Friday, November 26, 2010

Fable or fact?

Old wivesí tales could predict winterís weather


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Mullein plants, like these seen near Wood River High School in early October, are fabled to predict the severity of the coming winter. These were 8 feet tall, a height that is said to correspond with the highest snow depth of the year.

In a valley like this, there's one question on everyone's mind: How much snow will we get this year?

While skiers and avalanche forecasters, scientists and meteorologists come up with prediction after prediction, changing weather patterns and unexpected events can cause today's weather predictions to be obsolete tomorrow. Frustrated snow-seekers may turn to the oft-scoffed-at old wives' tales and folklore for some amusing—if not exactly scientifically based—insight into the upcoming season.

Onion skins, corn husks and apple skins seem thicker than last year? That's a sign of a coming hard winter, at least in the location the produce was grown. If the bees' nest in the tree in the back yard seems higher than it was last year, that's another indicator.

Mullein plants, perennial plants that grow from 1.5 to 9 feet tall, are said to grow as high as the snow bank will reach that year. "As high as the weeds grow, so will the bank of snow," goes the rhyme, and if local mullein plants are any indicator, the snow level will reach about 8 feet this year.

That's well above last year's levels, as the highest snow depth came in at a little under 2 feet. The greatest snowfall numbers were in January, but still fell short of anywhere near 8 feet, at a little more than 3 feet. If the mullein can be believed, Sun Valley will soon have more snow than it knows what to do with.

Another saying that might hold some hope for snow-philes is the saying "late fall, hard winter." If leaves fall late, so common legend goes, the upcoming winter will be severe. Leaves in the Wood River Valley stayed on trees into early November this year, which Ketchum Ranger Station botanist Deb Taylor said was a little bit later than usual.

But, she said, "it has more to do about what's going on with the wind and the rain."

When asked if the late fall might hint at the nature of the coming season, she laughed and said she wouldn't count on it.

"You might want to check out some sort of pagan website," she said, adding that she'd never heard the legend and didn't know if there was any truth to it.

The next legend on the list garnered a similar response from officials, only this time from staff at the National Weather Service in Pocatello. Folklore holds that the first 12 days in January are indicative of the weather of the 12 upcoming months. For example, Jan. 11 was 38 degrees with no precipitation, predicting a warm and dry November. Jan. 12 was even warmer, 40 degrees with no snow, which means the valley could be in for an Indian summer in the middle of December.

Thankfully, the staff at the weather service do not think this saying holds water, so to speak.

"That's the first I've heard of it," said Troy Lindquist of the National Weather Service, adding that there's no scientific basis for the belief.

Good news for skiers and the resort, who are no doubt praying for heavy snow—and temperatures cold enough for it—in time for the opening of ski season.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com

Science, Schmience

Though folkloric predictions have some entertainment value, more scientific studies are calling for a big snow year.

According to the National Weather Service, the main driver for this winter's weather will be La Niña. La Niña—Spanish for "the girl"—is a weather system that brings varied but fairly predictable effects across the county. It is associated with cooler Pacific Ocean temperatures and stronger easterly trade winds.

What does this mean for the Wood River Valley? Cold, wet weather.

Though Sun Valley isn't in any consistent storm track, meaning it's harder to predict when snow will come and when it won't, the region is set to receive more mountain snow than average.

"This is good for the replenishment of water resources and winter recreation," reads a statement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. However, the service warns that it could result in flooding and increased avalanches.




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