Predicting the weather with Harleys

Posted by By at 12 October, at 10 : 03 AM Print

One of the newspapers where I used to work posted it on their website today.

“If the woolly worms are correct, schoolchildren might be getting a number of snow days this winter,” the story’s lede read.


I think the paper runs this story every year. Or a version of it. I know, because I’ve written a couple of them.

Actually, over the years, I have written my share of weather stories, and stories like those of wooly bears and other arcane folk methods of predicting the weather.

I’m not picking on that paper. I would be willing to bet that every news organization in the U.S., if not the world, is writing stories on the same old humbug every year. It’s a journalistic tradition. Not necessarily a good or useful tradition, but a tradition nonetheless.

Weather stories fall into two main categories.

The first are the ones like I’m talking about here, where some group of local experts or shamans or hoodoo doctors picks some innocent critter, like a wooly bear caterpillar or a groundhog, and bases some prognostications about what the weather is going to do in the coming weeks or months.

The caterpillar is covered with a black or dark brown fuzz with a band of orange or light brown fuzz in the middle. Supposedly, the more black fuzz there is, the harsher the winter will be.

Why anyone would think a bug would come equipped to tell humans that winter was going to be cold I’ll never know. I guess it’s an effort to pretend that the world is set up to somehow benefit humans. It would be nice if some thoughtful designer had set these things out for the truly wise so they’d know how cold they were going to be.

Sorry. The amount of black on the thing depends on how far long it is toward being full grown. The older the caterpillar is the blacker and less orange he is.

All the caterpillar knows, if caterpillars can be said to know anything, is that when it gets cold he goes to sleep and wakes up in the spring as an Isabella tiger moth. Whether this state of affairs is alarming to the former caterpillar is not apparent.

The second type of news story are the ones where the reporter spends an hour or so writing a story about how it snowed, so that his readers can shovel their way out through the snow to their newspaper tube and read about it.

Thanks to the Internet, the readers can now find out it snowed without having to dig through the snow to find out.

Unlike the first category of weather story, this one can be very useful, because the reporter can include helpful information such as when the local snowplows can be expected or, in today’s time of budget cuts, IF they can be expected, and whether or not there are school closings. Most parents pray that there are not, I don’t care what they say in public.

I have a friend who worked for a regional almanac for a number of years. I met him when I did a story on how his weather predictions, using all sorts of odd calculations based on a formula put together hundreds of years ago, had hit every major winter storm on the nose.

Caterpillar readers everywhere nodded sagely. See? Those scientists don’t know everything.

Well, actually, my friend IS a scientist, in fact, and the almanac stuff was more of a hobby, like tying flies. That year, by the way, was the only one in a very long while that the prediction had any accuracy to speak of.

The folks at the reported wooly bear-reading ceremony said that winter is going to be severe with deep, deep snow.

Interestingly, “AccuWeather is forecasting a stormy and cold winter for central Pennsylvania with mild spells. An early-season lake-effect snow could blanket the northwestern part of the state,” the newspaper story said.

The reading was made in Lewisburg, a town a ways north of Harrisburg on the Susquehanna River. It is very often cold in winter, and often snowy, in Lewisburg. The folks at the reading claim the furry worms have an 80 percent accuracy rate. With predictions like that, it’s no surprise.

Of course, with all the changes going on in the world climate, weather predictions are going to get a lot stranger. Places that are cold will get colder, places that are hot will get hotter, and sometimes everything will get turned on its head. Severe weather will get more severe, and also harder to predict.

And I mean harder to predict by even more scientific instruments than fuzzy bugs.

But, OK, just to show that I’m not as grumpy as I seem to be, I’ll get into the spirit. I’m on vacation, at a wonderful B&B called The Tipsy Butler in a Maine seaside town where they have an annual pumpkin festival. I paid close attention to the number of old guys on Harleys tearing up and down the street past the rows of carved pumpkins. The sky was clear and sunny and the temperature was a highly unusual 83 degrees. In October. In Maine.

Hence, a lot of those guys were wearing sleeveless shirts, and their arms were almost all a bright pink.

So, based on the amount of pink biker hides I saw at the Damariscotta Pumpkin Festival on October 9, I predict a winter with temperatures and snowfall within the normal 100-year range.

Check back with me on the first day of spring, 2012, and we’ll see who was right, the Midlife Crisis Cavalry of Maine, or some fuzz-bearing leaf-eater.

Photo by Kristine Paulus


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This post was written by:
- who has written 28 posts for Rock The Capital
T.W. Burger was born in western Pennsylvania but spent more than 30 years growing up in Athens Ga., with a two-year side-trip to Greenville, Mississippi. He has lived in the Gettysburg area since 1985. Before becoming a newspaper reporter at 35, he was an apprentice mortician, concrete mixer driver, garbageman, salesman, laboratory technician and all-around roustabout. He has written professionally since the late 1970s. He lives along Marsh Creek near Gettysburg with his partner Sue and a loose affiliation of cats. He is the author of the “Burger to Go” blogsite at - Email tburger


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