Daylight savings time is the true winter predictor
Did you remember to set your clocks back Saturday night for this morning and the end of 2019′s daylight savings time? I stick to the old adage fall back and spring forward to remember how to set the clock for the biannual time change. For those who enjoy a Sunday morning sleep-in, the good thing about the fall time change is the extra hour of sleep. For me, the clock doesn’t wake me up, my body does, so instead of my usual 6 a.m. wake up today it was 5 a.m. It was dark, very dark, outside at 5 a.m., let alone 6 a.m., which brings me to winter predictors.
The Winter Solstice, Dec. 21, is only one day out of 365 that signifies seasonal change. But observing natural events over a period of weeks reminds us of the constant rotation of the seasonal year and our global journey around the life-giving sun. In New England we enjoy the full range of seasonal change from 90-degree summer heat to -20 below wind chill of January.
For me the daylight hours, whether instituted by man or nature, are a key indicator that winter is coming. Waking to darkness to get ready to leave for work and returning home from work, again in darkness, means that winter is nigh.
For those of us with daily outdoor chores to attend to (owning livestock for example) the winter morning and evening caring for animals in the dark is always a unique challenge. Both morning and evening feeding, watering, cleaning stalls and hauling away manure is performed in darkness. By the way, whoever perfected the headlamp with elastic strap and high-power LED light deserves an award of some kind, not the Nobel Prize, but you get the idea.
More dark hours and less light during the day are indicators, but what about the other signs of nature that foretell winter weather. It seems every day in November someone posts a picture on Facebook of a woolly bear caterpillar with mention of length of the orange band versus the two black bands on the body as an indicator of a snowy or less snowy winter to come. Apparently the thinner the orange band, the more snow we can expect and conversely a wide band indicates less snow. It is a fun game of speculation, and of course not grounded in fact or science.
The fact is within the same group of woolly bear caterpillar eggs, they hatch with varying amount of black and orange bands. Also, as the woolly bear caterpillar ages, its orange band grows more toward the black back end of the body. This means that if you see a woolly bear caterpillar with a narrow orange band, it is probably a younger one. The woolly bears with a longer band are likely older caterpillars. This is certainly not an effective means of determining winter weather conditions. No matter the size of the orange band, the woolly bear caterpillar turns into the Isabella tiger moth that emerges in the spring. The adult moths are yellow and orange in color with black legs and small black spots on their wings.
There is a plethora of folklore predictors of winter. Along with woolly bears the one I hear the most in our region is a harsh winter follows a fall when there are a large number of acorns and nuts produced by our region’s oak and hickory trees. In my neighborhood abundant acorns and hickory nuts means more food for chipmunks, squirrels, blue jays, wild turkey and deer. What are called “heavy mast years” are most certainly a predictor of a springtime population surge in animals relying on acorns and nuts for food.
There are scientific studies examining why some years oaks in a specific region will produce prodigious amounts of acorns and then for several years produce none or a minimal amount. I found an excellent article on the phenomena in one of my favorite publications “Northern Woodlands.” The summer 2015 issue included an article by Michael Snyder, forester and commissioner of Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation called Woods Whys: Acorns and Weather.
“Ecologists have speculated – and put forth supporting data – that masting is an adaptive reproductive strategy. The so-called “predator satiation” idea holds that trees starve would-be seed predators during lean years and overwhelm them with seed during bumper years. The lean years keep populations of seed-eating insects, mammals, and birds low enough that they cannot eat all the seeds during bumper years, so an excess is available for the regeneration of trees.”
The Farmers’ Almanac is a wonderful, annual publication full of interesting and fun astrological and historical facts. This year they provided a list of 20 folklore predictors of a snowy winter, and woolly bears and heavy masting acorns are on that long list. The almanac, of course, does its own annual weather prediction followed by the statement: “Farmers’ Almanac uses a mathematical and astronomical formula to make its long-range weather predictions.” I would be interested in seeing a history of the past 30 years of winter predictions by the Farmers’ Almanac compared to what actually happened in each year. Needless to say, despite my personal skepticism of the almanac’s weather predictors, I do keep a current copy on my desk for quick reference.
For me the one winter weather predictor that I look to is the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center for their winter outlook. Science-based research and analysis from NOAA indicates this year will see a warmer than average winter for most the United States, including the northeast. The northeast is predicted to have an average amount of moisture, as well. Here is a link to their website with the news release on the long-term forecast:
So here we are – launching into November. The mornings are darker and so too are the afternoons. The calendar indicates the winter solstice is 48 days away on Dec. 21. It will be cold. It will get wet on some days. The snow will fall on some days, and the sun will shine on some days, too. Eventually the snow will melt – that we can count on.
I’ll keep my eye on the weekly forecast and hope for snow in the mountains so I can enjoy my favorite winter pastime of skiing, especially when the conditions are right. It’s not too early to sharpen my skis just in case we get snow this month.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. No matter what the winter season holds, let’s remember to enjoy it, care for it, and pass it on.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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