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Winter Wonder

Mirror, mirror on the wall, will this winter bring any snow at all?


Your local weatherperson has more in common with the profits, soothsayers, oracles, mystics and psychics of old than you might expect.

While ritualistic chanting is (probably) not involved in coming up with the forecast, the worshipping masses still throng to anyone claiming knowledge of the future. It's especially true this time of the year, when skiers and snowboarders anxiously look to anyone with a green screen and a laser pointer for hope that they may soon been taking to the slopes amid thigh-high powder.

And it's not just the oracle known as the Weather Channel that earns the adoration of winter sports enthusiasts. Those most desperate to see snow in the hills are willing to turn to any source that may prognosticate the coming of the winter storms.

Among the oldest is the Old Farmer's Almanac—not to be confused with that other farmer's almanac­—the 216-year-old source for long-range forecasts, lunar cycles, gardening tips and recipes.

Based on its "secret formula," the Old Farmer's Almanac blends time-honored techniques with modern science to come up with its annual winter forecast for the country, a prediction of which its writers are relatively sure.

"We believe nothing in the universe occurs haphazardly; there is a cause-and-effect pattern to all phenomena, including weather. It follows, therefore, that we believe weather is predictable," states the most recent issue of the Old Farmer's Almanac.

This year, the almanac is predicting a cooler and drier winter for the Intermountain West, an area spanning from the Canadian border through Arizona and hemmed on either side by the Cascade and Rocky Mountain ranges. The forecast calls for above normal snowfall in the north, with below normal in the south—it's not specific about what that means for Idaho.

It also calls for the coldest temperatures in late December through early February, with the most snow in early December, throughout January and late February. The Old Farmer's Almanac goes on to call for a cool, wet spring.

Of course, not all farmer's almanacs agree.

According to the Farmer's Almanac (only around since 1818, so it doesn't get the "old" in the title), the winter is going to be bitingly cold everywhere except the far West, which will see near normal temperatures and normal snowfall.

It's this middle of the road forecast that seems to best fall in line with what the National Weather Service is calling for.

In some years, clear patterns emerge in the Pacific Ocean, giving stronger clues to what the coming winter will bring, said Jay Breidenbach, senior hydrologist in the National Weather Service's Boise office.

In 2005-2006, it was the La Nina pattern that brought a wet winter to the area, followed in 2006-2007 by the El Nino pattern, which meant a warm, dry winter—a curse for skiers. Last year, La Nina returned bringing much needed snow to the region beginning in late December.

While last winter got a slow start, once the snow began falling, it kept coming, setting snowfall records across the West. Typically, the City of Boise receives an average of 20 inches of snowfall over the course of the winter, Breidenbach said. Last year, Boise had 31.7 inches.

The mountains received far more, with Bogus Basin reaching a peak snowpack of 90 inches at one point in the winter.

But this year, Breidenbach said there is no strong pattern emerging in the ocean.

"The ocean temperature weighs the dice in terms of what your odds are for what type of winter [we'll have]," he said. "Basically, the ocean temperature is close to normal, so the dice aren't weighted one way or the other."

It's the kind of forecast that Breidenbach said he hates to give, but without any outstanding pattern, it's an even chance to have a snowy or dry winter.

"I'm always hopeful," said Breidenbach, an avid skier himself.

A normal winter seems hard to remember though, after years of feast or famine when it comes to snow. Typically, Bogus Basin sees more than 200 inches of snowfall in a season, while the valley gets just one-tenth of that.

Breidenbach expects that temperatures will be a little warmer than last year but points out that, on a whole, last winter was colder than normal. It was those cold temperatures that helped create the light powder skiers and boarders reveled in all winter. Unfortunately, light dry snow doesn't have as much water content to help sustain the area through the summer.

While not much snowfall is in the forecast for the foreseeable future, those who depend on the white stuff falling are staying optimistic that they'll see the same kind of season-making snow they enjoyed last winter.

"There are 25,000 season-pass holders out there burning holes in their knees [praying]," said Gretchen Anderson, spokesperson for Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area. "We're eternally optimistic going into any season."

When asked which weather report the ski area depends on, Anderson said simply that they try to only look at the ones predicting snow.

"If [the forecast] is good, we brag on it," she said. "If it's bad, we don't pay attention to it."

Anderson pointed out that weather, like the ski business, can turn on a dime. So the relatively dry early season that has left the hills only briefly dusted with a quickly disappearing skiff of snow could turn into a powder-filled wonderland for skiers.

"We're tapping the barometer and watching," she said.

Of course, even those predicting the weather make allowances for the fact that Mother Nature tends to get her way in the end, no matter what the computer model is reporting.

The Old Farmer's Almanac tags this addendum to its seasonal long- range forecast:

"Modesty requires, however, that we add this caveat: It is obvious that neither we nor anyone else has as yet gained sufficient insight into the mysteries of the universe to predict weather long-range with anything resembling total accuracy."

So maybe those hopes and prayers sent out sent out by over-eager skiers and boarders just might make a difference after all.