The Long Range Winter Forecast, and Why You Should Ignore It

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I’m starting to hear a lot of chatter about the forecast this winter.  More forecasts are predicting a bitterly cold winter than a warm and balmy one, but both can be found.  Obviously they can’t both be right.

Scientific long-range forecasts are always dicey, and expressed in terms of probabilities.  Last year was a case study in why probabilities are not certainties: the best science said warmer than average; the reality was bitterly cold and snowy.  They still don’t know why the polar vertex, which normally keeps cold air trapped in the arctic, dipped down so low.  Or why an El Nino failed to show up this year.

Non-scientific forecasts like the Farmer’s Almanac have secret methodology which may very well consist of throwing darts at a weather forecast board.  Although they got last winter correct, their success rate is about half.  That’s what you’d expect to happen over a long period of time due to chance.  It’s entertaining, but not useful.

I’m of the opinion any of the long-range forecasts, regardless of the source, should be used to entertainment purposes only.

But what if you did know for sure what would happen this winter?  What would you actually change?  We had a bitterly cold winter last year, but first and last frost dates were right on time.  We could have a warm winter but early frosts.  Knowing a frost is coming in a few days is useful, guessing when they will show up is only marginally so.  Knowing for sure when it will frost well ahead of time would be wonderful, but unlikely to happen in our lifetimes!

  • If you use season extension techniques or rely on your winter vegetable garden, you should be prepared to protect plants from excess heat or cold any day of the year.
  • Regardless of where you live, you should be prepared for any winter to be colder or snowier than normal, including for pets and livestock.
  • In some areas, a warm winter may mean flooding.  This is not the case in Alabama, fortunately, but anywhere that usually gets most of their rain in the form of winter snow may be at risk.
  • If your home needs insulation and modifications to prepare for cold (or hot) temperatures, do it anyway.
  • If you have perennials, shrubs and trees that are marginal in your zone, be ready to protect them from a cold snap every year, not just on cold years.

We all want to know the future, but as gardeners the long-range weather forecast shouldn’t change our preparedness and habits.