This woolly bear caterpillar, by sporting more brown than black, is telling the world that the coming winter will be a mild one. Renée St. Jean photo

If El Niño was a living, breathing human man, a few of us would like to have words with the fellow.  

Strong words, and maybe a more physical conversation in the parking lot out back. 

Already named as a culprit in our dismally wet summer, forecasters are now saying that Mr. Niño may overstay his welcome and hang around all winter. 

“As we go to press,” forecasters from the Farmers’ Almanac wrote earlier in the year, “there are indications that an El Niño (an unusually high water temperature off the Pacific Coast of South America) is brewing for the latter half of 2023, lasting into the winter of 2024. If we consider that alongside our tried-and-true forecast formula, we’re predicting a return to traditional weather conditions — cold temperatures and more countrywide snowfall and wintry precipitation.” 

The latest model-based outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects a greater than 90% chance of El Niño persisting through the winter of 2023-2024. That will present a change from our recent weathers, which have been relatively mild. 

According to the forecasting group, we are coming out of a streak of three consecutive La Niña winters – a rare occurrence that has now happened only three times since 1950. La Niña is associated with drier and warmer weather, unlike her more rowdy cousin, who moved in during the spring. 


During El Niño — which means “little boy,” by the way, and isn’t THAT ironic — trade winds weaken and warm water is pushed back east, toward the west coast of the Americas, which impacts weather in a variety of ways across the country. As storms often move up the coast during El Niño winters, the Eastern seaboard generally experiences above-normal precipitation.

“And for those living in the I-95 corridor from Washington to Boston, who saw a lack of wintry precipitation last winter, you should experience quite the opposite, with lots of rain, sleet and snow to contend with,” according to the Farmer’s Almanac, which is produced in Lewiston. 

In the Old Farmer’s Almanac — an entirely separate publication out of New Hampshire, mind you, in spite of the similar name — forecasters tend to agree with that outlook and even try to make it sound fun and traditional. 

“Get prepared for oodles of fluffy white throughout the season,” according to that almanac. “Along with above-normal snow, we’ll see normal to colder-than-normal temperatures in areas that typically receive snow. Expect just the right amount of chill in the air for an afternoon of adventurous snow sports or enjoying a big ol’ mug of hot cocoa by a crackling fire.” 

Others, though, suggest that maybe El Niño is taking a little too much of the blame for our weather, both past and future. There are other factors involved, after all, and entirely different weather systems that may have an impact on what type of season we’re getting.

“Everybody wants to hang their hat on El Niño,” says Mike Haggett of Pine Tree Weather, “but there’s this other thing called the Madden–Julian oscillation that goes on over the Indian Ocean. The MJO is, in some aspects, more of a dictator than what happens with El Niño.”


The MJO, as it turns out, is no passive player. Teams of researchers from NOAA have discovered a significant relationship between the MJO, the frequency of nor’easter storms and the probability of snowfall in other areas. Haggett this week was examining some of the latest weather models to pin down how the MJO — and its blustery friend El Niño — might impact our upcoming weather.

Most of the official forecasts portend a pretty rugged winter. If we want to cling to any hope of an easier and less snowy and wet season, it may come in the form of the woolly bear caterpillar, beloved for its portending of winters to come. 

According to folklore, the longer the woolly bear’s black bands, the longer, colder, snowier and more severe the winter will be. Alternately, the wider the brown band in the middle, the milder the upcoming winter. 

Nearly a dozen local people have reported finding woolly bear caterpillars, each with much more brown than black. While the weather experts say we’re in for a rough ride this winter, this humble, fuzzy creature says, nah. It will be an easy one boys. 

The National Weather Service refers to the woolly bear business as a myth, although some people swear by it as a forecasting tool. Meanwhile, in Belfast, Maine, the famous weather-forecasting lobster known as Passy Pete has predicted winter weather will start earlier this year — and they say Passy Pete is never wrong.

Place your bets wherever you want to, folks. We’ll all find out who’s right soon enough. 

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