Long before there was Doppler radar and 24-hour weather on TV, prognostications on the climate ahead often were based on such things as where hornets and squirrels built their nests and the tightness of husks on corn.
Today is the first day of winter. Unlike some years, Northeast Georgia already has had a brush with Old Man Winter, with temperatures dipping well below freezing.
But what kind of winter will it be?
If you believe age-old weather lore, you should look for signs such as the size of acorns, the thick hulls of walnuts and hickory nuts, the color of a woolly worm — whether it’s nearly jet black instead of russet and brown striped — and a squirrel’s extra-bushy tail as signs of a hard, cold winter.
Still more signs of a bad winter were onions with many layers, the depth to which carrots grew, tree bark thickest on the north side of the tree, a bumper crop of blackberries and pine cones and a thick layer of moss on the trees. But the hoot owl’s call late in autumn is yet another harbinger of a bad winter.
Billy Skaggs, Hall County Extension agent, says they don’t teach weather lore at the University of Georgia College of Agriculture, but he’s heard plenty of it.
"We don’t get a formal lesson on that," Skaggs said. "If I could turn a drought around, I’d be a hero. Unfortunately, I cannot predict those things. I hear it’s going to be wetter than normal, and that’s a good thing."
Many view old-time weather lore as folk tales or fables. Another weather prognosticator that some say is less than scientific is the Old Farmer’s Almanac. The editors of the almanac believe the snow that already has fallen in states like Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, New York and Tennessee is a bellwether of things to come.
According to the 2009 Old Farmer’s Almanac, the early snow is indicative of a nationwide cold winter on the way. Most regions will have below-normal winter temperatures, on average, with the area of heaviest snowfall extending from the Ozarks northeastward into southern New England, the almanac predicts.
Are you wondering if your front yard will look like a winter wonderland for the approaching holidays? Folks in the Northeast, the Appalachians, the Southeast, the Lower Lakes area, the Ohio Valley, the Upper Midwest, and even the Deep South might see flurries on Christmas morning, according to the publication.
The almanac is not without some scientific basis for its forecasts.
The weather prognosticators at the Old Farmer’s Almanac expect the La Niña that developed in the Pacific Ocean during the winter of 2007-08 to continue into the coming winter. That means cooler- and drier-than-normal conditions for much of the western United States, but skiers everywhere should not despair: Snow and numerous snowstorms are predicted for most areas that normally receive snow.
But the state’s climatologist disagrees with the La Niña forecast and says that in meteorological terms, winter already has started.
"Atmospheric scientists, in general, view winter as the entire months of December, January and February," said state climatologist David Stooksbury. "Another method is to take the winter solstice (Dec. 21) and since it has the least light, declare it the midpoint of winter."
Stooksbury said this year is a neutral year, without either La Niña or El Niño.
"This is a neutral winter and is behaving as a classic neutral winter," he said.
"It’s a roller coaster. One week will be frigid, and the next week, we’ll be playing golf in the 70s."
Stooksbury said neutral winters can vary in terms of precipitation. He said that in neutral winters the region has experienced its most bone-chilling cold.
"Every major devastating freeze, when temperatures have reached below zero in Gainesville, has occurred during neutral winters," he said. "Not every neutral winter has that."
Of the weather lore, Stooksbury said there is some validity to an idea of measuring the number of foggy days in August as an indicator of winter’s potential fury.