The Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack is a wonderful resource of astronomy, meteorology, and rich information.
Studying science and trends has led to a long and fruitful career for Bill O’Toole, who is the now-retired weather Prospector Emeritus of the Hagerstown Almanack. In fact, O’Toole was the Almanack’s longest-serving Prognosticator for one of the oldest publications in the United States.
“I started teaching math and computer science at Mount St. Mary’s in 1966, and in 1969, out of the blue, I got a call from the Hagerstown Almanack,” O’Toole said. “The predecessor had just passed away, and they were looking for somebody to take his place.”
Born in Waynesboro with family roots in Maryland, O’Toole had been familiar with the Almanack since he was a child. For the past 225 years, the Hagerstown Almanack has provided weather predictions, astronomical information, and useful bits of wisdom for everyday life.
O’Toole’s background in science and his affinity for numbers made him an ideal replacement as the new Prognosticator of the second oldest almanack in the United States.
“They asked if I could do the work, consisting mostly of weather and astronomy,” he said. “My first major in college was astrophysics, so the astronomy was no problem for me. If they could tell me how the weather was done, I figured I might be able to do that.”
With the responsibility of archiving so much data and information, it’s a daunting task for an outsider to take over such a prestigious position. “I said, ‘let me try this for a year or two, and if you’re not satisfied, look for somebody else.’”
It’s safe to say that after 51 years and becoming the longest-serving Prognosticator for the Almanack, O’Toole was a pretty good fit for the job.
Over O’Toole’s half-century tenure, methods of prediction adapted with technology and improved knowledge of how earth’s climate worked. “I was pleased with how the forecasts were going until about 10 years into it, until they started going south, and that’s when I learned about sunspots and how they affect the weather,” O’Toole said.
Understanding the earth’s climate and the effects of its changes has been a challenge for scientists in the age of technology. Awareness of patterns in the climate and solar events has helped tremendously with the accuracy of O’Toole’s predictions over the decades.
“Five or six years later [after learning about sunspots], I found out about El Niño and started including that information,” he said. “I had to factor in Global Warming more and more into my data, and I can see a definite trend over the last 50 years.”
El Niño’s unusually warm waters and weak winds create irregular weather patterns that can be extremely hard to predict, and they can have drastic effects on seemingly unrelated things like crop growth and natural disasters. The earth’s ecosystems can be very sensitive to change, so accurately predicting which years may have strong irregularities can be extremely difficult.
The numbers don’t lie, and despite a few outliers, the statistics tell a definitive tale of shifting temperatures, which has to be taken into effect when trying to determine storms, temperatures, and precipitation.
“The amount of snowfall has gone down on average, and the date of the earliest snowfall has come later and later,” O’Toole said. “This is a trend, and while there are outliers, you can see the definite trend toward warmer temperatures and stronger, more destructive storms.”
As with most meteorologists, there is definitely some flexibility when forecasting storm systems and temperatures. O’Toole would compare the recorded temperatures with his predictions from the year before to test his accuracy, which is rumored to rival the National Weather Service. More often than not, his predictions were on the money despite being made over a year in advance.
“The second half of one year and the first half of the next, I would go through and keep accurate records each day, marking it with what I had predicted either completely correct, completely wrong, or half and half,” he explained. “I would do that every day and then calculate averages month by month and year by year.”
O’Toole’s historic career saw a lot of development in the Almanack. As of 2020, the book is up to 84 pages, and its content has never been more polished.
O’Toole continued teaching at Mount St. Mary’s until his retirement in 2007, but he continued working with the Almanack closely to shepherd in his successor, Chad Merrill. “We had it down to a science, and now Chad is filling in really well,” O’Toole said.
Merrill is a meteorologist by trade, so his skillset compliments O’Toole’s quite nicely.
Though O’Toole has now officially retired, his impact and contributions to the Hagerstown and Country Almanack cannot be quantified, but he’s confident he’s left it in good hands.
Bill O’Toole (right) officially passed the torch as Prognosticator of the Hagerstown Almanack to his successor, Chad Merrill.
Photo by Cathy Bodin