'Conjecturer' is winter storm guru

March 20, 1994|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Sun Staff Writer

EMMITSBURG -- You can feel it. You can read it on the calendar. But you can't know for sure until you hear it from Bill O'Toole:

"Winter's over."

Mr. O'Toole is the man of the hour, the weather guru of winter. The reserved, bespectacled computer whiz from Frederick County predicted 14 of Maryland's 17 storms this winter in the Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack.

"I had a pretty good winter," says Mr. O'Toole, 51, at his desk at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, where he heads the mathematics and computer science department.

lTC That's as much boasting as you're likely to hear from Mr. O'Toole, who since 1969 has forecast the weather for the 197-year-old almanac. He doesn't claim extraordinary powers or even extraordinary success.

He's a good-natured "conjecturer" carrying on a centuries-old tradition. He bases his forecasts mainly on weather trends that follow each phase of the moon.

"This is supposed to be fun," he says. "So what if modern science has overtaken conjecturers of the weather?"

Readers of the almanac take his predictions seriously. He gets calls in August from parents and brides-to-be who want to know which weekend will be best for an outdoor wedding in June.

Fred Davis, chief meteorologist for the National Weather Service at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, doesn't call Mr. O'Toole for the forecast, but doesn't denigrate his work, either.

But he does bristle when people rub his nose in Mr. O'Toole's success -- as they did frequently this winter. Mr. Davis points out that Mr. O'Toole's "verification system is weighted a good bit in ,, his favor."

Mr. O'Toole claims success if a storm comes within one day of the exact days he predicted. His Jan. 1-3 forecast was "snow, stormy." No snow fell, but Jan. 4 Hagerstown got 6 inches and BWI a mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain.

That's close enough for Mr. O'Toole. He says the weather service, with its satellites and radar, deals with the daily intricacies of forecasting, while he, with his lunar chart and computer, deals with long-range forecasting.

He forecast all of 1994 while visiting his in-laws in Louisiana in June. It was hot.

"It cooled me off doing the weather forecast," he says. "I remember saying to my wife: 'I can't believe January's going to be this bad.' I thought I was sticking my neck out publishing something like this."

As it turned out, Willard Scott praised him recently on NBC-TV's "Today" show and Peter Jennings reported his accuracy on ABC network news. March 3, in the midst of a snowstorm he had predicted exactly, Mr. O'Toole gave 10 interviews.

At that point, he was 14-for-15 forecasting winter storms -- storms that actually occurred. But he had predicted a few that didn't happen, and he was far from perfect on temperatures.

His forecast for Jan. 19-21 was "fair, not as cold." Yet Jan. 19 was the coldest day of the century at BWI and the 20th and 21st were "very cold" and "bitter cold," according to the weather service.

Still, his accuracy was uncanny during a dismal winter when people followed weather forecasts like a sizzling Orioles' pennant race. It was more remarkable considering he made the predictions last summer using a seemingly outdated method.

Mr. O'Toole relies mainly on a lunar chart created centuries ago by European farmers, but he also considers sunspots, traditional weather patterns and "gut feeling." The lunar chart tells him what weather to expect after each phase of the moon.

Take today, March 20. The first-quarter moon occurs at 7:14 a.m. That means the moon is exactly 90 degrees east of the sun; one-quarter of the moon is illuminated by the sun's light.

According to the ancient chart, when the first-quarter moon occurs between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., weather in the winter is likely to be stormy and, in the summer, windy and rainy.

Because late March is neither winter nor summer, Mr. O'Toole called for weather somewhere between the two. His prediction for today: fair, cool.

He says his daily forecast is right about two-thirds of the time, although he's had good and bad years. It's too early to tell about 1994.

He says we might get some snow around Easter. (He did not predict the dusting Friday.) Late June will be hot. June and July will be dry. August will be cooler than normal and pleasant.

But watch for a tropical storm or hurricane in late August, he

says.

And we might get snow in November. December looks lousy again.

Mr. O'Toole smiles slightly, almost apologetically.

But a conjecturer of the weather can only follow his muse.

The rest of us can bid a bitter winter farewell and deal with December another day.

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