Did winter surprise? You didn't consult the farmers almanacs

Both age-old tomes predicted cold, snow

It was the worst of climes, this winter of our discontent.

We endured it all -- freezing rain, sleet, snow, more snow, even more snow, whiteouts, cold temperatures, frigid temperatures, Arctic temperatures. And more snow.

We trudged to work through sleet, snow and slush, learned scary phrases -- polar vortex! -- and suffered through snowstorms and deadly wind chills as ubiquitous as potholes. Salt was in short supply as was toilet paper, milk and bread, given the pre-storms rush to stock up, apparently for fear of being trapped for months by the winter Armageddon.

The unusually harsh winter spread from the Dakotas to Southern states, where freezing temps and snow are normally as likely as seeing a frost-bitten unicorn.

But you can't say you didn't have fair warning. The 2014 edition of the Farmers' Almanac, based in Maine, predicted on Aug. 26, 2013, that two-thirds of the country would have below-average temperatures for the winter season and the Pittsburgh region was on the dividing line between "bitterly cold and snow-filled" and "cold, wet and white."

The on-target prediction by elusive forecaster "Caleb Weatherbee," a nom de plume used for years by various people, was based on a secret mathematical and astronomical formula, including sunspot activity, lunar cycles, planetary position and many other factors. The Farmers' Almanac has been making weather forecasts for all of its 197 years of publication.

The next month, the rival Old Farmer's Almanac, headquartered in New Hampshire, likewise warned in its 2014 edition of "below-normal temperatures and above-normal snowfall during most of the winter across much of the United States." Published since 1792, the older of the almanacs comes up with its weather forecasts through the study of sunspots and other solar activity; climatology, the study of historic weather patterns; and meteorology, the study of the atmosphere.

Off the mark was the long-range prediction by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Using climatology, large-scale atmospheric patterns and the potential effects of El Nino and La Nina, it predicted, on average, a milder than normal winter with about normal precipitation for our area.

"We usually have an 80 to 85 percent accuracy rate, but I think we get a 95 percent for this winter so far," said Sandi Duncan, Farmers' Almanac managing editor. "People feel the Farmers' Almanac is so accurate or not accurate at all. Meteorologists either appreciate or dismiss it. We do like to gloat a little when we're right."

Sarah L. Perreault, senior associate editor for the Old Farmer's Almanac, likewise was happy.

"We're pretty excited at our accuracy rate," she said, adding she expected it would be at least 90 percent when it's calculated at the end of the book's cycle in August.

"I'm not happy everybody was suffering, but I'm happy our prediction gave everyone a heads-up. I, for one, am done with shoveling. I can't do it anymore. We're having a snowstorm right now."

Both almanacs predicted a heavy snowstorm would hit New York at the beginning of February, threatening the Feb. 2 NFL Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium -- the first time the big game would be played outdoors in a cold-weather clime. The game was played in 50-degree temperatures, but only hours later a huge snowstorm dumped several inches of heavy, wet snow on the area, canceling nearly 1,200 flights as many Super Bowl fans were trying to get home.

As for the season's snowfall locally, through February it measured 58.4 inches -- a whopping 25.6 inches above the normal season snowfall of 32.8 inches, according to the National Weather Service. That made it the seventh-snowiest season through February.

The first snow -- only a tenth of an inch -- was recorded in October. But in November, 9.3 inches fell, or 7.2 inches above the monthly average. In December, 15 inches blanketed the region, which was 6.7 inches above the monthly average. The most snow fell in January (17.9 inches) followed by February (16.1 inches), with both totals about 6 inches above monthly normals.

What we didn't have was a huge snowstorm. The largest snowfall total for a 24-hour period was 5.2 inches in January. That was followed by 3.3 inches in November, 2.7 inches in December and 2.6 inches in February.

As for temperatures, the average from December through February was a below-freezing 27.3 degrees. Preliminary calculations indicate that would make the winter of 2013-14 the 20th coldest on record, which dates back to 1871.

January was the coldest month with an average temperature of 22.1 degrees, or 6.4 degrees below normal. February was just a little warmer with an average temperature of 25.7 degrees, or 5.4 degrees below normal. By contrast, December had a balmy, above-freezing average temperature of 34.1 degrees, or 1.3 degrees above normal.

Forget all that -- our shared winter fatigue is about to end. The March equinox, marking the beginning of spring, arrives Thursday. In Pittsburgh, it will begin at 12:57 p.m.

Which is not to say that at that moment, clouds will part, birds will sing, the sun will emerge and temperatures will skyrocket. But one can dream, right? Well, at least until National Weather Service meteorologist John Darnley brings you back to reality.

"For at least two to three weeks of spring, it's going to be like going to Kennywood -- a roller coaster of warmer-than-normal temperatures and colder-than-normal temperatures, one right after the other." Just like the high of 67 on Tuesday plummeted to a low of 6 degrees Thursday morning and shot back to the mid-50s on Friday.

So what about this summer? The Farmers' Almanac predicts "the Northeast will be oppressively humid, wet and thundery," Ms. Duncan said. "Personally, I hope that's slightly off, but we don't want to be off too much."

The Old Farmer's Almanac predicts temperatures will be above normal in nearly the entire United States.

"After this winter, I don't think anybody's going to complain about it being too hot in July," Ms. Perreault predicted.

Michael A. Fuoco: mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.

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