Every year, the Storm Track Weather Department gets together to research and plan the forecast to help the Northland prepare for the upcoming winter. There is a lot that goes in to their forecasting and curiosity about the long-term forecast is nothing new. This year, we start with learning more about one of America’s longest-running winter forecast tools, the Farmers’ Almanac.
The Farmers’ Almanac has been providing a winter outlook for more than 200 years. To this day, their forecast is a popular point of conversation.
There are several almanacs for long-term planning that have similar names. You may be familiar with the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which started back in 1792. The Farmers’ Almanac began as a local publication in New Jersey in 1818 and now provides a forecast for the continental U.S. and Canada.
Meteorologist Brandon Weatherz spoke with Peter Geiger, the editor of the Farmers’ Almanac, to learn more about their approach to forecasting the upcoming winter.
“When the Almanac was started in 1818, David Young, who was the editor, was a mathematician, an astronomer, and a calculator, and he thought it was important to have weather for farmers. So what he did was develop a mathematical formula that gets applied to sun spot activity, planet position, the effect the moon has on the earth,” Geiger said, “All of these things, plus the formula, is what allowed him to do the weather back in 1818.”
Since David Young, only six others have put together the weather for the Farmers’ Almanac. The role is handed down from one person to the next, each using Young’s formula.
Geiger said, “It’s technical. You need someone who understands climate, who understands the earth, understands astronomy. It doesn’t have to be a meteorologist, because, let’s face it, we go back 206 years, so there were not meteorologists back then.”
How accurate is this method? The publication says about 80%. Over the years, several meteorologists have put the almanac to the test.
“We had a young weatherman in Arkansas maybe 5 or 6 years ago who said, ‘You were 69% accurate for the year, but you were 100% accurate for the winter,’ so my response was, ‘If I could be 100% accurate for any season, it would be winter,” Geiger said.
This winter, the Almanac’s mantra is “shake, shiver, and shovel.” The Northland is on the eastern edge of the “hibernation zone,” which they say will be glacial and snow-filled.
Geiger said, “What we try to do is, in the best terms that we can, give an overview of the entire winter, and then give specific 2-3 day segments of what the weather will be.”
This forecast is made almost two years in advance. That’s how early they need it done in order to complete and print the publication.
“What we try to do is break it into regions, and I think when you’re doing it as far out as we’re doing it, that’s what you can get for what we do,” said Geiger. “And of course, the Almanac is only 8% weather. The Almanac really is about how to live your life and how to grow food. Ideas to help people save money, to save fuel, be prepared for what’s eventually going to happen.”
The Farmers’ Almanac provides an idea of what to expect for the winter, but more than anything, the pages are filled with tips on how to prepare for it.
One of the main impacts of winter is on our roads. Clearing the roads can be a daunting task for plow drivers, but the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT) feels ready for this season.
Meteorologist Sabrina Ullman spoke with Public Affairs Coordinator Margie Nelson about what MNDOT is doing to prepare this winter.
“At this time, we’re getting our trucks ready and all of our snowplow drivers are going through their training to prepare for the season,” said Nelson. “We’re getting the trucks all out of the summer operations and getting ready for the winter operations.”
MNDOT has approximately 800 snowplows, ready to plow nearly 12,000 miles of state highways and interstates each winter.
“Different trucks have different setups, and we’re looking at the conditions of the roads that they are on,” explained Nelson. “We’re looking at the amount of traffic going on each road and how heavy the use on each road is and treating accordingly.”
The trucks are also able to assist operators in knowing road conditions. Riding in the snow plow to see the truck’s capabilities for herself, Sabrina spoke with snow plow driver Heather Davis about the plow’s capabilities.
“We have a system that will show us the radar and give us predictions. We also have a system that they have been trying to dial in that will give us recommendations on what material to use, when to use it. Most of it relies completely on the operator and what they think is best,” explained Davis.
Davis added that there is often more time spent patrolling and plowing than in applying material.
“There’s a perfect time to do it, and each one of us just has to figure out what that is,” said Davis. “Every storm is different. So we pay attention to the temperature drops, we pay attention to if there’s more precipitation coming. If it’s snowing or if it’s going to come back in a couple of hours, that’s when we try not to apply any material until we’re pretty certain that the storm is completely over and we’ve pretty much plowed off everything we can.”
Knowing what to apply is extremely important. For example, salt is more effective at warmer temperatures, melting over five times as much ice at 30 degrees than at 20 degrees.
“We have really expanded our liquids in trying out different liquids to find a way to get rid of the granular material. We really don’t want to affect the planet or the lake any more than anyone else, so we really strive hard,” said Davis. This particular truck I’m in, the way this truck was built, it could have held three scoops of material. And that has taken the time to outfit these trucks where they only hold one scoop. So right away, we’re equipped with way more liquid. It gives us the ability and the option to use the liquid in the place of the granular materials.”
Chemicals, such as calcium chloride or magnesium chloride, help lower the freezing point. Brine, which is highly concentrated salt water, is also used.
“We’re seeing that when we are using brine, we’re able to use less salt and it will cost less in the long run, and it actually stays in place better than salt that will just hit and then bounce immediately off the road,” explained Nelson. “So it’s a combination of cost saving and the environmental impact.”
Brine is the main liquid used, but it is less helpful when temperatures get below 20 degrees. Potassium acetate has been used for around five years because it is useful when it is “cold, cold.”
When driving near a snow plow, extra caution is needed.
“We just encourage people to stay behind the plows. It’s the safest spot to be. The roads will be clear behind it. They’re coming through and treating it,” said Nelson. Always be careful if and when you’re around them, give them plenty of space to do their work. We slow down. They can’t always see you. There’s blind spots with the plow trucks, and we want everyone to get home safe at the end of the day.”
As plow drivers move through their routes, they update the road conditions regularly.
“It actually pops up on a screen, and it will alert us every hour to update our road conditions. So as we’re plowing and maintaining the route, you know, just picked up and now it’s covered again, we update hourly,” explained Davis. “If something were to change within that hour, we have the ability to change it right away.”
The updated road conditions are automatically put online. MNDOT provides live updates of road conditions at 511mndot.org, and Wisconsin has a version that also includes the U.P.
“You can see what the snow conditions are and whether they’re icy or they’re snow covered, partially covered, and you can adjust your travel times accordingly,” said Nelson. “But when you’re traveling, slow down, take it easy. It’s going to take longer in the winter and pay attention to what’s going on around you. It’s really important to stay focused on the road and not on any distractions because we want everyone to be safe.”
The WDIO website has links to both 511 websites as well as live traffic cameras and an interactive radar.
Chief Meteorologist Justin Liles wants everyone to keep both the almanac and road preparations in mind as we get ready for winter.
The Storm Track Weather Team is expecting another La Niña year like last winter, but this one will be stronger. As we get more into the winter, La Niña will get stronger.
A stronger La Niña means that everything will set up like the winter of 2013-2014. In other words, it is not going to be pleasant.
Do you remember the dreaded polar vortex of 2013-2014? If you didn’t get an “I survived the polar vortex” shirt that year, well, it’s back this winter.
The winter of 2013–14 was dominated by the polar headline, affecting parts of Canada and the north-central and upper eastern portion of the United States. The brutal cold brought in freezing water lines at a record clip and forced many school closures. Lake Superior was almost completely iced over for the first time since 1996. Making things worse, it devoured the local economy, forced ski hills to close multiple days, and pushed heating bills off the charts — even spurring a shortage of propane.
This winter will start off early. We will have some early snows to help with hunting season, but the first true snow will come around Thanksgiving.
It looks like one of the snowiest months is going to be December, potentially one of the top ten snowiest Decembers on record. A large winter storm that looks to bring heavy snow to most of the region at the beginning of the month may last two to three days and bring well over a foot of snow. The South Shore of Lake Superior will not to be out-done as a long-duration lake effect snow event looks possible around the 21st of December. Most of us will end the month with over 30″ of snow.
Our coldest part of the winter as always will be January and February. In 2013-2014, the Duluth airport experienced low temperatures below zero on 65 days starting on December 1, 2013. We went on a streak from January 18th to February 11 with 23 consecutive days below zero.
January and February will likely be just as cold so start planning your trips to the equator.
Only 10″ of new snow is likely in January, nearly 25″ of snow will fall in February while another 20” will fall in March. April will likely see snow again as we get over another 25″ of snow. Most of the Northland will end up with over 110″ of snowfall for the 2022-2023 winter season.
Justin says to, “brace yourself, get ready and hunker down, make plans for a lot of indoor time and like all winter forecasts try to be patient.”