By Erik Lyttek
History and science have always fascinated me. For the length and breadth of history, man has been dependent on the weather and the shifting seasons. ‘There is a time to plant and a time to harvest ‘and how is one to know without modern conveniences? For most men and women throughout time, reliable sayings, proverbs and a general knowledge of the earth’s rhythms had to do. Many of these methods are still used today and sometimes prove better local predictors than all our satellites and technological advances.
As humankind advanced technologically, they discarded much of the learning of previous generations. This proves especially true in the area of meteorology. In order to distance themselves from the tribal or town elder, modern meteorologists discount most weather legends as coincidence and hearsay. However, a gap exists between known science and established tradition. Some of the long-held lore do actually work. For those who live closer to nature, whether permanently or for a time (as in camping) would do well to learn them.
Even in Biblical times, such signs were known and applied. In the book of Matthew, Jesus talks about one sign still used today. “You know the saying, ‘Red sky at night means fair weather tomorrow; red sky in the morning means foul weather all day.’ You know how to interpret the weather signs in the sky, but you don’t know how to interpret the signs of the times!” (Matthew 16:2b-3, NLT)
But how do we know what works and what doesn’t? And what is some of the science behind the lore that we can depend on? Thousands of unsubstantiated weather predictors range from the ridiculous to the credible. The reason many patently ludicrous sayings persist is that statistically if a certain event occurs, a chance reoccurrence of two unrelated events will substantiate the truthfulness of the correlation in the minds of a few. So even the most bizarre weather legends will be ‘proven’ true at some point or other. Others are relatively accurate like what Christ alluded to, Red sky in morning, shepherd take warning.
Predicting the Weather: What, exactly, works? And why?
- First, the red sky sign works. It works because of moisture in the air. If the sky is red in the morning, a lower pressure system is on the way and foul weather approaches. If the sky is red in the evening, the system with the moisture has passed and no low pressure system comes with the prevailing wind.
- Another sign that works is called the Mackerel Sky. These high stringy clouds look like fish scales. The saying goes: Never long wet, never long dry. The reason for this is these clouds only occur when the high altitude winds move quickly. These winds bring in and take away storm clouds with rapid succession.
- The next saying is: When windows won’t open and the salt clogs the shaker, the weather will favor the umbrella maker. Both indicate increased humidity. Aching joints and doors sticking also can work as predictors for this. Any items that fit together snugly, and absorb water, can show when the level of moisture in the air increases—and thus the chance of rain.
- When bees to distance wing their flight, the days are warm and the skies are bright; but when the flight ends near their home, then rain and cold are sure to come. Most species of bees and other flying insects have wings that easily take on the water from the air. Due to the insects’ small weight, this increased mass makes them proportionately heavy! This leads to larger insects becoming lethargic and less apt to fly before rainstorms.
- Birds (geese) flying high in the sky predict fine weather. Geese fly on a pressure gradient in the atmosphere and when the pressure is higher in the sky the geese will be flying at their preferred air density higher in the sky. Likewise when air pressure is low the geese will fly low to the ground, but still at their preferred air density.
- When leaves turn on their backs it will rain. Leaves on trees grow to face the sun for as much time as possible. Normal winds won’t turn the leaves away from the light. Contrary winds (winds out of the primary direction) will turn the leaves showing the paler backs. Contrary winds come with changing weather, generally for the worse.
- Campfire smoke hangs low to the ground before bad weather. This indicator shows the relative pressure in the air and gradients. In low pressure, smoke will tend to hover and hang low to the ground when it runs into denser air than itself while in high pressure the smoke just escapes up and away.
- Crickets can act like thermometers. Certain species of field crickets chirp at different intervals depending on the temperature. Amos Dolbear, scientist, formulated an equation that calculates an accurate temperature reading just by counting the chirps. The formula, called Dolbear’s Law, works as follows: T = 50+[(N-40)/4] (T = temperature, N = number of chirps per minute).
What about other commonly held notions? For instance, a higher number of acorns predicts a bad winter. Or similarly, squirrels hide more acorns before a rough winter. Both of these reflect the spring that has passed, more than the winter ahead. The better the growing conditions in the spring, the higher the acorn harvest will be. And the squirrels? They will gather as much as they can. If they find more, they gather more.
Reviewing the traditions concludes that weather lore is most accurate when it predicts a short term event, but tends to inaccuracy and vain hope whenever it attempts to forecast long-term or seasonal weather. This makes sense in that even modern meteorology cannot account for all the variables when it comes to long-term weather forecasting. In the end, as God asked Job, “Can you shout to the clouds and make it rain?” (Job 38:34, NLT)
Erik Lyttek graduated homeschool at sixteen and received his degree in biology at nineteen. This article was derived from his senior thesis. An avid gardener and Eagle Scout, Erik will begin his PhD program in environmental science this fall.