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How Does the Farmers' Almanac Work?

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Labor Day may have signaled the unofficial end of summer, but that milestone hasn't done much to cool off the regions that are still sweating in oppressively hot weather. There may be good news on the horizon for fans of chillier weather, though. The recently released 2016 editions of both the Farmers' Almanac and the Old Farmers' Almanac are predicting unusually frigid conditions across much of the country this winter. 

While these frosty predictions are fun to contemplate on steamy days, they raise an obvious question: How can an annual publication claim to know what this winter will be like months in advance, when my local weatherman can't even tell me with accuracy whether I’ll need my umbrella tomorrow?

The Secret Formula

Historically, almanacs are annual publications that outline the days of the year alongside factors like sunrise and sunset times, holidays, moon phases, and solstices. The calendar hanging on your wall is an example of a simple almanac. Some of the earliest almanacs referenced celestial events to tell readers whether they would have good or bad luck on certain days, much like how we use horoscopes today. By the 17th century, the only publication more popular than almanacs in England was the Bible. Around this time, they began popping up in the America colonies, offering seasonal weather predictions, tips for household management, and entertainment like puzzles and jokes.

The Farmers’ Almanac (founded in 1818) and the Old Farmers’ Almanac (founded in 1792) are two of the most popular remaining almanacs. The former offers long-range weather predictions made two years in advance. Today it claims to have an annual distribution of more than 2.6 million copies and a readership of 7 million.

Both publications claim to have a roughly 80 percent accuracy rate. Their predictions are the products of top secret mathematical formulas that take into consideration things like sunspot activity, tidal action, and planetary positioning.

Farmers' Almanac managing editor Sandi Duncan says the formula is so secret, even she doesn’t know it, and she’s been with the Farmers’ Almanac for more than 20 years. “I could probably access it if I gave away my first son or something.” The Almanac’s formula is entrusted to just one living being: a weather forecaster who, since the publication’s inception, has gone by the pseudonym “Caleb Weatherbee.” The Almanac’s editors keep everything about Caleb’s true identity a secret. In fact, the only thing they’re actually willing to confirm is that he exists. “He is a real person,” Duncan says. “We don’t want to let everyone know what his real name is. We don’t want anyone badgering Caleb. He’s got an important job so we have to make sure he can continue to do it. ”

An important job, indeed. The current Mr. Weatherbee is the 7th in the publication’s nearly 200-year history. He’s going on 25 years on the job and will likely remain in the position for life. How’d he land such a gig? Duncan says there was “something special in the stars.” Also, he loved weather, and was already a big fan of the Almanac. Being a Caleb Weatherbee takes a very special kind of person, Duncan says, “someone who probably looks beyond the computers and radar systems and appreciates that nature and the weather formula is a little bit more accurate at times for long range forecasts.”

And so we come back to the secret weather formula, which Duncan compares to the confidential concoctions guarded by KFC and Coca-Cola. “We gotta protect it,” she says. “We don’t want anybody figuring it out.”

The Prediction Problem

This is incredibly frustrating for skeptical scientists who, for years, have sought to put the formula to the test. “Anytime you have science that’s shrouded in secrecy or politics, something is not totally kosher,” says Jan Null, a certified consulting meteorologist with Golden Gate Weather Services. He began reviewing the accuracy rate of the Old Farmers’ Almanac in 2000 after seeing public officials like water managers base their decisions off its predictions. “It’s correct on the order of 25 percent to 30 percent of the time, which is no place close to the 80 percent of the time that is often claimed.”

Part of the problem, he says, is it’s nearly impossible to predict the weather with any kind of accuracy two years in advance, even with today’s advanced technology. “If someone really had the answer to that, think how incredibly rich they would be,” he says. “They would own the commodities market. That person is not out there. No one is showing good skill in long range weather forecasting.” Typically, he says, you can make weather predictions for the next seven days, but beyond that, your chances of being right plummet.

Duncan defends the Almanac’s efforts and cites its predictions for last winter. “We were very accurate,” she says. “We called for a very cold, very snowy winter.” But this is another problem with measuring the Almanac’s accuracy: Its predictions are so broad as to be nearly meaningless. In areas that experience it, winter is cold and snowy by definition.

Fact Checking the Formula 

But surely there is something about the Almanac’s methods that give it some credibility, right? Since I couldn’t get my hands on the actual formula, I asked a few scientists and meteorologists to explain how sunspot activity, lunar cycles, and planetary positioning impact seasonal weather predictions. Herein lies another problem: they don’t. At least, not significantly.

Let’s start with the planets: According to meteorologists with the National Weather Service, our elliptical orbit and the position of the planets has little if any effect on the weather. Here’s what they had to say, smiley face included: “...we are closest to the sun during the northern hemisphere winter, and this obviously does not prevent us from getting cold. :) There is also a slight wobble in the Earth's tilted axis, but the cycle of this wobble is extremely long, on the order of hundreds or thousands of years, and thus would have even less of an effect on seasonal weather conditions.”

What about the ocean tides? “Tides also don’t have any effect on the weather,” says Null. “Sea level goes up and down every six hours, that’s it.”

Of all the methods the Almanac admits to, sunspot activity is the only one scientists say could have some small effect on the weather. “Sunspot activity actually is slightly correlated with Earth's climate,” says Dr. Shane Keating, a physicist with a focus in atmosphere-ocean science.

Basically, the sun's magnetic field switches direction roughly every 11 years. During this period, the number of sunspots varies. Some evidence suggests that periods of fewer sunspots cause at least regional, and possibly global cooling. “However, the effect is fairly small compared with the natural variability of Earth's climate,” Keating says. And if there is an effect, it would be seen in terms of years or decades, not seasons, say NWS meteorologists. “Sunspot activity alone cannot accurately predict whether one's summer will be hot, winter will be cold, etc.”

Duncan admits the Almanac isn’t always right, and recommends people still listen to their local meteorologists. “We’re happy when our forecasts are on the mark, but of course sometimes they’re off the mark and we do admit that,” she says. “Mother Nature likes to remind all of us no matter what kind of weather formula we use to predict the weather that she’s in charge, and sometimes none of us can predict the weather with 100 percent accuracy.”

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Big Questions
Why Can't Dogs Eat Chocolate?
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Even if you don’t have a dog, you probably know that they can’t eat chocolate; it’s one of the most well-known toxic substances for canines (and felines, for that matter). But just what is it about chocolate that is so toxic to dogs? Why can't dogs eat chocolate when we eat it all the time without incident?

It comes down to theobromine, a chemical in chocolate that humans can metabolize easily, but dogs cannot. “They just can’t break it down as fast as humans and so therefore, when they consume it, it can cause illness,” Mike Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss.

The toxic effects of this slow metabolization can range from a mild upset stomach to seizures, heart failure, and even death. If your dog does eat chocolate, they may get thirsty, have diarrhea, and become hyperactive and shaky. If things get really bad, that hyperactivity could turn into seizures, and they could develop an arrhythmia and have a heart attack.

While cats are even more sensitive to theobromine, they’re less likely to eat chocolate in the first place. They’re much more picky eaters, and some research has found that they can’t taste sweetness. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more likely to sit at your feet with those big, mournful eyes begging for a taste of whatever you're eating, including chocolate. (They've also been known to just swipe it off the counter when you’re not looking.)

If your dog gets a hold of your favorite candy bar, it’s best to get them to the vet within two hours. The theobromine is metabolized slowly, “therefore, if we can get it out of the stomach there will be less there to metabolize,” Topper says. Your vet might be able to induce vomiting and give your dog activated charcoal to block the absorption of the theobromine. Intravenous fluids can also help flush it out of your dog’s system before it becomes lethal.

The toxicity varies based on what kind of chocolate it is (milk chocolate has a lower dose of theobromine than dark chocolate, and baking chocolate has an especially concentrated dose), the size of your dog, and whether or not the dog has preexisting health problems, like kidney or heart issues. While any dog is going to get sick, a small, old, or unhealthy dog won't be able to handle the toxic effects as well as a large, young, healthy dog could. “A Great Dane who eats two Hershey’s kisses may not have the same [reaction] that a miniature Chihuahua that eats four Hershey’s kisses has,” Topper explains. The former might only get diarrhea, while the latter probably needs veterinary attention.

Even if you have a big dog, you shouldn’t just play it by ear, though. PetMD has a handy calculator to see just what risk levels your dog faces if he or she eats chocolate, based on the dog’s size and the amount eaten. But if your dog has already ingested chocolate, petMD shouldn’t be your go-to source. Call your vet's office, where they are already familiar with your dog’s size, age, and condition. They can give you the best advice on how toxic the dose might be and how urgent the situation is.

So if your dog eats chocolate, you’re better off paying a few hundred dollars at the vet to make your dog puke than waiting until it’s too late.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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