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Does the nature around us predict winter weather?

Folklore suggests the skies, plants and animals in our area hint at the longer-term forecast

Way back when I first met with John Morriss to discuss writing a weekly weather column, we talked about different topics that might be appropriate. One of those ideas was to discuss various weather folklore. I have touched on this topic now and then over the years, but I must admit it turned out to be more difficult than I thought. Jumping forward to today (and stealing a line from sport tech blogger DCRainmaker), in my “continual attempt to find the end of the internet,” I came across an Old Farmer’s Almanac article that simply lists 20 signs of a hard winter. There was no explanation behind any of these signs, so I thought it might be fun to try to dissect them a little bit to see if they can be used to predict weather.

Corn husks thicker than usual: I’m no corn expert, but I do grow corn. This year my corn did not have thicker husks than usual — if anything, maybe a little thinner. This type of weather predictor implies plants and animals have some built-in ability to prepare for future weather. From where I sit, plants and animals react to near-term weather, which in some cases may coincide with what will happen in the future.

Woodpeckers sharing a tree, and the early arrival of snowy owls: I can’t really comment on either of these. I rarely see snowy owls, so I wouldn’t know if they arrived earlier or not. Since they spend their summers in the far north and winter in southern parts of Canada, their early arrival could mean conditions in Northern Canada have turned less hospitable earlier than expected, but whether that will lead to colder or more severe winter in southern regions is unclear. Northern Canada can be colder than average while southern regions are warm. As for woodpeckers, your guess is as good as mine; I can’t see any logical reason for that one.

Early departure of geese and ducks: Notice this one says “early departure,” not “early arrival.” From my limited knowledge and experience watching geese, I find they will mostly stick around as long as there is fairly good weather and a decent food supply. That means there are two variables at play: weather and food. If the fall weather turns bad earlier than expected, forcing geese and ducks to leave, that might mean we are in a longer-term pattern of cold, harsh weather that could continue into the winter. If it is a food supply issue — maybe brought on by a dry summer, for example — the geese might leave early, but that would not be linked to a possible harsh winter.

Heavy and numerous fogs in August: I have been asked about this one, or variations of it, several times before. I think I even wrote an article about fog and future snowfalls. While some people truly believe in this one, I’m a little more skeptical. Heavy fogs in August would come from abundant low-level moisture, usually supplied by wet ground, along with clear cool/cold nights. The clear cold nights would mean we are in a weather pattern being dominated by arctic high pressure, which in the winter would mean cold temperatures. Whether a pattern present in August would continue or develop in winter is tough to say. This year, I’d say we did not see that much fog in August.

An abundance of acorns: As with the corn husks, this one relies on the idea that plants can predict future weather. Growth of acorns is more likely determined by current weather and by the previous year’s weather. Also, like a lot of other trees that produce fruits or seeds, they tend to have bumper-crop years which are then followed by one or more years of small crops. Scientists believe acorn crops, also known as “masts,” cycle between small and large crops, not because of weather but as an evolutionary response to ensure reproductive survival. So, I can’t see how this would be able to predict a harsh winter. If it can, there were not a lot of acorns this year, at least in my area.

“See how high the hornet’s nest, ’twill tell how high the snow will rest.”: While I have seen hornets, I have rarely seen their nests. I’d file this with the other notions of plants and animals predicting weather. I’m not sure if this also applies to wasps’ nests, but if it does, I’d be a little worried, as I saw one about 20 feet up a tree just the other day!

Frequent halos or rings around the sun or moon forecast numerous snowfalls: If we are seeing this phenomenon in the late fall or early winter, I would have to agree that it might mean we will see at least some harsh weather ahead. Rings or halos around the sun or moon are usually the result of ice crystals in the upper atmosphere. These ice crystals usually come from the moisture within a storm system and will spread out ahead of a storm by one or more days. Thus, a ring or halo around the sun or moon could mean a storm is coming (or could miss us). Whether that means the whole winter would be harsh is questionable.

I wish I had room for more. Maybe I will revisit this topic again in the coming weeks. If you have your own winter weather predictor, feel free to let me know at [email protected].

About the author

Co-operator contributor

Daniel Bezte is a teacher by profession with a BA (Hon.) in geography, specializing in climatology, from the U of W. He operates a computerized weather station near Birds Hill Park.

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