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What will winter be like this year? Check out the woolly bears

The brownish-red segments of the woolly bear are used to determine the severity of the coming winter's weather.
The brownish-red segments of the woolly bear are used to determine the severity of the coming winter's weather.

According to Live Science on Thursday, the 2015 edition of the Farmers Almanac hit the shelves on August 25th, and the news is disheartening for all those hoping for a mild and balmy winter this year.

Winter in New England, 2009

The 200-year old Almanac is calling for below-normal temperatures covering three-quarters of the nation, predicting that the "Northern Plains and the Great Lakes regions of the U.S. will be hardest hit."

But not to be outdone by an old American stand-by like the Farmers Almanac, a meteorologist, Anthony Artusa, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center, was quick to point out that the Almanac's forecast was filled with nothing more than "predictions."

NOAA's "official" three-month outlook for the coming winter months isn't due out until mid-October, and Artusa is saying meteorologist aren't seeing any indications of events leading to what the Almanac refers to as a "record-breaking" winter. "We don't see anything offhand that would suggest it would be a really brutal winter," Artusa told Live Science.

Actually, after raising my family in Southwest Virginia, I will have to say the most accurate way to determine the coming winter weather's severity is to check out the woolly bear caterpillars in October. This may be why NOAA is waiting to issue their "official" forecast.

There is much to be said for the accuracy of forecasting winter weather using the woolly bear. My mother-in-law and all her friends firmly believed in this lowly weather -prognosticator. It has been an unimpeachable way of predicting the weather for centuries, at least on the East Coast and clear on up into Eastern Canada.

But seriously, while modern weather scientists use the very latest technological equipment available to give us the most accurate of weather forecasts, they sometimes are wrong, and aren't afraid to admit it. Their forecasts use complex data sets to try to make highly accurate predictions, and forecasting weather events closer to when they are apt to occur is essential to the accuracy of the prediction.

"We like to pursue [weather predictions] from a scientific standpoint," Artusa said. "This means not engaging in broad speculation about what the weather may look like six months from now."

But back to the woolly bear. The woolly bear is the larval stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth. It has 13 segments, and is black at both ends with reddish-brown segments making up the middle part of its body. According to folklore, the wider the middle brown section is, or in other words, the more brown segments there are, the milder the coming winter will be. Conversely, a narrow brown band is said to predict a harsh winter.

Predictions based on the amount of brown segments on woolly bears has been going on for years and years. In 1948, Dr. C. H. Curran, curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, was curious enough about the caterpillar that he took his wife and traveled upstate about 40 miles to Bear Mountain State Park to observe them in the wild.

To make a long and fascinating story short, Dr. Curran continued his experiment for eight years, predicting the coming winter weather in the New York Times, through a reporter friend he knew. He was attempting to prove scientifically a folklore tradition that was as old as the hills. In doing so, he made the woolly bear the most recognized caterpillar in North America.

Weather predicting is difficult. Just ask a TV weatherman, or an NOAA scientist. But sometimes, its just plain fun to hear old folktales and superstitions that claim to forecast weather, too. Hear are a few of my favorites from the Farmers Almanac:

  • If you spot wispy, thin clouds up where jet airplanes fly, expect a spell of pleasant weather.
  • Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.
  • Ring around the moon? Rain real soon.
  • If it rains before seven, it will clear before eleven.
  • When there is enough blue sky to patch a Dutchman's breeches, expect clearing weather.
  • Evening red and morning gray are sure signs of a fine day. Evening gray and morning red, put on your hat or you'll wet your head.

Do you have a favorite weather predictor proverb or folklore story? Let us know.

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