By Robert Zullo
On this the almanacs agree: The Pittsburgh area should brace for a colder-than-normal winter this year.
How much snow, sleet or freezing rain to expect, however, depends on which venerable Yankee publication rates higher in your esteem: the Old Farmer's Almanac, based in Dublin, N.H., and continuously published since 1792, or the Lewiston, Maine-based Farmers' Almanac, published since 1818.
"We're older, we have more history," said Sarah Perreault, a senior associate editor for the Old Farmer's Almanac, which published its 2014 edition last week. "We're the one Abraham Lincoln used in court. ... It's a friendly rivalry between us and the Farmers' Almanac, but we're the big brother."
The Farmers' Almanac predicted last month that two-thirds of the country would see below-average temperatures this winter, with "biting and piercing" thermometer readings in some areas, as well as projecting an "intense storm" for the East Coast during the first week of February, when Super Bowl XLVIII is scheduled to be played outdoors at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
Its forecast map, the result of a secret mathematical formula that factors in astronomical data, places Pittsburgh near the dividing line between "bitterly cold, snow filled" and "cold, wet, white" for the coming winter.
The Old Farmer's Almanac, which breaks the continental U.S. into 16 regions for forecasting purposes as compared to the Farmers' Almanac's eight, places Pittsburgh and the southwest corner of Pennsylvania in its Ohio Valley region, which also includes the southern portions of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, all of Kentucky, most of West Virginia and pieces of Missouri and Virginia.
It calls for the winter in the region to be colder and drier than normal, with below-normal snowfall. The coldest periods, the Old Farmer's Almanac says, will be December, early January and early February, with the "snowiest" periods in early December and early March.
December in the Ohio Valley region will be 4 degrees colder than the normal average temperature of 37 degrees and will see a half-inch less precipitation than the normal average of 3 inches, the Almanac says. January will be 5 degrees warmer than the usual 33-degree average and precipitation will fall in line with the average of 3 inches. In February, precipitation will be 2 inches below the average of 3 inches and temperatures will be 2 degrees below the 34-degree average. In March, the average temperature will be 42 degrees, 3 degrees below average, and precipitation will be 1.5 inches below the 4-inch average.
The predictions are largely based on the Almanac's own clandestine formula developed in 1792 by founder Robert B. Thomas, who believed weather on Earth was influenced by sunspots, the magnetic disturbances on the surface of the sun.
"We're basically using the same formula that was designed in 1792," Ms. Perreault said, though she added that the process has been modernized with new technology, including computers and radar, and scientific calculations based on 30-year statistical averages by government meteorological agencies.
The Old Farmer's Almanac, which also predicts Super Bowl weekend will be "stormy, with heavy rain and snow," gives itself a more than 94 percent accuracy rate for last year's temperature predictions, which it says correctly forecast temperature changes in 15 of the 16 regions.
Not so much with its snowfall predictions.
"We didn't predict it would be as snowy as it wound up being last year," Ms. Perreault said. "We're wrong sometimes, too. It happens."
Sunspots and secret formulas aside, is it possible to accurately predict winter temperatures and precipitation so far in advance?
"The short answer is, no," said Bob Coblentz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh. "Scientifically, we're not that good yet."
Mr. Coblentz said meteorologists can analyze trends, ocean currents and weather phenomena such as El Nino and La Nina but can't say with any certainty what the weather might be months down the road.
"We go out seven days here and that's it," Mr. Coblentz said.
The National Weather Service's best guess for Pittsburgh, the three-month temperature outlook for January, February and March, indicates that there's a 71 percent chance of the average temperature for the period being above or near the normal average of 34.1 degrees.
"That's as good as we get," Mr. Coblentz said, adding that the almanacs' predictions are largely based on observation and folklore with little science underpinning their projections. "They have a place. I don't want to demean them."
Still, regardless of how low the temperature drops and how much snow piles up in the months to come, there's only one way to know when it will come to an end.
On Feb. 2, the same day the National Football League's two top teams suit up for what promises to be a frigid Super Bowl Sunday in the Meadowlands, possibly in the face of the Farmers' Almanac's prophesied super storm, Punxsutawney Phil, the oracle of Gobbler's Knob, will emerge from his burrow to tell you when to expect spring.