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Two competing almanacs with national followings are supposed to hit newsstands Monday with long-range weather forecasts for what Californians can expect this coming winter.
Mother Lode residents, ranchers and farmers who believe in almanac forecasts can expect the coming winter to be “balmy & wet” with “below-normal mountain snows” up and down the Central Sierra, according to the 1818 Farmers’ Almanac, published in Lewiston, Maine, and the 1792 Old Farmer’s Almanac, published in Dublin, New Hampshire.
Forecasting whether the Sierra Nevada range will have a wet or dry winter is serious business for California’s $50 billion agriculture industry, the state Department of Water Resources, hundreds of water agencies up and down the state, and more than 39 million residents statewide.
The 2015-16 Sierra Nevada winter was the wettest in five years, but it followed four consecutive drier-than-normal winters, leaving more than 83 percent of California in drought as of this week, according to scientists with U.S. Drought Monitor. That’s an improvement from a year ago, when more than 97 percent of the state was in drought.
Drought monitor scientists said this week that all of Tuolumne and Calaveras counties remain in severe drought, extreme drought or exceptional drought, the most dire category.
Chance of La Niña?
The 2017 edition of the 1818 almanac says “El Niño is gone, but there is a chance for El Niño’s tempestuous little sister, La Niña, to develop by the fall. La Niña is defined as cooler-than-normal sea surface temperatures to develop in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. …
“In the Pacific Northwest, La Niña causes things to be even wetter than usual, while arid Southwestern states often see drier than normal conditions.”
As of early August, there is a 50/50 chance that La Niña will develop by the end of 2016, according to the 1818 almanac.
The 2017 edition of the 1792 almanac says “winter temperatures and rainfall will be below normal” in California and the rest of the Southwest, with below-normal mountain snows.
“The stormiest periods will be in late November, mid-December, and mid-January,” the 2017 edition of the 1792 almanac says. “The coldest temperatures will be in early and late December and mid- to late January.”
The 1818 almanac’s forecaster is known as “Caleb Weatherbee,” a pseudonym the 1818 almanac uses for all its weather forecasters, past and present.
“The true identity of our prognosticator is as secret as our nearly two centuries old formula for weather prediction,” the 1818 almanac states. “Our famous long-range weather predictions are made two years in advance. Farmers’ Almanac forecaster Caleb Weatherbee uses a top-secret mathematical and astronomical formula, taking sunspot activity, tidal action, the position of the planet, and many other factors into consideration.”
The 1792 almanac’s editors say they derive their weather forecasts from “a secret formula that was devised by the founder of this Almanac, Robert B. Thomas, in 1792. Thomas believed that weather on earth was influenced by sunspots, which are magnetic storms on the surface of the sun. Over the years we have refined and enhanced this formula with state-of-the-art technology and modern scientific calculations.”
The 1792 almanac editors say their forecasts come from three scientific disciplines: solar science, the study of sunspots and other solar activity; climatology, the study of prevailing weather patterns; and meteorology, the study of the atmosphere.
Asked Friday for National Weather Service perspective on almanac forecasts, Travis Wilson with NWS Sacramento responded, “the NWS has no opinion on the accuracy of the farmers almanacs.”
State Farm Bureau
Dave Kranz, communications/news division manager for the California Farm Bureau Federation in Sacramento, said Friday that farmers use a variety of weather forecasting tools and sources, and tend to average them out to have as good an idea as possible of what may lie ahead.
“I think we’ve seen in recent years that long-term forecasting remains challenging,” Kranz said. “You doubtless recall all of the discussion of the ‘monster El Niño’ that was headed toward California last winter, and how that would lead to prolific rain and snow. Well, that didn’t exactly come true — especially not in Southern California — and now the forecasters are trying to decide if a La Niña is forming, and what that may or may not mean.”
There are many variables involved in weather forecasting, even on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, and the further out forecasters look, the more difficult it becomes, Kranz said.
According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the state’s 76,400 farms and ranches received about $54 billion for their output in 2014, the most recent year for which a full crop-year report is available.
That represented 5.1 percent increase over 2013. According to state food and ag officials, California is the leading state in cash farm receipts, with combined commodities representing nearly 13 percent of the U.S. total.
‘Don’t bet on it’
William Patzert is a climatologist, oceanographer and research scientist since 1983 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in La Cañada Flintridge outside Pasadena. He lives in Sierra Madre, east of the lab at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains.
He’s known for his El Niño and La Niña forecasts, and last year he billed Pacific-warming potential that could bring numerous winter storms to California as a “Godzilla El Niño.”
Asked Friday about the reliability of almanac predictions for this winter, Patzert first addressed forecasts for last winter.
“A year ago we were talking about the four driest consecutive years since the 1870s in the central and southern Sierra,” Patzert said. “Then the El Niño showed up, so all the hotshots started forecasting wet winter for California.
“I called it the Godzilla El Niño, but the bottom line is high pressure built up over central and southern California, and the north got about average snowfall,” Patzert said. “For So Cal this is the fifth dry winter in a row, and it’s the driest five consecutive years for southern and central California in recorded history.”
Right now, everybody is hedging their bets on La Niña, Patzert said.
“Last winter was not a godzilla, it was a gecko,” Patzert said. “People now are trying to be optimistic, like we don’t have to conserve water. That’s a big mistake. We’re still deep in the throes of a punishing drought in California. This is no time to break your vows with regards to conservation.”
As for almanac forecasts, Patzert said he would just as soon trust the tip he got from a Chumash elder 15 years ago.
“She told me an early crop of acorns means you will have a wet winter,” Patzert said. “Right now my oak tree is bombarding my back porch like a machine gun. I’d say that is about as reliable as a farmer’s almanac.
“Nobody should cash in their 401(k) and start betting on a wet winter,” Patzert said. “It’s a crapshoot right now.”