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Almanacs call for a cold winter, scientists say don't bet on it

Experts say signs - namely El Nino - point to a more mild winter ahead for Minnesota, but weather extremes are adding a lot of unpredictability.

MINNEAPOLIS — It's that time of year when Minnesotans begin thinking about fall and bracing for winter.

But will it be cold and snowy or mild and drier than average?

Our desire to know what to expect is once again leading to some conflicting predictions, so KARE 11 reached out to someone who does his best to fact check the prognosticators.

"The old jokes about meteorologists being wrong half the time doesn't really apply to us because we're climatologists," said Kenny Blumenfeld, senior climatologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "We only tell you about what happened. So we're always right."

All kidding aside, Blumenfeld says long-range predictions of winter and other seasons are nearly impossible to nail, but he says our collective obsession with them is no joke.

"People want this, so scientists have been trying to figure out a way to provide it," Blumenfeld said. "But it's just really, really hard. Sometimes you get a real clear picture of what's coming, sometimes it's really convoluted and difficult. And it seems like we just remember the big, extreme events anyway."

That helps explain why there is not one, but two old-school prognosticators that tend to grab headlines this time of year. 

The Farmer's Almanac is predicting a cold winter with average snowfall, not to be confused with the Old Farmer's Almanac, which calls for both cold and more snowfall.

While both offer plenty of fodder for debate, Blumenfeld says they offer vague explanations for those predictions and cautions anyone against reading too much into them.

"It's a popular resource, but there's nothing we can verify," he said. "There's no way to know how they forecast what they forecast."

If you're interested in outlooks that can be verified, he says there is a clear choice.

"The Climate Prediction Center, which is a part of NOAA, is the official climate forecasting entity for the Federal Government and they've got the best scientists in the country — maybe even the world — doing it," Blumenfeld said.

But as someone who checks the accuracy of those forecasts, Blumenfeld says they also have plenty of limitations.

"They're not right all the time," he said. "And even if they predict the average, we tend to remember the extremes."

Blumenfeld says the limitations were very apparent during the Climate Prediction Center's July temperature outlook, which failed to predict the record heat that gripped much of the southwest just days after it was issued. 

"That was just something that couldn't be predicted," he said. "And when you're at the seasonal level, looking at the coming fall or the coming winter, their record starts to get a little checkered. And that's because of how complex this is."

Though, if you play the percentages, and factor in El Nino this winter, he says he'll definitely side with the scientists if forced to choose.

"Everyone thinks it will be a mild winter and that seems to be the safest bet but there is the three or four out of 10 times that it goes the other way," he said. "But keep in mind, these seasonal forecasts were driven by demand, and not by the scientists saying, 'Hey, we can do this.'"

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