Along Nature's Trail
Monday, December 24, 2007
It seems that some folks are seldom at a loss for predicting what kind of winter we’ll have this year. There are predictions galore, very few of which have any scientific basis.
Winter’s official beginning is the winter solstice, Dec. 21, although for seasonal matters we usually consider winter to begin Dec. 1. It is always interesting to hear what prognosticators have to say about what we’re to expect the coming year.
Your writer doesn’t usually make predictions of this kind, although I would give very high odds against this winter being as severe as the winters of 1977-78, which were two of the coldest, snowiest winters on record since World War II. Likewise, I would go on record in predicting the weather to be changeable (isn’t it always around here?) and characterized by fluctuating warm spells and cold spells. The question is, “Will there be more cold spells than warm spells, and how cold will the cold spells get?” Most folks simply want to know, “Will the winter be severe or mild?” Your writer is leaning more toward mild (or something in between).
However, not everyone expects the next three months to be mild. A substantial number of people depend upon the wooly worm for their predictions, and this year the wooly worm predicts a rough winter. A wooly worm is that fuzzy little critter you may have seen several weeks ago crawling over rural roads and across walks, lawns and fields in search of a protected place to spend the winter. The wooly worm is not really a worm but a caterpillar (see photo). Its coloration is orange and black, with each color present in varying amounts. The orange supposedly represents mildness and the black indicates severe weather. This year, there was more black than orange. Some supporters go so far as predicting specifically for weeks of early winter, weeks of mid winter, and weeks of late winter. For example, a caterpillar with black at the ends but orange in the middle would indicate rough early and late winter but mild midwinter. The caterpillar is the larval stage of the Isabella tiger moth (see photo). The larva has 13 segments to its body, and supporters of the wooly worm theory point out that there are 13 weeks of winter.
Scientists fail to see how the color of the moth caterpillar would have any relationship to weather. Yet there are many dedicated worm watchers. Indeed, at Banner Elk in the mountains of northwest North Carolina a Wooly Worm Festival is held annually.
There are other clues in nature that provide some outdoorsmen with ideas about the severity of winter weather. One of the more common indicators is the thickness of fur in our fur-bearing mammals. By carefully observing the pelts of animals in late November through early December, one supposedly can gain some indication of the upcoming winter weather. If the fur of an animal such as a raccoon (see photo) is carefully observed, and it appears thicker and heavier than usual, supporters of this idea swear that this means a severe winter. A raccoon can be accessible in view of the large road-kill number. Of course, coon hunters also can provide this kind of data. There would appear to be some logic associated with this idea, but there are other variables that can bear upon fur growth such as disease, nutrition, etc. For what it’s worth, my observations indicate that fur this year is not especially thick.
Yet another indicator for some observers is the activity of ground squirrels in gathering and hoarding mast (nuts, acorns). When squirrels such as the gray squirrel (see photo) appear to be busier than usual in carrying and storing these food items, it is taken for an indicator of a severe winter. Again, your writer has not noticed more than the usual amount (if even as much) of this activity during previous weeks.
Of course, there are those that look to the Old Farmer’s Almanac for predictions about the upcoming year. It predicts a very warm 2008 overall. As far as the winter itself, it predicts a slightly warmer but wetter one. The Old Farmer’s Almanac holds a fairly good record on predictions. However, they do not reveal their methods at arriving at their predictions. Meteorologists tend to shy away from long-range predictions, although some of them tend to postulate some probability of a warmer, wetter winter. Some of this could be based upon the global warming trend which is a reality. Long-range predicting all comes down to probabilities. Such an approach is much more scientific than wooly worms or the idea that extremely cold winters always follow extremely hot summers.
And then there is this from Contra Costa Times.com
That's because this month, NASA contracted with a Palo Alto firm to build the first lightning mapper satellite.
"We'll be able to say 'This is a bad time to be out playing golf,'" said project manager Joe Mobilia at Lockheed Martin's Space Systems Advanced Technology Center
More important, the instrument may be able to increase the warning time for tornadoes from 12 to 20 minutes, he said.
"Lightning is a precursor to tornadoes," Mobilia said.
Aboard a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration environmental satellite, which provides most satellite weather images, the instrument will monitor lightning between clouds and detect flashes in areas missed by equipment on the ground, Mobilia said.
The significance of the $96.7 million project is that it will give forecasters a "real-time assessment of all lightning activity," said John Leslie, spokesman for the NOAA.
"It will also give a more accurate picture of how intense a particular storm is becoming and help detect the onset of tornadoes," Leslie said.
Simply monitoring lightning activity likely will help save lives, Mobilia said.
"What people generally don't realize is there are statistically more deaths from lightning than there are from tornadoes," he said.
In the past 30 years, lightning has caused an average of 62 reporteddeaths each year, according to the National Weather Service, and tornadoes, on average, have killed 45 people annually in the past three years, according to the National Climatic Data Center
Mobilia's team in Palo Alto, working with researchers at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, hopes to launch the desk-sized device by 2014.
Among the challenges of designing a lightning mapper is being able to measure flashes during both day and night, Mobilia said.
"At night you can see the flashes, but during the day we have to distinguish that from normal sunlight bouncing off the clouds," he said. The instrument, which will be designed and built in Palo Alto, will rely on data gleaned from a series of initial flashes to determine whether lightning is occurring, he said.
When it launches around December 2014, the lightning mapper likely will be joined by a solar ultraviolet imager -- a $178 million NASA contract awarded to the Palo Alto group this fall.
Installed on the same series of satellites -- one above the East Coast and one above the West Coast -- the solar telescope will monitor the sun's activity to predict solar flares, which can overload power grids and cause transformers to explode, said project manager Mons Morrison.
Both instruments will be built to survive extreme temperatures in space for at least 15 years.
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