Woollies see colder, wetter winter But caterpillars predict milder season in area after middle of January


HAGERSTOWN -- Get out your woollies. Those well-known hairy weather foretellers -- the woolly bears -- are predicting a colder and wetter than normal winter. At least through mid-January.

That prognostication comes from analysis of 384 of the black-and-reddish brown caterpillars collected last month in the venerable Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack's annual Woolly Bear Contest.

The 199-year-old Almanack -- which accurately predicted the cold, snowy, icy winter of 1993-1994 -- forecasts a cold winter. Period. The publication also is calling for 45 inches of snow, primarily in December and February. Expect a white Christmas, too.

But the woolly bears are calling for a milder winter after Jan. 15.

"If the woolly bears are correct, we will see a lot of rain in December and February, and we will not see 45 inches of snow as the Almanack has called for," said Gerald W. Spessard, an insurance agent and business manager of the family-owned publication.

"Fifty percent of the time the woolly bears are right," Mr. Spessard said. "The last three years the Almanack and the woolly bears have differed in their predictions."

The Almanack's predictions are done 18 months in advance using information on sunspots, a collection of weather maps and a lunar chart created by English astronomer Sir William Herschel. Bill O'Toole, a Mount St. Mary's College computer instructor, performs the calculations.

It's a much simpler affair for the woolly bears, 1 1/2 -inch critters often seen scurrying along roadways on warm fall days.

Folklore has it that the colored bands of soft, long bristles on the caterpillars -- which winter in cocoons before metamorphosing next spring and summer into tiger moths -- foretell the severity of the coming winter. Generally, larger black bands mean above-average precipitation and colder days ahead. A wider reddish-brown middle band portends of a milder winter. The front black band stands for the first half of winter, and the rear black band represents winter's waning weeks.

"We just never know what they're going to predict," Mr. Spessard said. "We always wait and see."

The Almanack's woolly bear contest technically has nothing to do with the weather. But the contest, in which the "Cutest and Cuddliest" and the "Biggest and Woolliest" win $100 for their captors, serves as another means of forecasting. This year's winners are Jason Mowen, a Greencastle, Pa., first-grader, and Ashley Magee, a Clear Spring sixth-grader.

This year's event drew far fewer contestants than the 796 entries collected last year.

"We didn't see many woolly bears this year," Mr. Spessard said. "That was sort of the consensus everywhere. There just weren't as many around. That's what we heard from people we talked to in New England and in the Carolinas. We have no indication why."

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