For centuries, all humans had as a guide to future weather was observation of changes in nature, but as an accurate predictive tool it has its limitations. Still, folklore about weather handed down through the generations is believed by some to be as reliable as the wisdom of meteorologists.
“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.
Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.”
The red sky that affects the lives of mariners, shepherds, and others works best if the crimson is in the east; that means that the setting Sun is bouncing off rain clouds that have already passed. So, it’s reasonable to expect a rain-free day on the morrow.
However, a deep red sky to the west might be a sign of gathering moisture and a storm on the way. Or, it might mean pollution is affecting the light. There are so many variables that it’s best not to plan your picnic too early.
“Rain before seven, fine before eleven.”
This proverb comes from Britain where the frontal systems that typically bring rain take between three and four hours to pass. This being the United Kingdom though there’s a good chance another frontal system is following on a few hours later.
“Dew on the grass, no rain will come to pass.”
Condensation (dew) tends to form overnight when the sky is clear because the ground and grass cools. The warm, moist soil is the source of the dew, which will also form more readily under calm winds.
Of course, a clear sky and light breezes are good predictors of fair weather. So, a doctorate in meteorology is not needed for that one.
British Weather in Song
Can We Trust Animals?
“Seagull, seagull sit on the sand.
It’s never good weather when you’re on land.”
Apparently, seagulls like to take 40 winks while floating on water, but they like it calm. When the waves are two storeys high they come ashore.
But, the predictive quality seems to be quite low here; if we can see thunderous mountains of water crashing ashore we’d have to be pretty thick not to discern that the weather is stormy.
“A cow with its tail to the West makes the weather best,
A cow with its tail to the East makes the weather least.”
The Jersey, the Holstein, and all the other bovine critters don’t like to have the wind in their faces. “What to do? What to do?” thinks Daisy the Shorthorn. “I know, I’ll turn my bum to the wind.” Smart one Daisy, in common with most of her species.
Benign weather is more likely to come from the west than the east.
Ah, the pesky groundhog. There’s Punxsutawney Phil (Pennsylvania), Wiarton Willy (Ontario), Shubenacadie Sam (Nova Scotia), and several others. Depending on whether or not these rodents see their shadows when someone in fancy dress drags them out of their warm and cozy dens on February 2, spring is supposed to be early or late. Don’t bother trying to remember which is which because the science says the predictions are no better than chance.
Aches and Pains
Old Granny Marspether’s knees occasionally “Play me up something horrible.” So, is this a good forecaster on which to plan a day out? The proverb says it is:
“A coming storm your shooting corns presage,
And aches will throb, your hollow tooth will rage.”
(If I may be permitted an editorial comment; if you have corns, arthritis, and a quarry-sized tooth cavity, pain is going to be your constant companion.)
Science says that when atmospheric pressure drops there is a small dilation in our blood vessels. This might anger nerves around body parts that are in distress. Low atmospheric weather means storms, but, on balance, Granny Marspether’s knees look like a poor prognosticator.
Can the weather at one time of the year forecast what is going to happen later on?
“March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.”
In more northerly latitudes, it’s April, and that tells us something about the reliability of this proverb. Foul weather to the nth degree at the start of a month has no effect on the weather four weeks later.
St. Swithin’s day, if it does rain
Full forty days, it will remain
St. Swithin’s day, if it be fair
For forty days, ‘twill rain no more.
In the United Kingdom, July 15 is Saint Swithin’s day and folklore says that whatever the weather on that day it will remain so for the next 40 days and 40 nights. How did that piece of wisdom come about?
Dear old Saint Swithin, or Swithun, was the Bishop of Winchester, England in the 9th century. When he died he wanted an ordinary grave with no special treatment, and got it.
Some years later, monks dug him up and moved him into an elaborate shrine in Winchester Cathedral. But the ceremony of dedication was delayed for 40 days because the country was lashed by fierce storms and torrential rain. The ancient cleric was, apparently, displeased with being unduly venerated.
The Royal Meteorological Society notes that “Since records began [in 1861], not a single 40-day drought has occurred anywhere in the U.K. during the summer months, and there has been not one instance at any time of the year of 40 consecutive days of rainfall. Sunshine on St Swithun’s Day in Miami may well auger 40 days of unbroken sunshine, but in Blackpool it most assuredly does not.”
The Old Farmer’s Almanac
In 1815, Robert B. Thomas, the founding editor of the venerable Old Farmer's Almanac, was putting together the 1816 edition. In it, he made the outlandish prediction that there would be “rain, sleet, and snow” in July.
Well, goldarn if Mount Tamboro in Indonesia didn't go and blow its stack and chuck ash into the atmosphere. The Sun was blotted out and 1816 was the “year without a summer;” and yes, there was sleet and snow in July. This is said to have conferred on the almanac the reputation of a weather oracle of impeccable quality.
But sadly, that glittering status has become a bit tarnished over the years. The almanac claims an 80 percent weather forecasting accuracy rate based on a secret formula that’s locked away in a vault; kind of like the 11 herbs and spices. However, the claim is not backed up by any scientific evidence.
Jason Samenow, meteorologist and weather editor of The Washington Post, says “Let me state emphatically that no one―with any degree of accuracy―can predict the specific days when cold snaps or storms will occur months in advance.”
A coin toss or one of those February rodents would do as well.
- You can tell the temperature by listening to chirping crickets. Here’s a formula devised by The Old Farmer’s Almanac: count the number of chirps in 14 seconds and add 40 to get the Fahrenheit temperature. If you want Celsius, “count the number of chirps in 25 seconds, divide by three, and add four.” According to the Weather Channel “… there is actually more truth behind this than you might think.” Of course, you can save yourself the mental gymnastics and get a cheap thermometer from the dollar store.
- Lajamanu is a small town in Australia’s Northern Territory. In March 2010, residents were startled to see hundreds of small, white fish tumbling out of rain clouds. Meteorologists say the fish were likely scooped up by a thunderstorm several hundred kilometres away and later dumped on Lajamanu. It’s happened twice before in the same town.
- The woolly bear caterpillar lives in the United States and southern Canada and has fuzzy black and brown bands. Folklore says if the reddish-brown sections are wider than normal the following winter will be mild; narrower means a harsh winter. This carries about the same weight of accuracy as the suggestion that Sagittarians make great pole-vaulters.
- “Weather Lore.” The Natural Navigator, undated.
- “St Swithin’s Day: What Is it and Will it Rain for 40 Days.” The Telegraph, July 15, 2017.
- “St Swithin’s Day.” Royal Meteorological Society, undated.
- “Should You Believe the Old Farmer’s Almanac’s Forecast?.” Todd Leopold, CNN, August 17, 2016.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor