Almanac says severe winter? Evidence points other way, says Phillips

By Geoff Smith (@GeoffSmithLNN on Twitter)
September 7, 2018 - 12:01pm

LETHBRIDGE – Environment Canada’s senior climatologist is throwing cold water – actually, warm water, in this case – on warnings of a severe winter from the Farmers’ Almanac.

The prognosis for the southern Prairies from the Canadian publication got plenty of media attention in late August, with predictions of stormy, wet weather in the fall, heavy snow late in the year, and temperatures in the -40s in February.

“Do you go for the long shot, or do you go with something with some science in it and some track record?”

 

– David Phillips

But David Phillips says, on the contrary, there’s a very good chance of a warmer than normal winter for southern Alberta, and he can say that with some confidence because of an El Niño pattern in the Pacific Ocean.

“It’s a weak guy, it’s maybe neutral to growing in intensity. And we think that that pattern is going to continue. There’s about a 75 per cent chance that El Niño is not going to disappear. It’s going to grow in strength as we get closer to the end of the year and into next year,” Phillips told LethbridgeNewsNOW in an interview.

“It spells difficult weather in some parts of the world: droughts and floods and what have you. But in Canada, when we have an El Niño, it’s almost you bet a good amount of money on the fact that you’re going to have a warmer than normal winter. It tends to produce more Pacific air over us as opposed to Arctic air.”

So how is it Environment Canada and the almanac can come up with such different predictions? Phillips said it’s like comparing astronomy with astrology.

“They could be right, and we could be wrong,” he admitted. “It’s just the law of averages will tell you that you know, sometimes you can win on these situations. But it’s a matter of betting – do you go for the long shot, or do you go with something with some science in it and some track record?”

Phillips said they keep track of the Farmers’ Almanac predictions, and their success rate is a lot less than the per cent accuracy the annual publication touts.

“I love the Farmers’ Almanac for the jokes and the stories and the ads and the homespun wisdom,” he said. “But I have no doubt saying to you that I would not bet the family farm or the fishing fleet or my life or my livelihood on the pronouncements of the Farmers’ Almanac.

“When you look at things such as moon phases, that’s one of the things they say goes into the forecasts. Moon phases?! It could be a full moon in Vancouver and it could be a full moon in Halifax, but the world could be totally different in terms of the weather. So, there is no confidence in their forecasts.”

Phillips said their own forecasts are getting better, but it’s not an exact science. He points out people only seem to remember when the almanac gets it right – and Environment Canada when they get it wrong. Having a strong El Niño or La Niña gives them a greater degree of certainty and tends to improve their “batting average.”

But he also feels having 100 percent accurate forecasts would take some of the fun out of living in Canada. Skiers, for example, upon hearing a forecast for lots of snow in February might hold off on their vacation plans.

“In some ways, I think for farmers and ranchers, hey, it’s good to have an accurate forecast, because there’s lots of risk in those,” he said. “Certainly, when you’ve got La Niña or El Niño you feel as if you’re going to have at least a good chance that you might be right.”

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