Updated: Oct 19, 2022
Just check the Farmer’s Almanac
If you want a long term weather outlook, you really shouldn’t do that. Here are the main reasons why. The Farmer’s Almanac uses large regions, grouping together cities with very different climates. For instance, The Farmer's Almanac puts New Orleans in the same climate region as Nashville, which averages more than four times as many freezing nights and a foot less of rain per year. Since their climates are so different, their daily weather is also often very different. So, if you look at this region in the Farmer's Almanac hoping to find the weather in New Orleans or Nashville, chances are it will be wrong for one of them. And that is just one example; almost all of the Farmer's Almanac regions are flawed. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), uses these more scientifically sound climate regions.
On top of using these impractical regions, the Farmer’s Almanac uses intentionally vague wording. If it says “sunny for most of Louisiana” then which parts will be cloudy? Louisiana is a big state. If it says “changing skies” then how can it be considered wrong? Skies are always changing. A more reliable climate outlook will speak more broadly, more clearly and offer probabilities.
The Farmer’s Almanac also does not tell anyone its method for creating these predictions. On the other hand, meteorology is openly taught, studied and communicated to anyone interested in the process of forecasting. What if somebody told you they had a business, that was sure to make money, but did not tell you what it was, would you still invest? Probably not. Statistics have shown most weather forecasts to be accurate over 80 percent of the time! Meanwhile, the Farmer’s Almanac has shown to be accurate between 50-55 percent of the time, essentially the odds of a coin flip. Even the blind squirrel finds a nut…
Really, it is just the Farmer's Almanac "Long-Range Weather Outlook" that is problematic. There are good things about the publication… first unveiled in the 1700s, the Farmer’s Almanac is great for looking up astronomical information, tides, weather averages and key agricultural dates. Actually, before scientific progress in weather and climate during the 1900s, the Farmer’s Almanac was a mainstream read with relatable content and witty humor.
A Long-Term Weather Outlook is Possible
Climatology is the study of earth’s climate, commonly defined as “weather conditions averaged over the last 30 years.” There are some limits to climatology. Experts are not able to provide precise forecasts for weeks, months and years ahead of time. Massive climate databases frequently need to be adjusted because of improvement in the tools and methods of measurement over the last 100 plus years.
The capabilities of climatology far outweigh the limits. Understanding climate patterns and cycles means we are able to assign probability to weather conditions occurring in the future, sometimes one to two years in advance! While weather forecasting focuses on conditions expected about 10 days out in time, climate outlooks are based on the frequency and trends of those conditions.
Climatology can use a technique called “analog forecasting” that is rooted in the idea that past conditions can help predict the future. The method is difficult since there is rarely a perfect match for an event in the future, but it can be done by those of us with a meteorological background and specific skills in weather pattern identification. If you have ever heard El Niño or La Niña referenced in a discussion of future weather, you have heard a small part of an analog forecast.
Just the Stats, Man
Statistics play a key role in the sciences of weather and climate. Past data are often factored into forecasts, without most people giving much thought to it. For instance, in your local weather forecast, the temperatures are usually within the bounds of a record high and low because it is statistically unlikely for them to be broken, even if the weather is much warmer or colder than average. Additionally, the forecast may call for 1-3 inches of rain because more than 3 inches has never fallen at that time of year.
When we can combine that type of data with an understanding of climate patterns, we can issue probability-based guidance about future weather. If only 1 out of 100 years had freezing temps past a certain date, and climate patterns suggest warmer than average temps, we can confidently say it will not freeze past that date. Usually the data is a bit more foggy (pun intended) than those last examples, but still handy for real world applications.
Consulting with a weather planner, farmers entering the new year may want to know if they should plan on running irrigation systems right into the fall. If for a given location, a week in September averages 2 rainy days for a total of 1.63 inches, and climate patterns suggest wetter than average conditions, we tell the farmers that drought is unlikely at that time. What is the weather like in spring in Wisconsin? A bride-to-be may Google that question before booking an outdoor wedding. If for a given location, a weekend in June is historically drier than one in May and even drier than one in April, she would be least likely to need her indoor backup plan in June.
We all know that with any kind of prediction, there are not many certainties, but there is value in knowing probabilities or chances of an outcome. In dealing with
weather, while those chances are rarely definitive like
0 percent or 100 percent, it is always nice to know if the
numbers are on your side.