Skiers might be forgiven a sense of foreboding as they learn the Alpine World Cup slalom races in Levi, Finland, scheduled for the second weekend in November, have been canceled because of poor snow conditions and unfavorable forecasts.
Could Europe be facing a repeat of last winter, when the early World Cup races were also disrupted by widespread lack of snow?
The news might be even more disturbing in this case since Levi, north of the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland, is the northernmost venue - and presumably one of the coldest - on the World Cup circuit.
The International Ski Federation has decided to move the races to Reiteralm, Austria. This news arrives mid-day Wednesday, Nov. 7, as the temperature atop Mount Washington, N.H., highest peak in New England, stands at 19.8 degrees Fahrenheit, the wind blows 48 mph from the west, the wind chill is 2.7 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and 10.7 inches of snow covers the summit.
People like all of us who live for the weather have a real challenge. Forget wooly bear caterpillars, squirrels gathering nuts, field mice moving indoors, even billion-dollar weather satellites - climate gives only limited clues to the future.
Having said that, most of us can take savage joy in a story - perhaps apocryphal, but satisfying in any case - of instant vengeance on a weather reporter who got it wrong.
A colleague tells of a newby forecaster at a California radio station who assured his manager that he could take the station's biggest advertiser golfing without fear of having the day spoiled by rain. It was pouring by the fourth hole and, with his caddy holding an umbrella over his head, the manager called the station and fired the weatherman on the spot.
That flawed forecast makes one wonder if tea leaves were used to predict the future - and the very near future at that.
It also illustrates just how difficult it can be for highly educated, well-equipped scientists to look ahead even a little, never mind through the rest of the winter; so it's somewhat far fetched to think rodents and bugs can tell what lies far ahead.
OnTheSnow.com spoke with people whose livelihoods depend on the weather, and asked them about the prospects for the coming ski season.
"If you say it's going to be warmer than normal, you're almost always right these days," said Dr. Jeff Masters, director of meteorology for weatherunderground.com.
Dr. Masters lives in Michigan, where he cross-country skis every chance he gets. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, and did a four-year stint with Hurricane Hunters in Miami before settling back into the northern forests.
"The Pacific Northwest might be cooler than normal with more snow than normal. I think it's highly probable that the eastern half of the country will have a warmer winter than normal because of a couple of factors. One is the La Nina episode we've got going, and two is the fact that so much of the polar ice cap melted this summer. That's going to slow down the arrival of winter. Last winter, remember, it wasn't until the middle of January that the eastern half of the country cooled down.
"When you don't have a full set of polar ice covering polar waters, it's harder for big air domes to form and bring us our arctic outbreaks. That same thing is going to happen again this year.
"If you're looking for good snow, start looking after mid-January, across the whole country," Dr. Masters said.
This is in stark contrast with the Farmers' Almanac, whose editor, Peter Geiger, calls for colder and snowier conditions than normal in the East; milder and slightly below normal precip for the West; cold in the Southeast; cold and snowy in the Great Lakes; and milder, drier conditions in the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Southwest and the Pacific Coast.
"We do feel that overall Mother Nature is showing no mercy to the East and being a little more forgiving in the West," Geiger said.
What's Dr. Masters' take on this?
"In one study for one location, San Francisco, the Farmers' Almanac did significantly worse than flipping a coin for that particular year in that location. That was the only place this researcher looked at, so it's not a very rigorous scientific study, but then the Farmers' Almanac isn't very rigorous either. They won't even tell us how they make their predictions," Dr. Masters said.
What of even longer-term projections for what lies ahead?
"The climate is not stable to begin with," Dr. Masters said. "If you look at past history, we're in a remarkably stable period that began 11,000 years ago at the end of last ice age. By putting so many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we're treading on very thin ice. We're in danger of destabilizing our climate. In the next 100 years, we're likely to see some extreme jumps in climate.