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Some early signs of winter point in wrong direction

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D.S. Pledger
August 18, 2013

A few weeks ago I wrote about the signs of autumn that will be sneaking into the state in the days ahead.

According to folk wisdom, there are also some that will tell us whether there'll be an early fall or if the winter will be a cold one. Supposedly, nature's little wards have the inside scoop about how many Arctic systems will sweep down on us in the cold months ahead and even how many snows we will have.

One that keeps popping up is that you can tell how bad the winter is going to be by checking out the height of muskrat houses. The higher they stick up above the marsh, we're told, the longer the winter will be.

In reality, muskrat push-ups are built pretty much to a standard height above the surface, so it's the depth of the water in the marsh that determines how “tall” they appear to be. When constructed during times of high water, the house won't stick up very far, but should the water level drop, the house will then appear to be higher.

It's just a matter of how much water there is, and not any particular wisdom on the part of the rodent that built it.

As one writer puts it: “Forget the woodchuck when it comes to weather forecasting—you'll want to keep your eye on the lowly little muskrat for your seasonal prognostications. The 'rat report is just as inaccurate as the 'chuck report, but it can be consulted much earlier. You can, in other words, get your misinformation much quicker on the muskrat channel.”

Another old adage concerns the woolly bear caterpillar. The fuzzier he appears, it's said, the colder the winter will be. I had to question that theory one year when I encountered a woolly bear crossing the road.

The hirsute worm had an ample coat, proof of a cold winter, but I saw it when I was out jogging wearing shorts and a tee shirt—in January.

The width of the worm's red band is also supposed to portend the coming weather. If there's any weather fact in that old maxim at all, it's because a narrower band can be the result of a late start in the spring, meaning that the previous winter may have been colder than usual.

Besides prognosticating the severity of the weather ahead, there are signs that are supposed to indicate an “early” or “late” onset of winter.

How many times have you heard about a splash of color in the maples as proof of an early fall? Maples, like so many other flora and fauna in nature, get their cues from the sun's angle that remains constant from year to year, and are not subject to external variables.

An early change in leaves usually means that either the tree is unhealthy or that the summer was exceptionally dry.

Some folks put a lot of stock in the folksy Farmer's Almanac to gauge the coming weather, but its predictions are simply based on long-range forecasts that don't have a very impressive record.

Although some claim a weather predicting accuracy of 80 percent, most analysts rate it far less (as low as 31 percent).

It's a quaint notion to think of some old sodbuster squinting at the rings around the moon, calculating how much his lumbago is bothering him, discerning the color of the wishbone of the goose he had for dinner and then coming up with an infallible prediction that will tell you whether to buy a new snow blower, but the Almanac's track record is about as good as Jimmy the Groundhog's.

So what's the best way to forecast the severity of the coming winter? Drive past my house and see how many cords of firewood I've got stacked in the driveway. If it's more than a dozen, then there's a 50 percent chance that the winter will be early, cold and long.

On the other hand, it just might mean that I like to cut and split wood.

D.S. Pledger is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at maus16@centurytel.net.



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