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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Predicting winter? Some folk tales can come true...

Tuesday, December 4, 2001

Should you expect a severe winter if the horses get a thick coat early? Is it true squirrels are busier gathering nuts before a bad winter?

There are plenty of folk tales to help predict the weather. While some have no scientific basis (sorry Mr. Groundhog), others have developed because they proved to be accurate in the days before computer-aided weather forecasting.

Red skies at night, sailors' delight?

True, according to Ron Demers, Storm Lake native and meteorologist with KTIV TV.

"The high clouds come out after a storm has passed by," Demers said. "The storm caused more dust in the sky for the sun to reflect off of."

Farmers over the years have developed various tales as well to explain the weather. Many of those have dealt with animals - cats scratch a post before a wind, a big storm is coming if the cows refuse to go to pasture, and when dogs eat grass a severe storm is coming.

How about a ring around the moon means a storm is coming soon?

This one is sometimes true, with the rings having formed because of clouds in the sky containing ice crystals which reflect light into a ring. If those clouds thicken the crystals can form rain or snow.

While not always reliable, Demers said animals aren't always wrong either.

"Some of them can be affected by the atmospheric pressure. Animals are more sensitive to it," he said. "And with pressure a lot lower sometimes animals can react to that in different ways.

"Before Mt. St. Helens, there were reports of fish jumping out streams and creeks and people didn't know what was happening," he said. "But the fish could sense what was going on underneath the earth."

Also, everyone knows a grandfatherly type who claims they can predict the weather by which joint is hurting the day before. Don't rule them out, Demers said.

"People who have had broken bones and some with arthritis can say when they're sore, rain or some other weather is on the way," Demers said. "Barometric pressure can affect people as well."

While the tales are fun, they do not compare to the forecast models Demers and other meteorologists use to map out the next day's worth of weather.

"We use several models to try to predict what the precipitation will be, where it's going to be and what the temperatures are going to be like," he said.

Forecasters use some satellite and radar data as well as historical information, but they rely on the highly-developed mathematical forecast models.

"Weather can be predicted to an extent and by using various information, like the temperature, dew points and other conditions, forecasters and try to determine what the next day will be like with these mathematical formulas."

One model may say tomorrow will be 55 degrees and another may say 45 degrees.

"It's up to us to either choose the one that's been more consistent, or perhaps decide to go between the two," Demers said.

The old adage "If you don't like the weather now, just wait an hour" remains true for Iowa. In the past week Sioux Falls saw 13 inches of snow, while Storm Lake has had none.

While forecast models are fairly reliable for one week, extended outlooks are not.

"These look a month, two or three months ahead, and are not as accurate," Demers said. "We thought this November was going to be cold and wet, but we know what it really was."

And when spring time comes will Demers be looking for the groundhog's shadow? Probably not.

"The groundhog is strictly for fun."

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