Almanac's dismal forecast

SUN JOURNAL

Weather: The traditional almanac was a practical guide to almost everything, but the current buzz focuses on another cold, snowy winter.

December 17, 2003|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LEWISTON, Maine - As publications go, The Farmers' Almanac isn't the place to find edge. No glossy finish, no partially dressed cover models - just practical advice, delivered with an air of nostalgia, on everything from "weed cuisine" ("if you can't beat them, eat them!") to the best time to cut firewood or dig a hole based on the phase of the moon and its position in the zodiac.

But with memories raw from last winter's wrath in the Northeast, the 185-year-old publication is generating a buzz for its disheartening prediction for winter 2004: Expect largely a repeat of last year.

That means cold and a parade of storms from February through early spring, with February alone bringing as many as five storms, says the almanac's calculator, who goes by the pseudonym Caleb Weatherbee, his real identity a secret.

"Do I think you're going to get 44 inches of snow? I don't think you're going to have a storm of that magnitude, but there are a couple of good whoppers in there," says editor Peter Geiger, 52, whose family has owned the almanac since the early 1930s.

"Remember," he adds, "I'm just the messenger."

The almanac's predictions, made two years in advance, are calculated from sunspot activity, planet positions, the effect of the moon on Earth and a mathematical formula developed in the early 1800s that's a secret even to its editors.

The publication claims to be about 80 percent accurate, based on an unscientific tally of responses from "weather watchers" and other readers around the country who make it their business to keep score.

The almanac accurately predicted last year's storm that dropped 30 inches of snow on the Northeast, and it came close with Hurricane Isabel, which it missed by one day. The weekend before last, however, the Mid-Atlantic forecast was for rain, when parts of Maryland got more than a foot of snow.

The forecasting method is decidedly low-tech compared with the National Weather Service's use of fancy climate models, satellite data and supercomputers.

But unlike the Weather Service, the almanac, published in August, took a stand on winter weather months ago. In October and again in November, the government's forecasters crunched the numbers and declared they couldn't see a clear picture of the winter ahead. The next update is scheduled for tomorrow.

"We will not compare ourselves to the almanacs," says Carmeyia Gillis, public affairs officer for the National Weather Service, when asked about the almanac's accuracy and methods. "We won't even go there, won't even touch that. We do our job, they do theirs."

AccuWeather, which forecasts weather for media, business and government clients, predicts East Coast temperatures will average a degree or two below normal through February - mild periods interspersed with bitter Arctic blasts - and above-average precipitation.

The Old Farmers Almanac, based in Dublin, N.H., predicts another cold winter but less snow than last year.

The Farmers' Almanac, based in a 1950s industrial building in Lewiston, a former mill city in southern Maine, was launched by David Young, the first editor, in 1818, in an era when almanacs were almost indispensable guides for living.

They were published by the intelligent, educated gentlemen of each community to advise people in such subjects as medicine and religion at a time when there were few doctors or ministers, Geiger says.

The most famous was Poor Richard's Almanack, first published by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia in 1733.

While most almanacs ceased publication when the editor died, The Farmers' Almanac endured. In the 1930s, it was taken over by the Geiger Co., a promotional products company then based in Newark, N.J.

Ray Geiger, Peter's father, became the editor.

The company moved to Maine in 1955 when Lewiston town fathers, faced with the loss of their textile and shoe mill, aggressively recruited the company from Newark, where it was having conflicts with a labor union.

Ray Geiger edited the almanac for six decades until Peter took over in 1995.

"It's interesting to have something almost 200 years old," Geiger says, sitting at the editor's table, ringed with retro green chairs, near a display of furniture - including Young's rocking chair - and artifacts depicting the almanac's earliest days.

"You're trying to make sure it stays vibrant and stays around for the next generation," he says. "It's an awesome responsibility. People view it as a friend."

People used to write to his father as they neared death to express how important the almanac was to them throughout their lives, he says.

Now, with a 192-page retail edition reaching a circulation of 1 million and a 64-page edition designed for promotional giveaways reaching 4 million, Geiger gets 30,000 e-mails a year, with questions about everything from Japanese beetles to potty training to the number of days of rain in a Connecticut summer.

"There are certain expectations that you're going to know everything," he says.

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