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Climate Cold Reading:
Meteorological Myths of Farmer’s Almanacs

A real farmer is somewhat bemused by the idea of an old farmer's almanac.

As I write, it’s that time of the year again when the weather almanacs appear in the bookstores. The Old Farmer’s Almanac has been predicting the weather inaccurately for 221 years, but this hasn’t dampened its popularity, or that of its rival The Farmer’s Almanac. It’s difficult enough to predict the weather for the week ahead, although these two almanacs claim “amazingly accurate” long-range weather predictions for the year ahead.

Before the days of modern meteorology, people relied on almanacs for their weather forecasts. Various versions of almanacs have been in existence since Babylonian times, when astronomers produced tables to predict planetary phenomena. A one-time apothecary, Nostradamus found his fortune when he began writing almanacs, which included astrological prophecies, weather forecasts, and political predictions. He began writing one or more almanacs annually, compiling thousands of predictions. The success of these almanacs prompted him to pen his bestknown book, The Prophecies.

Adopting the pseudonym “Richard Saunders,” Benjamin Franklin published the Poor Richard’s Almanack from 1732 until 1758. This name was taken from the author of the Apollo Anglicanus, a popular London almanac during the 17th century. Poor Richard’s Almanack was a bestseller of its day, and was famous for Franklin’s aphorisms and proverbs. Much of this folk wisdom lives on in contemporary English. The following sayings are attributed to Franklin, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” and “He that lies down with Dogs, shall rise up with fleas.”

In the early U.S., almanacs were as familiar a sight in the homes of farmers as a bible. Their livelihoods depended on the seasons, and knowing the weather in advance would indeed be a benefit. Almanacs weren’t just about weather. They were also popular among the other members of the household for their calendars, household hints, recipes, puzzles, poems and serialized stories.

Today, almanacs are still published worldwide, although most are encyclopedic, rather than predictive. However, The Old Farmer’s Almanac and The Farmer’s Almanac have survived modern times. The former has been produced out of Dublin, New Hampshire since 1792, while the latter has been published in Lewiston, Maine since 1818. Both publications still sell millions of copies annually, although they are more likely to be used to plan a vacation than to sow a crop of radishes.

Meteorology is naturally about prediction, but some methods of predications are more accurate than others. Contemporary scientists use radar, satellites and advanced weather modeling, while almanacs put the paranormal back in the phrase “weather prediction”. To generate its annual year-long forecasts, the Old Farmer’s Almanac uses a “secret method” devised by the publication’s first editor, Robert Thomas.

Based on his observations, Thomas used a complex series of natural cycles to devise a secret weather forecasting formula, which brought uncannily accurate results, traditionally said to be 80 percent accurate. (Even today, his formula is kept safely tucked away in a black tin box at the Almanac offices in Dublin, New Hampshire.)1

The Farmer’s Alamac forecaster, who is only known by the mysterious pseudonym Caleb Weatherbee, uses a “top secret mathematical and astronomical formula, that relies on sunspot activity, tidal action, planetary position and many other factors.”2 These methods seem to be the “11 herbs and spices” of weather forecasting. Of course, their prediction techniques have never been published in a scientific journal. Genuine scientific methods are subjected to peer-review, not hidden in a black tin box under lock and key.

Almanacs offer an awkward mix of science and superstition. They present factual astronomical information about moon phases, alongside spurious astrological claims. They still offer handy hints, gardening tips and recipes for comfort food, and teach you how to clean the toilet with Coca-Cola and keep fleas away from your dog naturally. Sticking to their roots of prediction, they provide the “best days” to cut hair to increase growth, to quit smoking, apply for a loan or shop for clothes.

They’re also full of curious classifieds for modern-day snake-oil merchants. There are ads for alternative therapies, including products that promise to “cure” tinnitus and baldness. There are numerous advertisements for blessed holy water, amulets, and perfumes, oils and powders that will repel curses and misfortune. Miss Lisa, Mrs. Rachel, Sister Sally, and Mother Thompson will “remove evil influences”, “reunite lovers” and “solve all problems.” Their craft is “guaranteed” to be “100% successful” with “no disappointments” because they “never fail.” Sure.

The almanacs assert that they have made some impressive predictions in the past. The Old Farmer’s Almanac claims to have made a “near-perfect prediction” of Florida’s Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The authors did indeed predict a “possible hurricane south” for August 30 to 31, although the destructive hurricane struck on August 24. At any rate, southern Florida is hit by hurricanes most years, which usually occur in August or September.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac brags, “Skeptics can laugh, but there have been several miraculous predictions, including the July snow of 1816, which was forecast in a few errant copies.” However, their most astonishing prediction was an unforeseen circumstance. The forecast for New England on July 13, 1816 predicted, “rain, hail and snow.” This was a hoax perpetrated by a copy boy when editor Robert Thomas fell ill. Upon his recovery, Thomas destroyed most of the copies in horror. Ironically, the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the East Indies brought about an episode of freak weather. A cooling dust cloud caused a “Little Ice Age” in New England that summer where ponds and lakes froze over and never thawed. When the prank prediction came true, Thomas reclaimed the prediction and announced, “I told you so!”3

A wag might joke that almanacs are so accurate they can even “change” the weather….

Both almanacs insist they have an accuracy rate of 75–80%, although meteorologists argue that the weather cannot be predicted so far in advance. Typically, the field of meteorology doesn’t take them seriously enough to test their claims. The Online NewsHour reports one study that tested the alleged accuracy of these almanacs.

In the October 1981 issue of Weatherwise, pages 212–215, John E. Walsh and David Allen performed a check on the accuracy of 60 monthly forecasts of temperature and precipitation from the Old Farmer’s Almanac at 32 stations in the U.S. They found that 50.7 percent of the monthly temperature forecasts and 51.9 percent of the precipitation forecasts verified with the correct sign. These may be compared with the 50 percent success rate expected by chance.4

Upon reflection, almanacs have an unimpressive track record. In a type of climate cold reading, they provide imprecise, generalized predictions, making it difficult to assess their accuracy. They also rely on historical seasonal norms. For example, the 2013 Farmer’s Almanac’s predicts a “winter of contraries, as if Old Man Winter were cutting the country in half. The eastern half of the country will see plenty of cold and snow. The western half will experience relatively warm and dry conditions.” When they’re too specific they run the risk of exposure. The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s forecast of a particularly perilous 1994 winter led to panic that drove up the sales of snow blowers, snow shovels, 4WDs, and rock salt for use on highways. However, the winter of 1994 was especially warm.

In 1936 Roger Scaife was appointed editor of the Old Farmer’s Almanac. He made the bold move to drop the dodgy weather forecasts, instead substituting these with temperature and precipitation averages. As a result the almanac suffered a decline in circulation, and Scaife was ousted. The tagline of the Farmer’s Almanac is that the book is “useful, with a pleasant degree of humor.” It seems that much of the books are “for entertainment purposes only,” although this is kept as much a secret as their dubious meteorological methods. However, there are worse methods. Some still swear by the accuracy of onion calendars and reading pig spleens to predict the weather.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that almanacs are accurate. Loyal readers consult them to find the best times to go fishing, to plant potatoes, or choose a wedding date. People also have a fondness for the mystery and secrecy surrounding the weather predictions of almanacs. They like the supposed paradox of the simple prognosticator who outsmarts the scientists with their fancy equipment and degrees. Meteorology is also subject to the stereotype that the TV weatherman is always wrong. We tend to remember when we got caught in an unexpected rainstorm without an umbrella, but forget when the almanac was mistaken. Their readers also tend to forgive almanacs for being wrong.

Short-term predictions are always more accurate, and right now, the weather can’t be predicted a year ahead. Weather forecasting was an imperfect science back in 1792, and it still is. In the end, almanacs perform no better than chance in predicting the weather. It is safe to say that weather almanacs are indeed accurate…weather permitting. END

About the Author

Dr. Karen Stollznow has a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of New England, and works as a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also an adjunct lecturer and consultant, and devotes her spare time to investigating paranormal and pseudoscientific phenomena.

References
  1. Old Farmer’s Almanac. Accessed 12/16/2012
  2. Farmer’s Alamanc. Accessed 12/16/2012
  3. Sherden, W. A. 1998. The Fortune Sellers: The Big Business of Buying and Selling Predictions. New York: Wiley and Sons.
  4. Online NewsHour: Forum with Weatherman Ed O’Lenic. Accessed 12/16/2012
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