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SCIENCE : Newfangled Forecasts for Old Farmer’s Almanac

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Richard Head doesn’t look like a weather wizard, a seer of sun and storms. He has never gazed into a crystal ball, except for a tongue-in-cheek magazine photograph.

But this unassuming 76-year-old has millions of devoted followers, some of whom plan the most intimate events of their lives around the predictions he makes in the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

One devotee recently asked how the weather would be on her wedding day, nearly six months off. He told her to expect showers.

“Oh, I get questions like that all the time,” Head says. “Usually they call the editors in Dublin, N.H., but once in a while they track me down here in Arizona.”

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Yes, the Almanac’s homespun weather wisdom so characteristic of New England actually emanates from Scottsdale.

But that’s not the only surprise.

Another assumption among the magazine’s 4.5 million readers is that its forecasts are gleaned from crusty Yankee farmers, pitchforks in hand, who can tell if rain is imminent by the croaking frogs.

The Almanac printed that advice in 1850, along with suggesting that you also check to see if your mule’s ears are hanging forward.

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Truth is, Head never studied mules when he was getting his doctorate in aeronautics from Caltech, or in the eight years he spent working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Those credentials were exactly what the magazine was looking for when he was hired in 1970.

“For the first six or seven years, they didn’t want it to get out how much science went into the forecasts,” Head says. “They wanted to preserve the image. But people kept asking how they were done, so we eventually told them.”

Head grew up in Pasadena, Calif., and started at NASA in 1962. As part of launch planning, project managers asked him to predict when the next major flare would occur on the sun. A flare is a period of energy emission so intense that it could be fatal to astronauts outside their spacecraft.

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The Almanac’s editor asked Head to do some sunspot research, and that led to the position of chief prognosticator.

Head had never read the magazine. But he was fascinated with the prospect of making forecasts based on changes in solar activity and how it altered weather patterns around the globe.

His belief in using the sun as a predictor makes him a maverick among meteorologists. “I don’t know any others who use the sun for long-range forecasting,” Head says. “The National Weather Service doesn’t use it. But we’re beginning to see more and more papers looking into this.”

As he speaks, Head pulls out a chart detailing monthly sunspot activity from 1870 to 2000. When he’s not poring over data, Head is logging on to one of his three office computers to retrieve reports on solar activity from observatories around the world.

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The editors at the Almanac, America’s oldest continuously published journal, say the accuracy rate is 80%, Head says. “They don’t like me saying this, but sometimes it’s 90% and sometimes it’s 50%-55%. It averages out to about 70%. But I’ll be honest, sometimes I don’t have the highest confidence that things will turn out exactly the way I predict them.”


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