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For a few weeks in February, it sure felt like spring was very near in Paradelle – or maybe it had arrived early – even if the calendar and Earth’s tilt said otherwise. I saw crocuses and daffodils up and blooming. Tree buds seemed to be starting their bud burst.

Then the thermometer reversed itself and we had our biggest snow of the winter.

The news reported that the cherry blossoms in the nation’s capital are threatened, and the ones in New Jersey, which generally peak in early April, might also be affected. [Not So Trivial Fact: New Jersey has more cherry trees than Washington D.C. – the largest cherry blossom collection in the United States. But the Branch Brook Park cherry blossom webcam in Newark just shows bare trees and snow as I write this.]

I have written before about the study of cyclic, seasonal natural phenomena which is called phenology. The National Phenology Network tracks “Nature’s Calendar” via phenological events. But can we actually predict the seasons with any accuracy?

These nature observations include the ones we all have been observing lately, such as trees and flowers, but also ones that you may not be able to observe or just don’t pay attention to. Those signs of seasonal change include male ungulates, such as elk or deer, growing antlers at the beginning of the rut and breeding season each year, mammals that hibernate seasonally to get through the winter, and bird migration during the year.

Other than the false Groundhog Day forced observations, phenological events can be incredibly sensitive to climate change. That change can be year-to-year, but the timing of many of these events is changing globally – and not always in the same direction and magnitude.

map

Spring leaf anomaly: dark red indicates areas of early bud burst, with some areas as great as 21 days early. It should be noted, that areas around Los Angeles are conversely nearly 21 days behind schedule. Image via blogs.plos.org

According to a Public Library of Science (PLOS) blog, “From 1982 to 2012, spring budburst (when the leaves first appear) has advanced by a bit over 10 days, while the onset of autumn in the northeast US has pushed back about 4.5 days. No trends were found for other regions. This lengthening of the growing season has profound implications for the ecology of these forests and potentially their ecological evolution. A longer growing season could translate to high carbon storage for increased growth, but higher rates of decomposition and changes in moisture availability. However, these changes in phenology are primarily driven by increasing temperatures. In a warmer world, some species may simply not be able to survive where they are now, creating a dramatic change in the species composition. And this is without considering changes in precipitation.”

The National Phenology Network’s project called Nature’s Notebook collects data from more than 15,000 naturalists across the nation who, using standardized methods, provide information about plant and animal phenology.

Project BudBurst is another citizen science focused project using observations of phenological events and phases through crowd-sourcing. Project like this give you the opportunity to make your observations of nature more conscious, and to contribute to the knowledge base.

This post first appeared, in slightly different form, on my Endangered New Jersey blog

The Wheel of the Year in the Northern Hemisphere.

The Wheel of the Year in the Northern Hemisphere.

“Si sol splendescat Maria purificante,
major erit glacies post festum quam fuit ante.” *

Today is the exact halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Yes, it is Groundhog Day and I have written about that here before. But how many different ways can you explain the origin of our tradition of expecting an animal to predict the coming weather? I can always explain to people my love of the film Groundhog Day, but I’ve done that here too.

Today I’ll just write about the winter midpoint, also known as a cross-quarter day. No matter what that groundhog (or a badger, as the original German tradition had it) or any animal does when he pokes his head out from hibernation today, be optimistic. We are halfway through winter.

The Wheel of the Year is an annual cycle of seasonal festivals, observed by many modern Pagans. It can be considered to have either four or eight festivals. Some celebrate the four solstices and equinoxes, which are known as the “quarter days.” Some also celebrate the four midpoints between, such as today, which are known as the “cross quarter days.”

Festivals celebrating the cycle of the seasons was far more important to people in the past. You might also hear Wiccans refer to these festivals as sabbats, a term from the Middle Ages. It was probably taken partially from the Jewish Shabbat.

Today is Imbolc on the wheel, the first cross-quarter day. It is supposed to be a time for purification and spring cleaning in anticipation of the year’s new life.

ewe and lambs
In Ancient Rome, this was a shepherd’s holiday.

Among Celts, this day was associated with the onset of ewes’ lactation, prior to birthing the spring lambs. Celtic pagans dedicated this day to the goddess Brigid.

The Winter Solstice was the shortest day of the year with the fewest sunlit hours. But after that, the Sun started its return journey back toward us in the Northern Hemisphere. You didn’t notice that move back in December, but after today you can actually see and feel this gradual reappearance of the light.

snowdrops

Candlemas Bells, also known as Snowdrops

Maybe you will pick up a hint of the coming of spring. Look for the first tiny buds. Some snowdrops will push their fragile blooms above the frosty soil or even through the snow.

Yes, hibernating animals are stirring in their dens and underground nests. They may even go out at night and grab a meal and then return to their winter tunnel.

If Groundhog Day seems silly, think of this as the Celtic Imbolc, or as the Chinese Li Chu’un, or the Christian Candlemas. The Latin quote at the top of this piece is a little rhyme translated as “If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, winter will have another flight. If on Candlemas Day it be shower and rain, winter is gone and will not come again.”  In other words, good weather today is a bad omen. Bad weather is a good sign.

So, don’t be concerned with midwinter divinatory practices. Spring is six weeks away. Some of those days to come will be wintery; some will be springlike.  It’s okay to hibernate for another six weeks and feel like the universe has decided that’s the way it should be.

* That quote at the top of this post is probably open to interpretation as far as the weather ahead.
“If the sun shines with Mary the mother of purifying,
after the feast of ice will be greater than it was before.”

winter-solstice

We entered winter today. For my little place in the world, it already happened at 5:44 am while I was sleeping. (Check here for your own neighborhood)

The world doesn’t look or feel very different to me from yesterday.

The winter solstice usually occurs on December 21 or December 22 here in the northern hemisphere. 1

Do you view today as the shortest day of the year, or is it the longest night of the year? I suppose that is a glass half empty or full situation. Just to get a bit technical,  when we talk about the solstice day, we mean “day” not as daylight, but as the period from one midday solar noon to the next, so it does bridge two calendar days.

Online you will find today a lot of pictures of modern-day “Druids” greeting the dawn at Stonehenge. That ancient stone circle reminds us that in neolithic times astronomical events that they knew really did guide them about how to live their lives. It controlled when they mated animals, sowed new crops and prepared their winter reserves.

You can measure the solstice like the ancients. If you have a sundial – or a stick in the ground – you can note the midday shadow of the gnomon (the vertical part that casts the shadow). I have a pretty basic sundial and on the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere it shows its longest shadow. It is the shortest shadow on the summer solstice.

You could also be more observant about when in the year the sun rises or sets at its most southern point because that indicates the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. Both of these are observational skills that we seem to have lost in our “evolution.”

In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses met on the two solstices. It seems to have been the time to have Virgin mothers give birth to sacred sons: Rhiannon to Pryderi: Isis to Horus; Demeter to Persephone; Jesus to Mary.

Today’s sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still) isn’t really a day when the sun stands still for more than an instant, but things do shift into winter gear.

Hey, the Sun’s position in the sky is at its greatest angular distance on the other side of the equatorial plane from our hemisphere! So, celebrate!

The solstice was a celebration before the hard winter began. You don’t have to slaughter any cattle (something that was done for winter food and also because they might not be able to be fed during the winter) but the ancients did enjoy that fresh meat and the wine and beer that was ready for drinking. Maybe you can celebrate tonight with some evergreen decorations, bright illumination (bonfire? or some candles) and your favorite feasting foods. Invite friends, neighbors and family and dance and sing!

 


1 The date depends on the shift of the calendar. December 21 or 22 solstices happen more often than December 20 and 23 solstices. The last December 23 solstice was in 1903 and will not happen again until 2303.  A December 20 solstice has occurred very rarely, with the next one in the year 2080. The winter solstice occurs between June 20 and June 21 in the southern hemisphere.

I’m a weather watcher. I’m also a nature watcher. Sometimes the Venn diagram overlaps those two areas.

I know by my blog stats that my posts here about predicting the weather by observing nature have a perennial popularity, even though they are not usually backed by science and are more of “weather lore.”

Meteorologists, on the other hand, look at things such as the La Niña conditions as very real. She is showing her effects in the Pacific now with cooler than normal sea surface temperatures across most of the eastern and central equatorial Pacific. It started in October and continued into this month.

I suppose it’s not exactly “chaos theory” when it comes to weather patterns, but I find it fascinating that cooler than normal sea surface temperatures far from where I live will affect my local weather. That is a big butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the world.

Don’t confuse La Niña with its opposite partner El Niño which is officially the “El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO.  La Niña (Spanish, “the girl”) and El Niño (“the boy”) used to be seen as one thing and was once called El Viejo (“the old man”).

With all the talk about climate change, you often hear about what seem to be very small changes in the temperature of the oceans. But very small changes – a degree or two – have very big effects and La Niña and El Niño disrupt normal patterns of precipitation and atmospheric circulation not only in the Pacific but across the globe. A La Niña often, though not always, follows an El Niño.

During a period of La Niña, the sea surface temperature across the equatorial Eastern Central Pacific Ocean will be lower than normal by 3–5 °C.

It is expected that weak La Niña conditions will continue through the winter until probably February. But what does that mean for North America’s weather?

La Nina map

Cooler than normal sea surface temperatures indicative of La Niña conditions stretch across most of the eastern and central equatorial Pacific. (Source: earth.nullschool.net)

Usually, La Niña means below-average precipitation and above-average temperatures in the southern part of the United States, and colder and wetter conditions across the northern U.S. and Canada. It even affects the Atlantic Hurricane Season.

Though my East Coast has been in a drought, the Pacific Northwest had a very wet October, though that probably can’t be explained by just La Niña.

I hope the colder and wetter than normal prediction for the Paradelle area is wrong, but I’ll add it to what the wooly bears and other winter predictions showed this year and check back in the spring.

 

 

acorns

Acorns of all sizes. Weather predictors?

Next month is when many meteorologists make their predictions about the coming winter. The 2017 Farmers’ Almanac was published last month and very cold weather for the northern U.S. Even a few periods of  unusually cold weather dipping into the deep south (Florida and the Gulf Coast) was predicted while the Western States will have a milder than normal winter.

But if you turn to nature for signs, it’s time to do your observations and make predictions within your local area.

Not all weather lore indicators is useful, depending on where you live. I can’t really take note of the early arrival of the Snowy owl, or the early departure of geese and ducks. (Geese and ducks in my area never leave!) I also can’t personally observe any early migration of the Monarch butterfly. All three of those events supposedly indicate a severe winter.

I look to all the indicators – science and popular culture. This is what meteorologists predicted last fall.  My teaser post a few weeks ago about predicting the winter to come was popular and earlier posts about signs in nature that might predict the winter are perennially popular ones found in searches.  (see links below)

As always, observations in your own part of the country should be more accurate than blanket U.S. predictions. Think about the weather you had last month, because August is said to indicate the winter to come. Every fog in August supposedly indicates a snowfall. (I observed no fogs. Does that mean no snow? I doubt it.)  If the first week in August is unusually warm, the coming winter will be snowy and long. And what about this weather rhyme: If a cold August follows a hot July, it foretells a winter hard and dry.

Take note of how animals in your region look. Squirrels with busy tails and raccoons with thick tails and bright bands mean a rough winter. The same prediction of a rough winter is indicated by mice being very aggressive about getting into your house early. There are also claims that spiders spinning larger than usual webs and entering the house in greater numbers is a sign of severe winter weather.

In general, animals making preparations for winter early or in out-of-the-ordinary way, is a bad sign. That could be the early arrival of crickets (on the hearth?) or bees taking to the hive earlier. This is part of the same weather lore philosophy that originated the tradition of predicting spring’s arrival by groundhogs and other animal behavior.

The one I grew up hearing was woolly bear caterpillars (the larvae of Isabella tiger moths). My mother taught me that the width of the middle brown band predicts the severity of the upcoming winter. A narrow band means a bad winter and a wide band means a milder or shorter winter. Those woolly bears have 13 body segments and winter is 13 weeks long. Coincidence?  Maybe. Probably.

Insects are popular winter weather signs. If you see ants marching single file or bees building nests high in the trees, get ready for a bad winter.

Labor Day weekend, we were prepping in Paradelle for the arrival of Hurricane Hermine and the wind picked up and acorns started bombarding my backyard deck from the oak trees. The squirrels and birds were also very, very active. You can attribute that to the coming storm, but acorns and squirrels have long been part of weather lore. A bumper crop of acorns (which has been predicted in my area) and squirrels that are more active than usual, is supposed to mean a severe winter. “Squirrels gathering nuts in a flurry, will cause snow to gather in a hurry.”

Is there a weather lore predictor that you have heard? Leave a comment.


More About Predicting Winter Weather

Thoughts of Winter in Summer

What does summer tell us about winter?

Checking in on winter with the weather gods

snowstorm-wikipedia

The Old Farmer’s Almanac has always included long-range predictions of the weather. They never reveal their methodology, but I imagine it is part meteorology, part historic patterns, solar cycles and part guessing. This year it predicts that it will be especially bad. Even places that don’t usually get much snowfall, like the Pacific Northwest, will get a lot.

How did the Almanac do with its August 2016 predictions for Paradelle here in the Atlantic Corridor? They say the temperature would average 74° but it was much hotter this month. Precipitation was predicted at 5.5 inches – 1.5″ above average and the hot weather has brought lots of storms. We did not have any “tropical storm threat” for the 15th-18, and so far, no “hurricane threat” for the  22-31 period – and let’s keep it that way.

Predictions for the upcoming seasons based on signs from nature are probably just as accurate -or inaccurate – but I find them more enjoyable to “read.”

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