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A Dry and Warmer Season

The sky isn't falling, but a pig's spleen may tell you otherwise

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Some people are obsessed with the weather—especially people whose recreational activities depend solely on the conditions falling from the sky. Weather obsessors are constantly monitoring forecasts via a variety of sources including television, radio, newspaper and the Internet. Fanatics even get their own home monitoring station with barometric readers and rooftop wind gauge instruments. For most, all they want to know is whether a big storm is on the way because a planned trip to the mountains might be delayed. For recreationists, a good storm might mean a great cross-country ski trip or fresh powder. It could also mean bumping your butt on a stump in February as the snowpack on the sledding hill gets a little thin.

Predicting the weather is tricky business. We love to gripe about the weather reports being wrong, but that doesn't stop us from looking to the experts for advice. So with the official opening of Bogus Basin Ski Resort last week, we consulted the experts as to what will happen with the weather this winter. (While astronomical winter does not begin until December 21, meteorologists start winter with the beginning of December.)

First, let's look at what the scientists have to say. In mid-November, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued its final update to the 2005-2006 Winter Outlook. The diagnosis went like this:

"By the end of October, equatorial SST anomalies greater than +0.5oC were found between Indonesia and 175oW, while negative anomalies less than --0.5oC were observed at most locations between 130oW and the South American coast. The SST departures in the Niño 3, Niño 3.4, and Niño 1+2 regions were negative, while weak positive departures were observed in the Niño 4 region. During the last three months surface and subsurface temperature anomalies decreased, especially in the eastern equatorial Pacific, and the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) increased..." blah, blah, blah.

This is why you leave scientific weather predicting to the scientists. What they were trying to say is that they predict warmer than normal temperatures across the United States, based on the 30-year average, and equal chances of the precipitation being greater or less than the 30-year average.

The regional precipitation predictions for January, February and March in southwestern Idaho are 3.63 inches for the three month period. The average for this area is 3.72 inches. (On average one inch of precipitation equals 10 inches of snow.) In the central Idaho mountains, scientists predict average precipitation to be 7.34 inches (average is 7.22). But with higher than normal temperatures predicted, that snow may have trouble sticking around.

You might have a little better luck with taking a look at either the Farmer's Almanac or the Old Farmer's Almanac (two different publications as they are very determined to tell you). The Farmer's Almanac—published every year since 1818 and the younger of the two—has been relied upon by farmers for almost 200 years to predict the proper time to plant and harvest their crops. Its forecasters claim a 60 percent accuracy rate for predicting the weather and base their predictions on a variety of factors including moon phases, solar cycles, meteorological science and 30-year averages.

The Farmer's Almanac divides the country into seven regions, and for the Northwest, predicts specific days in December and January to be wary of. December 16 through 19 should be cold and dry, but watch out for a risk of a small shower between December 12 and 15. They predict very unsettled weather between December 24 and December 27, potentially indicating a white Christmas. According to the Farmer's Almanac, it will be stormy between January 1 and 3 with more to come January 8 through 11. While it will be chilly throughout January, more storms and unsettled weather aren't predicted until late in the month.

The Old Farmer's Almanac, published every year since 1792 ("old" meaning 26 years older than the other almanac), divides the country into regions as well. It states in the Intermountain West, the season will be mild with slightly higher than normal temperatures. December, however, might be colder than normal, but snowfall throughout the winter will be far below normal. The almanac predicts the snowiest weather should happen in late November, late January and mid to late February. Precipitation in March and April should be about normal but temperatures might be lower.

Other forecasting methods are a little more obscure. Across the country you may find the Wooly Bear, the larval form of the Isabella tiger moth. It is a particular kind of fuzzy caterpillar with black ends and a band of orange, yellow or brown in the middle. According to lore, the thickness of the middle colored band determines the severity of the upcoming winter. A wide band predicts a mild winter, while a thin band predicts a severe winter. Of course, you have to know how thick the previous years' bands are to compare, and unless you have already been looking at a lot of caterpillars, you probably don't know, as my dad put it so eloquently, "your ass from your elbows."

The Old Farmer's Almanac also claims that the thickness of onionskins or cornhusks have been used to determine the severity of the upcoming winter, but perhaps the strangest prediction method is the pig spleen. As taught from generation to generation, observing a fall- or winter-slaughtered pig's spleen can offer guidance as to what kind of winter will be forthcoming. According to pig spleen reading expert Saskatchewan farmer Gus Wickstrom, a harvested spleen is divided into six equal areas, each representing one month in the future. The point of the spleen closest to the head of the pig is the first month. When the spleen is wider, a change is predicted for colder weather, bulges indicating bad weather. Most would be able to only get the basics, but Wickstrom claims to be able to predict wind and rain as well. You've got to see a lot of spleens for that kind of expertise.

For short-term predictions, one simply has to look up in the sky. "Duh," you might say. But rings around the sun or moon indicate high altitude moisture. One can also look at contrails left behind by airplanes. While conspiracy theorists claim the government is using chemicals disguised as contrails to control the weather, scientists say that contrails are an indicator of weather, not a cause. A thicker contrail that stays in the sky may indicate moist and rising air, foretelling a storm in a day or so. Disappearing contrails indicate falling and dry air meaning clear skies ahead.

While BW was unable to acquire a fresh pig's spleen or find any wooly bears, the overall outlook for weather this year is below average to normal precipitation but warmer temperatures with December being unusually cold. It's not good news for a state stretching into its sixth year of drought. But as my father once said so eloquently, "Weathermen don't know shit from shinola." Anything could happen.