Winter As Told By A Worm….

November 10, 2010 2 Comments

I stopped counting how many times someone asks me “What’s the winter going to be like?”  Well, I can tell you for sure that it will be a lot colder than the summer was, there will be snow and probably some ice and the nights will be really long.

Predicting the weather only a few days out is hard enough.  I don’t even try to go beyond that.  I’m just a Meteorologist.  If you want to go farther out than a week, ask a Climatologist.  They are the ones that look at the weather months at a time.  Or you could ask the woolly bear caterpillar.

The saying is that if the black bands are larger than the brown band then the winter will be harsh and if the brown band is larger, then the winter will be mild. 

Okay, Woolly Bear…. what do you have to say for yourself?

A little biology lesson:

The woolly bear caterpillar (or worm if you are in North Carolina) is the larval stage of the Isabella tiger moth. 

Isabella Tiger Moth

The caterpillar is actually one of eight or more species in the US that can be legitimately called woolly bears because of the dense, bristly hair that covers them.  But the black and brown one is the most common and well-known of the bunch.  It can be found through the US, Mexico and southern Canada but is not found in the rest of the world.  There are apparently two generations of the worm, one in May and one in August, but it is the fall one that we notice mostly because they are going across the road.  They are on their way to find shelter in dead plant debris where they will spend the winter as the larva.  They survive the winter freezes by producing a cryoprotectantin its tissues.  That is a substance that is used to keep biological tissue from freezing.  Click on the word to go to the Wikipedia definition.  Once the caterpillar emerges from its hibernation, it eats as much as it can, pupates (the stage where it actively changes form) and emerges as an adult. 

I don’t recall anyone ever looking at the moth and figuring out what the winter holds, so we will concentrate on the caterpillar stage. 

I know this will come as a shock to you, but the caterpillar doesn’t really care what the winter will be like.  It will be sleeping.  Most of the one’s I have seen have looked pretty even on the colors.  And someone showed me a caterpillar this fall that was completely brown.  (I’ll pick that one).  Mainly, though, the length of the bands is only an indication of the age of the caterpillar and the moisture levels in the area where it developed.

So what do the so-called “experts” say about the upcoming winter?

Well, that is a really good question.  According to an article in the middle of October from the Iowa City Press Citizen, Harry Hillaker (our State Climatologist) and Mike McClure ( a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in the Quad Cities) imply that we will be cooler than average for the winter and may have a wetter than average year, too.  Part of their reasoning is that we will be in a La Nina event.  This is a cooling of the Pacific waters off of South America, unlike El Nino which is a warming of the same waters.

The Climate Prediction Center issues outlooks all the time.  Their outlook for November, December and January is warmer than average or about average with precipitation at equal chances of above average, below average or normal for Iowa.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac says “Winter will be slightly colder than normal, on average, with below-normal precipitation and near- to below-normal snowfall.”

So, in other words, nobody agrees on what the winter will hold.  I think no matter what happens, we will still need our coats, hats and mittens.  And the snow shovels!

Let’s sit back and see what Mother Nature throws at us.

Dig it!

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  1. Jan says:

    I didn’t believe in the ol’ woolly either until one year I found one that was all black. That year I was living up on Lake Superior and that winter there was a snow storm that began on Friday afternoon and didn’t stop until Monday morning. That was a six foot snow. We moved after that, and from then on I’ve learned to respect the Woolly Bear Caterpillar…

    • Eileen Loan says:

      Oh, I look every year at them. I just can’t trust them completely. Especially since this year I saw one that was almost entirely black, another that was all brown and then several that were “normal”. I will hope that the normal or brown ones are correct!

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