Weather Wizard

The 'Old Farmer's Almanac' Chief Prognosticator Does His Work From Where? Scottsdale?
By Leo W. Banks

RICHARD HEAD DOESN'T look like a weather wizard, a seer of sun and storms. He doesn't wear a turban, and he has never gazed into a crystal ball, except to pose for a tongue-in-cheek magazine photograph.

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

One devotee, a woman who used to work in Head's apartment complex, called recently wanting to know what the weather would be on her wedding day, nearly six months off. He consulted his research and told her to expect showers.

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

It probably comes as a surprise, if not a shock, to learn the Almanac's homespun weather wisdom, so characteristic of New England, actually emanates from posh Scottsdale, land of imported-leather tans and $5,000 turquoise necklaces.

But that's not the only eye-popper. Another common assumption among the magazine's 4.5 million readers (paid circulation is 2.1 million) is that its forecasts are gleaned from crusty Yankee farmers, pitchforks in hand, who can tell if rain is imminent by the croaking of frogs.

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

Truth is, Head never studied mules when he was getting his doctorate from the California Institute of Technology, or in the eight years he spent working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), almost four of those as chief scientist at the agency's center in Cambridge, Mass.

Those impressive credentials are 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," says Head. "They wanted to preserve the image. But people kept asking how they were done, so we eventually told them."

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

As a result of his flare studies, the Almanac's editor asked Head to do some sun spot research, and that led to the position of chief prognosticator.

At the time, 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," says Head, who won't divulge precisely how his forecasts are done, saying his methods are trade secrets. "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 the year 2000. He has another, equally incomprehensible to a layman, marked "solar terrestrial environment."

When he's not poring over arcane data, Head is logging on to one of his three office computers to retrieve reports on solar activity from observatories around the world.

It's hardly a picture that George Washington could've imagined--he was president when the Almanac began in 1792, making it America's oldest continuously published journal.

Nor could the general whose army survived bitter cold and snow at Valley Forge have known that weather forecasting, always a frustrating science, could be done so well so far in advance.

"The editors keep saying the accuracy rate is 80 percent," says Head. "They don't like me saying this, but sometimes it's 90 percent and sometimes it's 50-55. It averages out to about 70 percent. But I'll be honest, sometimes I don't have the highest confidence that things will turn out exactly the way I predict them."

An example came in 1978, when he warned New Englanders of the harsh winter to come. But he had no idea it would be one of history's worst. It was that year, after the snows subsided, that he moved from Vermont to Scottsdale.

The Almanac is published in the fall, and contains monthly forecasts broken down by geographic region. The detail and range of the coverage has expanded during Head's tenure, and that sits just fine with readers, who rank weather and gardening as the two most popular topics.

Group Publisher John Pierce says readers believe in Head's forecasts, and say they're at least as reliable as those of TV weathermen. But his credentials as a meteorologist often come as a letdown to Almanac purists, who prefer to believe in folklore.

"When we go on to explain that we use sunspot cycles, they brighten up again," says Pierce. "It sounds as if there's magic to it, and people like that. I think we all want to believe there's a way to solve the puzzle of making accurate, long-range forecasts. That's what Dr. Head has been working on for 25 years."

But the Almanac's chief prognositicator is not so impressed with his sophisticated calculations that he dismisses the old ways. Head believes some forecasting tricks used by New England farmers actually work.

One is gauging the severity of the impending winter by the thickness of onion skins. Another is how high up in the tree a squirrel puts its seeds.

"They say the higher they go, the worse the winter will be," says Head. "It's not an effective long-range technique, but it seems to work out pretty well in the short term. Some of these old farmers are pretty smart." TW

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