Precipitation predictors

Despite today's technology, local folklore is still looked at to determine how much it may snow

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— Last year at about this time, local rancher Jim Stanko made an observation while working on his land.

He noticed the beehives were being built unusually low to the ground. According to folklore, that could be an indicator for the intensity of the upcoming winter, he said.

"If they are down low, we're not going to have much snow, and if they are up high, we're going to have a lot of snow," Stanko said in an August 2001 edition of the Steamboat Pilot & Today. "From what I've seen, they are down low."

If the hives are built too low, the snow will cover them and kill the bees. So the insects have to build them high enough to be safe, he explained.

As it turns out, Stanko and the weather-wise tale was correct. Snowfall around the state was at its lowest in years last winter.

"That turned out to be the truth," Stanko said Friday.

However, he didn't have any predictions for this winter.

"To tell you the honest truth, I haven't seen any hives this year," he said. "I'm not sure what the deal is."

It could have been too dry, or the insecticide for grasshoppers could have had an effect on the bees. Either way, Stanko said he wasn't sure why there weren't any hives around.

"I wonder what that means?" he said.

Because humans have a personal stake in the weather, they probably also have been trying to predict what the climate has in store for the near future. Before science and technology, indicators in nature were the best ways to forecast the weather.

Although today we depend on scientific models and professional, trained experts, local folklore is still observed by some people, if not with some amusement.

Even some professionals say there can be validity to folklore weather predictions.

"A lot of times if you live in an area long enough, you start to recognize a few patterns," National Weather Service hydrologist Brian Avery said. "So it can have some truth to it. But just like most predictions, you have to take it with a grain of salt."

Most folklore meteorologists start predicting the weather in Routt County when cool fall temperatures creep into the valley. People start wondering how much it will snow during the winter.

Along with looking at beehives, another local little-know winter predictor is the habit of the beaver.

"That's an old wives' tale, obviously," longtime rancher John Fetcher explained.

Fetcher learned it from the late Bill Bedell a long time ago.

"He said if the beavers build big dams, there is going to be big snow in the winter," Fetcher said.

Fetcher said on his family ranch in North Routt County, it's hard to tell just what the beaver is doing.

However, he had noticed some new dams being built in areas he's never seen beaver before.

"We'll see what that means," he said.

The most popular indicator for a tough winter in the Yampa Valley is the height of the false hellebore, known locally (and mistakenly) as skunk cabbage.

"I'd say it's up to my waist at Fish Creek Falls," said Andy Jehn, who works at Yampatika. "That's about 3 1/2 feet."

She said most people are saying it's taller than normal, so it could be a big winter.

Much attention is being given to this coming winter because of the summer's drought.

Last winter was the third below-average snowfall year in a row. A summer drought followed each of those winters, diminishing water supplies all over the state.

The Old Farmer's Almanac has been giving guidance in such situations since 1792. The almanac forecaster uses a secret formula devised by the founder of the almanac in 1792, as well as solar and meteorological observations.

The philosophy of the almanac, say its editors, is that there is a cause and effect pattern to "all phenomena," which makes long-range weather forecasting possible.

This year the almanac predicts the winter in the Rocky Mountains will be milder than normal. Precipitation will be above average, but temperatures will be warmer than normal.

But back to science. The National Weather Service says it's going to be a normal winter, with no indication for extreme wet or dry conditions.

"Even if we have a normal snowfall, it will be more snow than we've had for the last three years," Avery said.

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