The Backwoodsman Magazine, July-August 2016
by Robert Deen
You remember those dusty old weather proverbs — “Circle the moon, rain or snow soon.” “When chairs squeak, it’s of rain they speak.” “When smoke descends, good weather ends.”
Are they folksy wisdom, good-natured witticisms or simply old wives’ tales? Is there any truth to them?
The answer is yes. In fact there’s far more than a grain of truth to these old sayings, and here’s why. Today bad weather mostly a matter of inconvenience. You might get wet walking from your car to the house. But weather used to be a matter of life and death. Nothing was more important to a ship’s captain, or to a farmer whose crops depended on weather — and whose family depended on the crops. People were outside a lot more back then — walking, riding horseback, going to town in the buggy, whatever. They worked outside. They camped out. Life was lived outdoors, far more than today.
So weather was a big deal. People took it seriously. And if a bit of wisdom worked – remembered by a catchy saying – then it was passed on. If it didn’t work, it didn’t get shared. There’s a reason why these weather pearls of wisdom have been around so long, and repeated so often.
Let’s take a look at a few.
When halo rings moon or sun, rain’s approaching on the run
A ring around the sun or moon is caused by light shining through cirrostratus clouds associated with warm fronts and moisture, which can indicate that rain or snow will likely fall within the next three days. Cirrus clouds are generally the first layer of clouds that are seen as a storm system approaches. During summer particularly a ring can be a sign of approaching storms.
Rainbow in the morning gives you fair warning.
A rainbow in the morning indicates that a shower is to the west and probably coming your way.
Clear moon, frost soon.
When the night sky is clear the Earth’s surface cools rapidly since there is no cloud cover to keep heat in. When the night is clear enough to see the moon and the temperature drops enough, frost will form and the next morning will be chilly. Count on it.
If in the sky you see cliffs and towers, it won’t be long before there is a shower.
The more vertical clouds appear to the eye the more unsettled the air is and consequently the less calm the weather will be. Large, white clouds that look like castles in the sky indicate lots of dynamic weather going on inside. If they start to swell and turn grey that probably means thunderstorms.
Rain long foretold, long last. Short notice, soon will pass.
When grey clouds ominously darken the horizon, heavy rain when it does come will last, unlike a “surprise shower” with short-lived rain. When gray overcast dominates it means a large area is affected, and rain will continue for long periods. Conversely a surprise shower seldom lasts long.
Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.
A version of “red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning” appears in the bible in the Gospel of Matthew. While repeated throughout history in forms such as “Red sky at night, sailors delight”, the science remains the same. A red sky appears when dust and small particles are trapped in the atmosphere by high pressure. This scatters blue light, leaving only red light to give the sky its notable appearance. Red sky in the morning refers to the rising sun reflecting off western clouds that are bringing rain, while red sky at night refers to the setting sun being visible and reflecting off eastern clouds that have already passed on.
Mackerel scales and mare’s tails make tall ships carry low sails.
This weather proverb originates from early nautical days when different cloud types were used to determine whether sails needed to be lowered.
Mare’s tails are high cirrus clouds that have been shaped by the upper winds. They can signal an approaching front. Mackerel scales are cirrocumulus clouds that are being influenced by the shifting wind directions and high speeds typical of an advancing low-pressure system.
A coming storm your shooting corns presage, and aches will throb, your hollow tooth will rage.
Medical studies have shown that people can experience intense pain when there is a drop in atmospheric pressure – a drop that also brings storms. It is common knowledge that low pressure and dampness will cause arthritic joints to ache.
If salt is sticky, and gains weight, it will rain, before too late.
Salt draws in moisture from the air when atmospheric humidity is high, an indication of rain. Salt that soaks up the moisture from the air will clog saltshakers.
If woolly fleeces bestow the heavenly way, be sure no rain will come today.
Scattered cumulus clouds like fluffy sheep in the sky indicate settled weather and are often called ‘fair-weather clouds’.
When grass is dry at morning light, look for rain before the night.
Dew forms on humid nights when skies are clear and there are no clouds. This indicates a fair day to follow. On cloudy nights the ground is unable to cool and prevents dew from forming. Cloudy skies normally mean rain to come.
When clouds look like black smoke a wise man will put on a cloak.
Clouds heavy with large water droplets look darker than fair-weather clouds and are a sign of rain.
When the chair squeaks, it’s of rain they speak.
High humidity is a sign of coming rain, and wooden windows and doors will absorb moisture from the air, causing them to squeak and stick.
When smoke descends, good weather ends.
The combination of unstable atmospheric pressure and humidity before a storm prevents chimney or campfire smoke from rising, forcing it to curl downwards.
When the ditch and pond offend the nose, then look out for rain and stormy blows.
When weather is fair and air pressure is high, earthy smells are stored at their source. But when low air pressure arrives before a rain, scents are released and outdoorsy odors become obvious.
If the moon’s face is red, of water she speaks.
Atmospheric dust is often pushed before the low pressure of a weather front, changing the apparent color of the moon to red.
A summer fog for fair, a winter fog for rain. A fact most everywhere, in valley or on plain.
During the summer fog is formed when the temperature falls to ‘dew point’ (humidity rises to 100%). This only happens on clear summer nights, because clouds on an overcast night act as a blanket to hold in the heat from the day and prevent air temperature from cooling to dew point. During winter fog is formed when warm, moisture-laden air blows over a cold surface. Moist air is a sign of rain.
Three days rain will empty any sky.
Although cloudy gray weather can last indefinitely, in the Northern hemisphere heavy rain does not last for long periods of time. Strong, torrential rains are likely to clear within three days.
These are just a sampling. But they make it clear. Our outdoors ancestors knew what they were taking about, and more often than not they were right. Wish that we could say the same.