Marolt: The follies of predicting weather
October 4, 2013
Repeat after me: We are an educated and enlightened town. We are an educated and enlightened town. We are an educated and enlightened town that understands the Farmers' Almanac's long-term weather forecast is a bunch of baloney that's about as good as a coin toss at predicting how our winter is going to go.
It seems that this time of year there are only two topics of discussion in the Rocky Mountains. We are either hedging our bets on the Broncos or placing them on the Farmers' Almanac. Our conversations go like this:
"The Broncos look like they can win it all this year."
"Oooh, I'm not so sure about that. It's a long season. A lot can happen."
"Yeah, I guess so. … But the Farmers' Almanac says it's going to snow hard all the way through next April!"
"I know! I already bought a new pair of fat sticks!"
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We place more faith in Caleb Weatherbee, the almanac's 198-year-old made-up forecaster, than we do in Peyton Manning, the all-natural sweetener in the new and improved Orange Crush offense.
Here's the thing I want to know: What is the secret formula that was developed almost two centuries ago that supposedly still produces more accurate weather forecasts than modern science? They didn't have weather balloons and thermometers floating around the globe's oceans, much less infrared radar and satellites. They couldn't even check Twitter to see what in the sky was trending a few states to the west.
The almanac itself says it uses a system that was developed in 1818 based on a "mathematical and astronomical formula that takes sunspot activity, tidal action of the moon and position of the planets into consideration." Really? What exactly is "tidal action of the moon"? And what did they know about sunspots in 1818?
I know what you're thinking: Of course the almanac has changed its formula with the times just like everyone else. You think so, huh? That makes perfect sense, except, why would it? It claims that it was 75 to 85 percent accurate back when it started two centuries ago. If that's true, how much tweaking did it need to do? Although its secret formula dates back to simpler times, I don't think the weather was any simpler, too.
This infatuation with predicting powder days two months in advance indicates that there are a lot of uptight powder hounds around Aspen these days. It reminds me of the advice to stressed-out, overworked people to sit down and schedule "date nights" with their spouses. "It looks like I'm free on the 19th between 4:30 and 6. Shall we pencil it in? If something happens with my 3 o'clock, I'll let you know, and we can possibly move it up. I've already got the conference room booked. Sorry again for canceling last month. I know this is important."
There are a couple of local guys who were pretty good at predicting the weather, and I used to follow their website, but I think they sensed the proliferation of Type A skiers and started to charge for their services, and I gave it up. I figured a better use of the money would be getting my windows washed or washing the car. I remember the guys really cared, though. I used to love the way they beat themselves up when they missed a forecast. It was enough to keep you coming back to the site.
I always thought one of the best things about a powder day was the surprise of waking up to the sound of the snowplow. Before your eyes even opened, you knew it was going to be a great day on the mountain. Of course, nowadays when they plow every time even a half inch accumulates, that indicator doesn't work so well, but there is still opening the blinds to a white-out to get the blood pumping.
It's sort of reverse anticipation today. Instead of knowing very little about tomorrow's weather and then waking up to a blizzard that instantly fills you with incredible joy and excitement that not even great coffee can fill a morning with, we now wax our skis three days in advance according to a prediction for 6 to 8 inches by 10 o'clock Thursday morning with another 2 to 4 by lunchtime. The new system can only lead to meeting expectations our utter disappointment. No wonder so many of us are sick of skiing by the middle of March now.
Predicting the weather is a fool's game. To ensure a good winter, we have only the tried and true method — nobody put on the snow tires until after Christmas.
Roger Marolt is not even going to get new wiper blades for a while. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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