, for thousands of years.

Over time but before meteorological science advanced, folklore pointed those curious to things they could observe that might foretell the southeast Michigan winter ahead, like:

*A big berry crop means the winter will be cold

*Bushy squirrel tales and nests built high in trees signal a cold winter

*If woolly worms are rusty orange, winter will be mild

*If the pattern of persimmon seeds, when it's cut in half, looks like a spoon, there will be lots of snow.

There are many others, many of them rooted in a least some logical reasoning.

But for almost two hundred years, a pair of publications have been watched closely for their popular winter predictions. The Old Farmer's Almanac, dating to 1792, and the Farmers' Almanac, dating to 1818, are competing books that contain a wealth of interesting facts, figures and pictures. But the most talked about part of each is the long-range weather predictions they include, especially the ones for winter.

As you'll see, they differ from each other. Before I save you the time or money of looking it up yourself by telling you what they each predict for this winter in metro Detroit, I'll show you how they each fared over the last four winters, defined as December, January and February. Just for fun, I've also included what the "official" scientific prediction was, usually for the Climate Prediction Center (CPC), which is laser-focused solely on interpreting long range weather trends. You might be as surprised as I was.

We'll start with winter of 2013-14, which was a record breaker, and a back breaker if you had to shovel. Instead of the CPC, I refer here to a detailed outlook written by the local National Weather Service (NWS) office in White Lake in the fall of 2013. 

Winter 2013-2014

FA:  Cold and snowy

OFA: Mild and wet

NWS: Normal temps, slightly below average snowfall

What happened: Snowiest winter ever recorded (94.9") and 8th coldest

The winner:  Farmers' Almanac


Winter 2014-2015

FA:  Stinging cold, normal snow

OFA: Colder, snowier than normal

CPC: Normal temps, drier than average 

What happened: A warm and nearly snow-free December was followed by unusual cold and above average snowfall

The winner:  Farmers' Almanac


Winter 2015-2016

FA:  Snow-filled, frigid

OFA: Cold, below average snowfall

CPC: Warmer, drier than average due to El Nino 

What happened: The 6th warmest winter season on record, below average snowfall

The winner:  Climate Prediction Center


Winter 2016-2017

FA:  Cold, snowy (I'm sensing a pattern here)

OFA: Warmer than average, wet

CPC: Normal temps, above average precipitation

What happened: The 8th warmest winter season on record, near-average snowfall

The winner:  Old Farmer's Almanac probably closest, but we weren't really "wet"

Just looking at the last four years is more fun than scientific, to be sure. But both almanacs claim at least 80% accuracy, so at least some fact checking is in order. The CPC and NWS don't make any such claims. They also don't make any money off their forecasts or use a forecasting formula locked in a black box in New Hampshire, devised by their founder who believed weather was influenced by sunspots, like the Old Farmer's Almanac does. 

So, here are the predictions for the winter ahead:

Winter 2017-2018

FA:  Cold with average snowfall (Cold in winter? How bold is that?)

OFA: Warmer than average, below normal snowfall, but wetter than average

CPC*: Normal temps, above average precipitation

What will happen: ?????????????????????????

*When the CPC  updates its forecast again late this month and next month, we'll let you know. Does that give them an advantage? Probably.

Whether you love winter or despise it, it would be convenient to have a very good idea what to expect. But who ever said weather is convenient? It's wondrous, dynamic, humbling and breathtaking, a lot like children, but not often convenient.