A publication in Maine, armed with one prognosticator and a 200-year-old formula, and a federal agency, with billions of dollars in funding and the latest technology at its disposal, both predicted that January would be wetter than usual.
Unfortunately for the metro area, both were spot-on.
More than 12 inches of rain fell in the metro area in the first 22 days of the month. That rain caused some flash flooding and led to the Pearl River rising more than six feet above flood stage.
Both the National Weather Service (NWS) in Jackson, and the Farmer’s Almanac, based in Lewiston, Maine, predicted the unusually wet conditions.
NWS did so using climate data from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. NOAA is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The agency has a budget of more than $5 billion.
“We try to get information as accurate as possible before we put it out,” said Felicia Bowser, a warning coordination meteorologist with the NWS Jackson office. “In December (data) showed that there would be above average rainfall in January, which did come true.”
The almanac predicted January’s conditions last summer.
“We have to go press in June of each year, so the forecast has to be finalized before that,” said Sandi Duncan, the almanac’s managing editor.
“We can’t be as accurate as a meteorologist, but we give people a planning tool,” she said. “I think the niche we have is people looking to us (for) long-range forecasting, now what will happen tomorrow, but in the next six months, 12 months.”
The almanac has one prognosticator, who uses the pseudonym Caleb Weatherby. He determines long-range conditions using a 200-year-old formula established by the almanac’s founding editor.
The formula, which is kept under lock and key, dates back to 1818 and takes into account numerous factors, including sunspot activity, tidal activities and the position of the planets.
This year, Weatherby predicted that between January 8 and 11, weather in the Mississippi Valley would turn stormy, followed by “heavy, windswept rains” from January 12 to 15. He went on to say the rains would clear out January 16 to 19, with weather turning windy and cooler.
Rains ripped across the Northside on January 10 and 11, causing flash flooding in the capital city. Additional storms came through on January 14, causing even more flooding. Weather from the 19th to the 22nd was drier, with rain moving in again on the night of January 22.
In all, 12.87 inches of precipitation fell between January 1 and January 22, approximately four times the monthly average, NWS figures show.
While the almanac relies on a protected formula, NWS uses computer models and past climate data to make predictions.
“We look at months and months of trends,” Bowser said. “If patterns match up, they will do the same thing, more or less.”
Using that data, NWS determined that flooding likely would occur in January and gave emergency officials a heads up on what to brace for if the weather pattern continued as expected.
As for the computer models, Bowser said the technology is always improving, meaning that the weather service’s forecasts will be even more reliable in the future.
“I don’t know our percentage, but overall we’re relatively successful,” Bowser said. “Computer models over the years have become better and bettter in getting to know particular areas and picking up on things that years ago they would not.
“In that sense, we’ve been developing much better data to make our best forecast.”