A November 1 2019 ReturnToNow.net post headlined “Old Farmer’s Almanac Predicts An Alarming Number of Snowstorms This Winter” was shared tens of thousands of times on Facebook. and was likely to continue spreading.
ReturnToNow.net is classified as “Conspiracy/Pseudoscience” by Media Bias Fact Check, which noted, “we rate Return to Now a pseudoscience website based on promotion of misleading and false information regarding the consensus of science.”
The site’s “alarming number of snowstorms” article read:
The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts a “repeat of last winter’s record-breaking extremes,” including heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures nationwide
The 2020 edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac warns Americans to expect a “bone-chilling,” super snowy, extra long winter this year [in 2019 and 2020].
There will be “no fewer than seven big snowstorms from coast to coast,” a press release says.
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Not long after the Farmers’ Almanac suggested it would be a “freezing, frigid, and frosty” season, the *other* Farmer’s Almanac has released its annual weather forecast—and it’s equally upsetting.
While the first publication focused on the cold temperatures anticipated this winter, the Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts that excessive snowfall will be the most noteworthy part of the season.
A link at the beginning of ReturnToNow.net’s article linked not to Almanac content, but rather an Amazon affiliate listing for readers to purchase the book, from which the site would earn commissions. Subsequently, the site linked to a press release [PDF] by Old Farmer’s Almanac, which was undated (but text indicated it should be held until August 27 2019.)
It is not apparent exactly when the press release was actually composed, as the date had only to do with an advertising embargo. And the press release was not actually about specific winter predictions — it was a two-sided printable advertisement for Old Farmer’s Almanac 2020.
Under a section titled “STORM WARNINGS IN EFFECT!,” text proclaimed:
The 2020 Old Farmer’s Almanac is warning that this winter, there’ll be s’no escape from shivers, snowflakes, and slush: “Snowy, icy, and icky” conditions, “wet and wild” periods, and “a parade of snowstorms” will transform the landscape.
“This winter will be remembered for big chills and strong storms bringing a steady roofbeat of heavy rain and sleet, not to mention piles of snow,” says Janice Stillman, editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which was 80.5% accurate in predicting last winter’s wild weather.
The 2020 Old Farmer’s Almanac is calling for frequent snow events—from flurries to no fewer than seven big snowstorms, including two in April for the Intermountain region west of the Rockies. This snow-verload will include storms pummeling Washington state and points eastward across the northern-tier states into Michigan. For the Northwest, this could mean a repeat of last winter’s Snowpocalypse that dumped 20.2 inches on Seattle in February.
The middle of the country and New England can bank on a slush fund, as “more wet than white” conditions will leave sludgy messes that freeze during the overnights. Meanwhile, much of the Deep South will be saturated by soakers.
As winter rages, the tip of the nice-berg will be Florida, the Gulf Coast, and Texas, which will bask in pleasant weather.
In the excerpt above, “predictions” included “pleasant weather” for southern states like Florida — claims which are hardly novel or noteworthy. The quotes mentioned “frequent snow events” and “piles of snow” nowhere in particular, adding that “this winter will be remembered” for … snow. In the very next paragraph, “snow events” were predictably predicted for “the Rockies,” Michigan, Seattle, and basically ranged across snowy regions of the United States where snow in general is expected across winter in all years.
All in all, the vague “seven big snowstorms” seemed to be a blanket, nationwide prediction. In the context of the Old Farmer’s Almanac 2020 advertisement, the “7 MAJOR SNOWSTORMS” predicted on the first page appeared to be a random, cumulative number for all snowy regions of the United States. And the release added that “much of the Deep South” would be “saturated by soakers,” again with no detail for context about the weather prognostications.
Regarding the Old Farmer’s Almanac in general, the Washington Post‘s weather editor Jason Samenow published a 2015 editorial about how meteorologists broadly view its reliability in terms of weather.
Out of frustration that some people actually take the Old Farmer’s Almanac seriously, Marshall Shepherd, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia, penned a column for Forbes clarifying what modern weather forecasting actually is – in other words, everything The Old Farmer’s Almanac is not.
“[Weather forecasting] is a rigorous and quantitative science steeped in physics, advanced math, fluid dynamics, and thermodynamics,” Shepherd wrote.
It’s not to say the Old Farmer’s Almanac might not get some parts of its forecast right from year to year, but whether that’s for the right reason we’ll never know.
Consider what I wrote about almanacs and the transparency of their predictions in 2013, pertaining to both the Old Farmer’s Almanac and its closest competitor the Farmers’ Almanac: “Both almanacs claim high accuracy rates but have never published evidence backing them up. They lack transparency and keep their methods ‘closely guarded.'”
Samenow explained that meteorologists broadly reject it as a source for credible weather claims, adding that it and its competitor use unknown methods to formulate their “seasonal forecasts.” He noted that “the almanacs’ efforts to forecast specific weather events like snowstorms and rain events on individual dates have no credibility or established scientific basis” and are “often wrong,” quoting a portion that was exceedingly similar to the 2020 prognostications quoted from the press release — and just as vague:
For example, I looked up the Old Farmer’s Almanac forecast for Washington, D.C. — made some time ago — for the current period, spanning August 16 to 19. “Rain, then sunny, cool,” it predicted. Of course, it is hot with no rain in the forecast until the end of this period, the opposite of the Almanac’s outlook. (It also forecast for August 10-11 a “tropical storm threat, mainly southeast”. Nope!)
Looking ahead, the Almanac foresees snow in the period around Christmas for the eastern U.S. “Just about everybody who gets snow will have a White Christmas in one capacity or another,” editor Janice Stillman told the Associated Press.
A claim that “just about everybody who gets snow” would “have a White Christmas” was of the sort that any amount of snow in any region where winter snow tends to occur would “validate” it. Samenow then checked August 2015 weather against Almanac predictions for that period, noting that it was “the opposite” of the actual weather.
A meteorologist whose tweet was linked, Matt Lanza, noted in replies:
Most meteorologists don’t forecast the longer range anyway because it is so difficult, hence why many call out the Almanac.
Samenow also referenced an August 2015 post on Facebook by meteorologist Ryan Hanrahan, who lamented the Associated Press reliance on Almanac press release information presented without input from actual scientists. Hanrahan opined that the “regurgitated” forecast had “as much accuracy as a “Magic 8 ball”:
Also in August 2015, meteorologist Dennis Mersereau covered then-new Almanac claims about the coming winter in a column for now-defunct Gawker’s The Vane. Mersereau (whose writing can now be found on DAM Weather) described the prognostications as “a bunch of malarkey” in the headline, pointing out that the vague forecasts “appear accurate when applied to any situation”:
The Old Farmer’s Almanac is to meteorology what astrology is to astronomy. You know how you just can’t shake that confused, frustrated feeling when Mercury is in retrograde? (Oh wait, that’s in the book, too!) The long-range forecasts put out by the Old Farmer’s Almanac are like horoscopes — they’re just vague enough (and the forecast regions are just large enough) that the predictions appear accurate when applied to any situation … [Their] “secret formula” is more than likely a reliance on climatology than anything else. If it’s snowed for four out of the past five years on February 11 in New York City, they’ll call for periods of snow during that week in February for the Northeast. Instead of predicting the weather, they’re looking at what’s happened in the past and banking on the fact that history will repeat itself.
The publication’s accuracy rate is highly debatable — they claim it’s 80% — but people swear by it, for better or worse (mostly for worse). After all, it’s hard to be completely wrong when you assert that snow will fall in the northeast during winter or that thunderstorms will develop in the southeast during spring. You can forecast using climatology with some accuracy, but you’ll often be wrong because the weather is rarely average. Averages are the products of extremes. A 15°F day in January and a 65°F day in January averages out to 40°F—if you were to use climatology and predict a high of 40°F on either of those days, you’d be way off.
Mersereau included background information on exactly how Almanac predictions manage to get lumped in with legitimate meteorology, particularly in August of every year when they release their winter forecasts. He explained that advances in meteorology in the past few decades led to stronger long-term forecasting, but very long-range weather patterns were harder to deduce:
The science of meteorology has advanced to the point where short term forecasts these days are incredibly accurate. A three-day forecast today is as accurate as a one-day forecast was back in 1980s, and it’s getting better all the time. Back in 2014, the Storm Prediction Center predicted a significant tornado outbreak in the central United States six days before it unfolded.
Long-range forecasts — months, not days, in advance — put out by meteorologists are far from perfect, but they’re much better than the paperback Magic 8 Ball that sits in a rack at the end of the checkout lane. You can predict general patterns — El Niño generally brings above-average precipitation to the southern United States, for example — but what actually happens is highly dependent on individual storm systems and the whims of the jet stream … It’s fun to think that you know what’s going to happen months before it actually happens. The Old Farmer’s Almanac is fun to talk about, but it’s not something you want to take seriously as so many are wont to do.
Mersereau also made reference to Old Farmer’s Almanac‘s “secret formula,” a metric clearly disliked by meteorologists on a whole. In August 2019, Almanac updated a page on their “methodology,” penned by Almanac editor Catherine Boeckmann, whose contributions had little to do with weather, and who was not described as being a meteorologist in any capacity. Boeckmann hinted at “weather lore” as a part of Almanac‘s prediction arsenal, but maintained that “folklore” did not factor into their predictions:
Some think our forecasts are derived from folklore. According to weather lore, a long, hard winter can be predicted by lots of acorns, tough apple skins, and thick corn husks, while a mild one can be predicted by lower bees nests and thin onion skins. Have you ever looked inside a persimmon seed? It may give you clues, too!
While we can neither confirm nor deny the reliability of this folklore, we do know that, centuries ago, folks observed such phenomena and noticed corresponding, repeating weather patterns … so at The Old Farmer’s Almanac, we allow that there just might be some truth to it! However, folklore does not figure into the creation of weather forecasts in our annual almanac.
Boeckmann indicated that Almanac predictions were based on a “secret formula” devised by the founder of Old Farmer’s Almanac in 1792, methodology locked away in a “black box” in New Hampshire:
Our weather forecast methodology stems from a secret formula that was devised by our founder, Robert B. Thomas, in 1792, when George Washington was president. And believe it or not, it has nothing to do acorns, apples, wooly bear caterpillars, or persimmons!
Thomas believed that weather on Earth was influenced by sunspots, which are magnetic storms on the surface of the Sun. Notes about his formula are locked in a black box in our offices in Dublin, New Hampshire.
In 2016, CNN covered the controversial weather predictions made by Almanac, as well as “misses” in its predictions. Stillman defended the content as “a symbol and manifestation and perpetuation of country values in life.”
While Old Farmer’s Almanac‘s black box predictions via a formula from 1792 vaguely predicted “seven major snowstorms” across the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) had very different meteorological positions on the looming winter of 2019-2020. In an October 17 2019 report titled “Winter Outlook: Warmer than average for many, wetter in the North,” NOAA explained:
Warmer-than-average temperatures are forecast for much of the U.S. this winter according to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. Although below-average temperatures are not favored, cold weather is anticipated and some areas could still experience a colder-than-average winter. Wetter-than-average weather is most likely across the Northern Tier of the U.S. during winter, which extends from December  through February  … No part of the U.S. is favored to have below-average temperatures this winter.
Old Farmer’s Almanac 2020, if you recall, predicted “much of the Deep South will be saturated by soakers,” presumably indicating a wet winter for those states. NOAA said:
Wetter-than-average conditions are most likely in Alaska and Hawaii this winter, along with portions of the Northern Plains, Upper Mississippi Valley, the Great Lakes and parts of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.
Drier-than-average conditions are most likely for Louisiana, parts of Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas and Oklahoma as well areas of northern and central California.
The remainder of the U.S. falls into the category of equal chances for below-, near-, or above-average precipitation.
Finally, NOAA addressed anticipated snowfall in late 2019 and early 2020, the crux of the circulating articles:
NOAA’s seasonal outlooks provide the likelihood that temperatures and total precipitation amounts will be above-, near- or below-average, and how drought conditions are favored to change. The outlook does not project seasonal snowfall accumulations as snow forecasts are generally not predictable more than a week in advance. Even during a warmer-than-average winter, periods of cold temperatures and snowfall are expected.
NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center updates the three-month outlook each month. The next update will be available November 21 .
To sum up, Return To Now and Country Living each published predictions of an “alarming number of snowstorms” in late 2019 and 2020, courtesy of a press release by Old Farmer’s Almanac. Every August, claims by Almanac about wild winter weather go viral, and in the ensuing weeks and months, meteorologists attempt to explain why such predictions are neither reliable nor based on modern weather science. According to Almanac, that long-term prognostication is not made using modern meteorologist or created by actual meteorologists. (Incidentally, those two articles are also excellent examples of clickbait allowed by Facebook to run rampant on its platform without consequence.)
Each year, Old Farmer’s Almanac is guaranteed a windfall of free promotion when it distributes an annual press release advertising its upcoming issue with a “weather forecast” for the coming winter. Although it is true that the Almanac promoted a press release about “seven major snowstorms,” it is not true that any credible meteorologist validated any of the forecasts circulating so broadly on Facebook. Actual meteorologists are, en masse, visibly annoyed by the yearly Almanac publicity blitz, and NOAA predicted a warmer-than-average winter on average. In its cyclically updated report, NOAA explained it “does not project seasonal snowfall” because snow forecasts are generally not predictable more than a week in advance. Consequently, the vaguer claims are on balance not true, since it is not possible to forecast snow in that manner. Moreover, the claims are vague enough that an array of winter weather outcomes could easily be made to retroactively fit those same “predictions,”