The 2016 Old Farmer’s Almanac lists 20 signs to look for as omens of a hard winter, ranging from the commonsense (“early departure of geese and ducks”) to the whimsical (“early arrival of crickets on the hearth”) to the head-scratching (“pigs gathering sticks”). Woolly worms—also known as woolly bear caterpillars and easily recognizable by their short, stiff bristles in black or reddish brown—are on the list as well. According to the Almanac, “a narrow orange band in the middle of the woolly bear caterpillar warns of heavy snow; fat and fuzzy caterpillars presage bitter cold.”
The Almanac’s list also includes “an abundance of acorns.” I lived for a time on a scrub oak–filled ridge just outside of Park City. Some years acorns covered my decks and paths, while other years the trees produced nary a nut. And while the acorn crop was a handy conversation starter on trips to town, I can’t say whether there was a correlation between the abundant acorn years and heavy winters.
Once winter’s under way, nature’s weather predictions become a bit easier to identify. A sun dog—a halo around the sun caused by the refraction of sunlight through ice crystals—is a fairly accurate indication of an incoming storm. The same phenomenon happens around the moon—a moon dog—but it’s less common; the moon must be full or nearly full to produce enough light for the refraction.
A red sky, caused by atmospheric particles associated with high pressure (and the source of the saying “red sky at morning, sailor take warning; red sky at night, sailor’s delight”), is another mostly reliable weather predictor. Since storms accompany low pressure and generally move from west to east, a red sky with the rising sun means high pressure in that direction and low pressure—i.e., a storm—approaching from the west. A red sky with the setting sun means a storm has already passed.
Like most other snow lovers, I check weather reports pretty much daily in the winter. But this past September I found a woolly worm with thick fuzz and just the narrowest hint of an orange band around its middle. I’m holding out hope that the caterpillar’s forecast will come true.