As The Tree Turns

The Farmers’ Almanac is predicting a bitter winter.

They say their predictions are right 80 percent of the time, based on a secret formula that uses planetary positions, sunspots and lunar cycles to forecast weather – something modern science doesn’t subscribe to.

Winter is going to be a four letter word, says an Almanac managing editor, as in C-O-L-D.

They were only off by a few days last winter when they predicted two winter storms, and some people think there might be something to their special formula.

I heard it was going to be a rough winter before the Almanac’s prediction hit the news. I was talking to a farmer a few weeks ago who said that this year, the trees are laden with fruit-a sure sign of a tough winter. He said he had a banner year for blueberries.

I thought about a young tree in our backyard. I didn’t even know it was fruit bearing until eight apples appeared on its branches this August.

“But last winter,” the farmer said, “wasn’t even a winter.”

“It snowed almost every day!” I said. “I thought it was a hard winter.”

He looked at me like someone who didn’t know much about local weather-like I just walked off a boat from Bermuda.

“Nope,” he said, “last winter was nothing.”

When I got home, I sat in the backyard with my husband and we looked for other signs of winter doom.

More than a few leaves on our trees were already turning red. I picked one up from the ground and stuck it in my pocket.

We also found a few fat acorns on the ground, but there was no evidence of a squirrel-hoarding party anywhere, which is another sign of doom.

“This is the year we get the snow blower fixed,” I said, remembering shoveling our little driveway by myself more often than I liked last year. But I don’t like the snow blower. It’s bigger than I am, hard to start and it’s always broken. It just seems easier to use a shovel.

I’ve always been interested in human intuition-even when it comes to the weather. Modern forecasting is only reliable up to two weeks, according to the National Weather Service. They’ve got a new super computer with 10,000 processing cores and 2.6 petabytes of storage (whatever that means) and still they say seasonal data models are pretty much a crap shoot. It’s taken the National Weather Service 100 years to come up with a four-day forecast that is nearly as accurate as a one-day forecast was 30 years ago. Advances in weather forecasting move as slow as a stalled winter storm.

The problem is that weather is complex. Things like currents, sea temperature and dew points are so variable. Conditions change on a dime and it’s hard to model that.

But I don’t think we give human intuition enough credit. We all know someone who can predict rain by a slight flare in their arthritis symptoms before the storm blows in. Can a computer do that? And think of the farmer standing under a red sky trying to discern the weather and predict upcoming rain or heat waves. They’ve been predicting weather long before the first computer models arrived.

Why do we so often trust science rather than our own chops?

Apparently, not everybody does.

A new tech company called EarthRisk is turning farmers’ intuition into a business to better predict weather patterns. They take farmers’ observations and back them up with statistical data to come up with forecasts-especially extreme temperature changes and hurricanes. They sell the information to energy companies and utilities.

And a study presented at Columbia University shows that people who trust their feelings are more able to make reliable predictions. The study suggests that it may be prudent to teach young students behavioral and emotional skills that help them to trust their intuition more as adults. It appears that important decisions like buying a car or getting married seem to benefit more from an intuitive process. That’s nothing new to a farmer.

I don’t have a strong feeling about winter weather this year, but I like the fact that human gumption is getting its due in academia.

And I can’t see a downside to a fall full of fruit.