Storing for winter

If the size of the woodpile predicts the severity of the winter, it will be a short winter on Chris Hardie's farm.

The official forecast for the upcoming winter released recently predicts we will have snow and cold temperatures.

Well, not exactly, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center is keeping its winter outlook pretty generic. The Upper Mississippi Valley will have equal chances for below-, near- or above-average temperatures and wetter-than-average conditions.

The official forecast sounds pretty wishy-washy to me, saying there’s an equal chance of everything. But there are no El Nino or La Nina influences this winter, so long-term trends are key predictors, along with other climate patterns, such as (get ready, you weather nerds) the Madden-Julian Oscillation and Arctic Oscillation.

Chris Hardie


The former is “an eastward moving disturbance of clouds, rainfall, winds and pressure that traverses the planet in the tropics and returns to its initial starting point in 30 to 60 days, on average,” according to NOAA.

That sounds to me like a general description of the weather as “the state of the atmosphere at a place and time as regards heat, dryness, sunshine, wind, rain, etc.” But Madden-Julian Oscillation sounds far more scientific.

The Arctic Oscillation influences the number of arctic air masses that invade from the north. How can we forget the Polar Vortex?

“Without either El Nino or La Nina conditions, short-term climate patterns like the Arctic Oscillation will drive winter weather and could result in large swings in temperature and precipitation,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

Long before we had professional forecasters, folks looked for signs in nature to predict the winter. Today we call it phenology — the study of the timing of biological events in plants and animals in relation to changes in season and climate.

One of the more popular folklore winter forecasters is the woolly bear caterpillar. The amount of black on the woolly bear in autumn varies proportionately with the severity of the coming winter. The longer the black bands, the longer, colder, snowier and more severe winter. A wider middle brown band means a milder winter.

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The position of the dark bands also predict which parts of winter will be the worst. A dark band on the head means the beginning of winter will be severe and if the tail end is dark, the end will be the worst. The wooly bear has 13 segments to its body which correspond to the 13 weeks of winter.

Wooly mild

The long brown band on this woolly caterpillar predicts a mild winter.

Wooly severe

This wooly prognosticator portends a severe winter.

Woolly average

The bands on this woolly caterpillar predict an average winter.

Other winter folklore forecasts for a cold and snowy winter are an abundant crop of berries and a heavy acorn crop — both of which we have had.

Another indicator is the weather on Oct. 9. If the weather that day is sunny, the winter will be cold and snowy. We had a sunny day.

Some say you can also predict the severity of the winter by the size of your woodpile. In my case, my woodpile size predicts a winter of only a few weeks.

So what does the woolly bear predict?

My rigorous scientific experiment was taking photos of three woolly bear caterpillars crawling across our driveway. One is black on the head and tail and is two-thirds brown. Another has a black head and tail with a short brown section. The third has a long brown section with just a touch of black on the head and tail.

It should be noted the photos did not account for the Woolly Bear Oscillation, when the length of the sections change based on which part of the caterpillar is moving at the time.

That being said, the three woolly bears tell me the winter could be average, harsh or mild. And I’ll update that forecast when winter arrives.

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