A look into the future

They were hard to miss.

While making a recent push to clear leaves in anticipation of the arrival of winter weather, they revealed themselves. After a pile of leaves was moved from in front of the walk, all that was left on the ground was a wooly bear caterpillar. Another was spotted not too far away, making its way across the top of a wall.

Since none had been seen earlier in the fall, these two were worth a closer look, and they were mostly black, with just a little tinge of brown near the middle. Which raised the question about just what — if any — insights the creatures could offer into what kind of weather we could expect to see in the coming months.

The question became even more urgent with the realization that meteorological winter actually started on Wednesday. Astronomical winter comes a few weeks later, at 11:59 a.m. on Dec. 21, to be precise.

According to folklore, the caterpillars (which will become Isabella tiger moths in the spring) can tell us what kind of winter we can expect by looking at their colors. They all are made up of three color bands, black at the front and the back, brown in the middle. The less brown you see, the more likely we are in for a rough winter.

Like most pieces of folklore, there’s been a lot commercial development built around the caterpillar. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, there are two major festivals held to celebrate the caterpillar in the United States, the annual Wooly Worm Festival in Banner Elk, N.C., and the Woolybear Festival about 2 1/2 hours north of here in Vermilion. While the methodology used to issue final details was a little different, the results were fairly similar (keep in mind that the 44th-annual festival in North Carolina and the 49th-annual event in Vermilion were held about one week apart in October): Look for cold and snowy weather in December and January.

A consensus seems to be building around that forecast. It’s even shared by those two time-honored sources for prognostication, the Old Farmer’s Almanac and the Farmers’ Almanac.

Old Farmer’s, which has been around since 1792, says that it uses a secret formula devised by its founder, Robert B. Thomas, who believed sunspots had the greatest influence on the weather on Earth. It’s been refined and enhanced through the years, the almanac says, and boasts of an accuracy rate of around 80 percent.

Farmers’, which has only been around since 1818, says that it uses a set of rules developed by David Young, its first editor, that use sunspots and other factors to reach its annual forecast. The accuracy rate, according to the almanac, is between 80 percent and 85 percent.

Both seem to be in agreement about the weather we will see during the winter months — with Old Farmer’s calling for cold and snowy weather in our region, and Farmers’ seeing icy and flaky weather in our future.

Looking at Old Farmer’s, we can expect our coldest temperatures from mid-December through January, with above average snowfall. It’s calling for rain to snow from Dec. 12-19, with snowy periods and cold temperatures between Dec. 20 and the end of the year. The forecast calls for periods of snow through most of January with a significant snowstorm and frigid temperatures expected between Jan. 17 and Jan. 24. February will see rain and flurries, with milder temperatures.

A look at Farmer’s, meanwhile, reveals it is calling for snow to blanket the region Dec. 4-7, with brutally cold temperatures forecast from Dec. 24-27 before temperatures moderate at the end of the year. The call here is for snow to develop between Jan. 20 and Jan. 27, which means the publications pretty much agree on that time period.

That’s not the case in February. Farmers’ is calling for a major storm to hit our area between Feb. 24 and Feb. 28, with snow, sleet and heavy rain likely. For the period of Feb. 21 through Feb. 27, Old Farmer’s is calling for snow, then showers and turning mild.

So, when you take all of that information — from the caterpillars and competing almanacs — it seems likely it will be cold in December and January, there will some snow and temperatures will moderate in February.

That sounds like, well, what winter is to residents of Eastern Ohio, Northern West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania.

It’s just something else to think about until 11:33 a.m. March 20 — that’s when astronomical spring will arrive.

(Gallabrese, a resident of Steubenville, is executive editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times.)


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