Farmer's Almanacs: Right as Rain or 3 Dollar Bills?

Scientists predict spotty results from almanac forecasts so why do we love them so much?

THE GIST

Many atmospheric scientists and meteorologists scoff at the ability of olde-tyme formulas used by the digests to prognosticate the weather.

The "Old Farmer's Almanac" has modernized to include advances in solar science, climatology, and meteorology.

For nigh on to two centuries, Americans have taken a gander at farmer's almanacs for auguries about the weather. Millions of readers think they are the bee's knees but atmospheric scientists scoff at the ability of olde-tyme formulas to prognosticate the weather.

"Based on my own analysis, and that of others, the monthly mean forecasts published by the 'Old Farmer's Almanac' (OFA) lack value," Nick Bond, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Washington's State Climatologist, told Discovery News.

The "Farmers' Almanac" and the "Old Farmer's Almanac" are in competition with each other, but also face stiff competition from meteorologists with millions of dollars worth of satellites, radar dishes and other new-fangled contraptions.

The "Farmers' Almanac" has weathered these scientific advances with stalwart faith in the founder's formula.

"The formula we use dates back to 1818. It is a mathematical and astronomical formula that takes sunspot activity, tidal action of the moon and position of the planets into consideration. The complete formula is known only by our weather prognosticator -- Caleb Weatherbee," said Sandi Duncan, managing editor of the "Farmers' Almanac."

In 2003, Bond compared "Old Farmer's Almanac" forecasts to actual weather events in the Pacific Northwest, the results are summarized in the Washington's State Climatologist's newsletter.

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"The forecasts are sometimes correct. In terms of getting the sense of the weather anomalies right, for example whether it will be colder or warmer than normal, the OFA is correct about 50 percent of the time," said Bond.

"Of course this is no better than flipping a coin," he added.

Jan Null of Golden Gate Weather Services has compared "Old Farmer's Almanac" forecasts to actual weather conditions across the United States for much of the 2000's. His results corroborate those of Bond.

Back in 1981 another study, published in Weatherwise , looked at 60 monthly temperature and precipitation forecasts for 32 weather stations across the U.S. and compared them to "Old Farmer's Almanac" forecasts. Once again, the accuracy of the "Old Farmer's Almanac" was found to be no better than flipping a coin.

But Janice Stillman, editor of "The Old Farmer's Almanac," doesn't put much stock in statistical correlations.

"We make predictions; we are accurate or not. That's our correlation," Stillman said.

Duncan, of the "Farmers' Almanac," told Discovery News she hasn't done an official analysis either.

"But we do hear from readers and some students who use the comparison as a math project," Duncan said. "Occasionally a weather person will weigh in on how we do. Most often we are told we are between 75 to 85 percent accurate."

Neil Fox, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Missouri, is skeptical.

"My impression is that many of the successes are worded vaguely enough that there's a range of happenings that can be claimed as success," Fox told Discovery News.

For example, the "Farmers' Almanac" website notes they were "on the money," when they forecast a hurricane threat for the Southeastern U.S. at the end of August, manifested in the form of Hurricane Irene.

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"A forecast of a hurricane hitting the southeastern United States in August is probably a pretty good bet in any year," said Fox. "You tend to hear about these 'remarkable' predictions, but not, of course all the times they get it wrong! I certainly would not make my plans based on this."

Although scientists have presented evidence that the almanac's predictions are about as good as flipping a coin, they remain popular with a readership numbering in the millions, but now-a-days many aren't true blue farmers.

"Today most of our readers want to learn how to get back to the basics, how to grow a few vegetables or have a garden," said Duncan, of the "Farmers' Almanac." "We enjoy sharing our tips and information on how to do this so that they can invest in the idea of farming or gardening, which should have better returns right now than Wall Street."

Curious about the coming winter? Here are three forecasts:

NOAA

"Farmer's Almanac"

"Old Farmer's Almanac"

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