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Winter: Wild or Mild Depends on Where and When

November 4, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ With snow already swirling in the Midwest and the Mountain states, Americans are facing winter’s rapid approach and wondering if the woodpile is high enough, the insulation thick enough, the boots and mittens warm enough.

And they’re planning ahead.

``We’re doing a big business in snow shovels, roof rakes and snow blowers,″ Katrina Blauvelt of the Home Depot chain of hardware stores reported.

``I don’t think anyone wants to be caught unprepared,″ she said, noting that sales of snow-related items began in some Northeastern stores as early as July and August.

The same trend of preparing for the cold is evident at L.L. Bean, the Freeport, Maine, catalog company. Warm outerwear is selling vigorously.

``Customers are looking for an assortment for activities ranging from mountaineering to ice skating to just walking to the end of the driveway,″ said spokeswoman Linh Calhoun.

So much for fear of global warming.

Winter lovers who ski and skate, winter haters who cower before the fireplace and folks in between seem to enjoy hearing forecasts for the season, which on the calendar lasts from Dec. 21 to March 21.

So, too, do those who really need to know _ natural gas, heating oil and electricity managers planning for heating needs, traffic engineers stockpiling sand and salt, airline flight dispatchers, snowblower repairmen.

Here’s the National Weather Service’s long-range outlook for December through February _ to meteorologists, officially winter:

Colder-than-normal temperatures are expected in the upper Midwest, particularly the Dakotas but also Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and parts of Nebraska and Montana. Below-normal readings also are predicted in New England and perhaps New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia.

But the forecasters expect a milder-than-usual winter in New Mexico, the western two-thirds of Texas, western Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

West Texas, southeast New Mexico and a region extending through central Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa are expected to be wet this winter. Dryer than normal is the outlook for Florida, Montana, Idaho and northern Nevada.

That forecast sets the scene for a showdown between the federal forecasters and the Farmers’ Almanac of Lewiston, Maine, which predicts: ``It looks like virtually the entire country will be subjected to stormy and unseasonably cold conditions for the upcoming winter, even in the so-called Sun Belt areas.″

Farmers’ Almanac forecaster Caleb Weatherbee is well-known among prognosticators, but he’s not the only one.

``Another stormy, cold season,″ is the forecast from Harris’ Farmer’s Almanac, published in New York. The Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack of Hagerstown, Md., opines that this winter ``will be shorter, colder but less snowy than last winter.″

``Many of my scientist friends make fun of this,″ said William O’Toole, a mathematics professor at Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md., the Hagerstown almanac’s forecaster. He uses a system based on German folk wisdom, the influences of sunspots and changes in ocean temperature and winds, among other factors.

Once upon a time, the trained weather eye of experienced farmers led to local forecasts, and some folks still prefer their own predictions based on folklore and signs learned from grandma: studying acorns and onionskins and woolly-bear caterpillars.

A traditional rhyme advises:

``Onion skins, very thin,

``Mild winter coming in.

``Onion skins very tough,

``Winter’s coming cold and rough.″

Many people predict a hard winter by the volume of acorns produced. More nuts, more snow.

And woolly-bear caterpillars are popular portents of coming months. The creature’s middle brown stripe is the tipoff: The wider the brown band, the milder the winter, says Eric Sloane’s ``Folklore of American Weather.″

German folklore says it’s better in February to see a wolf at the door than a farm worker in shirtsleeves. The English say: ``Year of snow, year of plenty.″

Those sayings reflect knowledge that snow stores water to nourish spring crops. A layer of snow on the ground also forms a blanket to shield developing crops from the worst of winter’s cold. A warm spell in winter, on the other hand, can cause plants to bud early and be killed by the next icy blast.

A cheery note is that spring and summer last slightly longer in the Northern Hemisphere than fall and winter.

Because the Earth’s orbit is an ellipse rather than a circle and the planet’s axis is slightly tilted, the Northern Hemisphere gets six or seven more days of spring and summer than places south of the equator.

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