Expect a Mostly Mild Winter — but Mild Doesn't Mean No Surprises, Says NOAA

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A stop sign at Winter Drive and Blizzard Street in a blizzard.
The almanacs agree on one thing: This winter could be a big uh-oh. (Photo: Phil McDonald/Shutterstock)

Most regions of the United States can expect a warmer-than-average winter this year, but don't get complacent just because you see the word "mild," says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The agency released its December through February outlook for temperature, precipitation and drought, predicting a greater chance of a mild winter in much of the South, New England, Alaska and Hawaii, with more snow and rain expected from the northern Rockies to the Mid-Atlantic.

The key is the absence of El Nino or La Nina, creating "neutral" conditions — but that word is misleading as well because it means that the forces at play this year can't be predicted this early.

"Without either El Nino or La Nina conditions, short-term climate patterns like the Arctic Oscillation will drive winter weather and could result in large swings in temperature and precipitation," said Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA's Climate Prediction Center.

That means there's plenty we don't know at this point on the calendar, so we'll be keeping an eye out for the next NOAA update, which is expected on Nov. 21.

And as we typically do, we also checked out the forecasts provided by the Farmers' Almanac and the Old Farmer's Almanac, and there appears to be strong disagreement on how many layers of socks you'll need.

What the Farmer's Almanac says

The staff of the Farmers' Almanac predict this winter will be so full of ups and downs that they're labeling it a "polar coaster."

"Our extended forecast is calling for yet another freezing, frigid, and frosty winter for two-thirds of the country," Farmers' Almanac Editor Peter Geiger said in a press release.

The Farmers' Almanac famously predicts seasonal weather based on sunspot activity, tidal action, planetary position and other "top secret mathematical and astronomical formulas."

Last year's prediction called for a long, snow-filled winter, and the almanac says 2019-2020 will be much the same with above-normal snowfall over the eastern third of the country as well as the Great Plains, Midwest and the Great Lakes. The Northeast expects colder-than-normal temperatures and above-normal precipitation, which means plenty of snow, as well as rain and sleet, particularly along the coast. The Pacific Northwest and Southwest should see near-normal precipitation.

Farmers' Almanac forecast 2019-2020
The Farmers' Almanac says it will be a rough winter for almost every area of the country. (Photo: Farmers' Almanac)

The coldest weather is predicted in areas east of the Rockies all the way to the Appalachians. Almanac experts predict the coldest temperatures should arrive during the final week of January and last through early February. And winter will stick around for a while. The Farmers' Almanac predicts wet snow and unseasonable chilly weather will linger across the Midwest, Great Lakes, Northeast and New England possibly until April.

What the Old Farmer's Almanac says

Meanwhile, the Old Farmer's Almanac, which since 1792 has made advanced forecasts for the seasons, tells people to get ready for "shivers, snowflakes and slush" this season.

"In the U.S., prepare to shiver with below-normal winter temperatures from the Heartland westward to the Pacific and in the Desert Southwest, Pacific Southwest, and Hawaii but above normal winter temperatures elsewhere," they write. "The cold will continue through Valentine’s Day — providing the perfect excuse to stay indoors and snuggle! But be warned: Winter will not be over yet!"

Old Farmer's Almanac winter forecast 2019-2020
Those in Texas, Hawaii and Florida should have it easy. (Photo: Old Farmer's Almanac)

Like the Farmers' Almanac, they also predict that cold conditions will linger well into March, particularly in the Midwest and Appalachians.

The forecast calls for "strong storms bringing a steady roofbeat of heavy rain and sleet, not to mention piles of snow." Specifically, the prediction includes at least seven big snowstorms across the country. They mention in the Northwest, this could mean a repeat of last winter’s record-breaking Snowpocalypse that dumped 20.2 inches on Seattle in February.

This year's almanac, however, predicts that New England will get off a little easier with "more wet than white" weather, while Florida and Texas will actually have pleasant weather.

Meanwhile in Canada, temperatures are predicted to be above normal everywhere except southern British Columbia. But the entire country should expect lots of snow.

Canada forecast
Canada should expect a lot of snow, but relatively mild temperatures. (Photo: Old Farmer's Almanac)

About those predictions

person walking in rain with umbrella
Take these predictions with a grain of salt — but always be prepared. (Photo: MarkoBerkes/Shutterstock)

The Old Farmer's Almanac leans more on the side of science for its forecasts. While the exact formula is still secret, much of it is based on solar activity, prevailing weather patterns and meteorology.

"It’s important to understand that our forecasts emphasize temperature and precipitation deviations from averages, or normals," they write. "These are based on 30-year statistical averages prepared by government meteorological agencies and updated every 10 years. The most recent tabulations span the period 1981 through 2010."

Despite a claimed accuracy percentage of around 80.5% on Old Farmer's Almanac forecasts, meteorologists and science journalists are quick to encourage people to take these long-range predictions with a huge grain of salt.

"My guess is their success rate is more like half what they say," Jonathan Martin, chairman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, told NPR. "It's Middle Ages in terms of accuracy."

Others take issue with the Almanac's top-secret formula relying on solar activity.

"I can tell you it's not common meteorological practice [to use space weather as an indicator], based on my years of experience and research,” Marshall Shepherd, a former president of the American Meteorological Society and professor at the University of Georgia, told TIME. “Modern meteorological forecasting is based on models representing the atmosphere and physics over time. There is an inherent limit [to forecasting] of about 7 to 10 days."

The takeaway from all of this? Whether warm and wet or cold and snowy, the temperamental months of winter will be upon us soon enough.