Weather lore

From Academic Kids

Cumulus humilis indicates a good day ahead.
Cumulus humilis indicates a good day ahead.

Weather lore is the body of informal folklore related to the prediction of the weather.

It has been a human desire for millennia to make accurate weather predictions. Oral and written history is full of rhymes, anecdotes, and adages meant to guide the uncertain in determining whether the morrow will bring weather fair or foul. For the farmer wanting to plant his crop, for the merchant about to send his ships on trade, foreknowledge of tomorrow's circumstances might mean the difference between success and failure. Prior to the invention of the mercury barometer, it was very difficult to gather numerical data of any predictive value. Even though there were devices such as the weather stick which gave some indication of moisture changes, the only instrument of any reliability was human experience.


A typical example

"Dirty days hath September
April June and November
From January up to May
The rain it raineth every day
All the rest have thirty-one
Without a blessed gleam of sun
And if any of them had two-and-thirty
They'd be just as wet and twice as dirty."

This humorous rhyme has been attributed to various authors in various eras, perhaps indicating how generally true it is of winter on the west coasts of both Europe and North America. While not precisely true, it nonetheless predicts with fair accuracy what weather is likely to occur any given day between September and June in Vancouver or London.

Where does weather happen?

Missing image
Marestail shows moisture at high altitude, signalling the later arrival of wet weather.

It is in Earth's middle latitudes, between roughly 30° to 60° North and South, that a significant portion of humanity's daily activities take place. It is also within these rough boundaries that "weather" can be said to happen, that is, where meteorological phenomena do not persist over the long term, and where it may be warm, sunny, and calm one day, and cold and stormy the next.

A great percentage of the world's population lives in the equatorial regions, but for the most part, these regions do not experience weather as it is understood by this definition. The Sahara Desert, for instance, is almost uniformly hot and dry, whereas weather trends on the Indian subcontinent and in the western Pacific, ie, the monsoonal belt, occur gradually over the very long term, and the diurnal weather patterns remain constant.

Weather lore, therefore, refers to this mid-latitude region of daily variability. While some of it may apply equally to the Southern Hemisphere, the Southern Hemisphere resident may need to take into account the fact that weather systems rotate opposite to those in the North. For instance, the "crossed winds" rule (see below) must be reversed for the Australian reader.

How accurate is weather lore?

Any sufficiently lengthy process of observation, combined with testing of and revision of hypotheses, will produce some useful information. Since this process is the basis of the scientific method, weather lore cannot generally be said to be unscientific. However, it may not take into account or be aware of larger circumstances which affect local conditions. It may also include ideas which linger not because of their falsifiable nature, but through long tradition, or which are true just often enough to lend the air of credibility. Weather lore purporting to make long-range prediction is particularly susceptible to this phenomenon.

Missing image
A mackerel sky portends changeable weather.

The rhyme above, for instance, describes circumstances which occur as the planet-girdling north Polar front slips south and meets warm, moist air pulled in from equatorial regions. Two hundred years ago, the concept of huge rotating air masses creating weather was not only unknown, but would have gotten one laughed out of a scientific establishment if ventured as an explanation.

As a consequence, even though there is some predictive value to much of the body of folklore, it is necessarily ignorant of why it predicts what it does, and of inconsistent reliability in how accurately it predicts what it does. However, a considerable body of weather lore is reliable enough that it can be said to be useful.

True lore, and why

Red sky at night, sailors delight.
Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.
Missing image
A red sunset probably means good weather tomorrow.

Weather systems typically move from west to east, and red clouds result when the sun shines on their undersides at either sunrise or sunset. At these two times of day, the sun's light is passing at a very low angle through a great thickness of atmosphere, the result of which is the absorption of most of the shorter wavelengths -- the greens, blues, and violets -- of the spectrum, and so sunlight is heavy at the red end of the spectrum. If the morning skies are red, it is likely that clear skies to the east permit the sun to light the undersides of moisture-bearing clouds coming in from the west. Conversely, in order to see red clouds in the evening, sunlight must have a clear path from the west in order to illuminate moisture-bearing clouds moving off to the east. There are many variations on this piece of lore, but they all carry the same message.

Matthew 16:3 -- He answered and said unto them,
"When it is evening, ye say,
'It will be fair weather: for the sky is red.'
And in the morning,
'It will be foul weather today: for the sky is red and lowring.'"

Shakespeare, in his play Venus and Adonis wrote:

Like a red morn that ever yet betokened,
Wreck to the seaman, tempest to the field,
Sorrow to the shepherds, woe unto the birds,
Gusts and foul flaws to herdmen and to herds.

Sky color alone is not the only predictor of weather quality.

Mackerel sky and mares' tails make lofty ships carry low sails.

The unmistakable herringbone pattern of mackerel sky and the long, wispy cirrus which is mare's tail are all high-altitude indicators that a moisture-bearing low pressure system is moving in from the west. This usually means an increase in wind speeds, a shift to blustery easterly winds, and increased cloud and precipitation within the next 24 hours or so. A wise captain avoids torn sails and damaged spars by taking his sails in.

When clouds appear like rocks and towers,
the earth's refreshed with frequent showers.
Cumulus towers indicate the possibility of showers later in the day. This one is a clear indicator of coming active weather.
Cumulus towers indicate the possibility of showers later in the day. This one is a clear indicator of coming active weather.

The characteristic cauliflower shape of summer cumulus clouds is an indicator of moist surface air rising quickly into cooler, drier air aloft. When towers (cumulus castellanus) appear, they indicate a relatively higher degree of instability between warm, moist air at the surface and cool, dry air aloft. Such towers may well grow into local thundershowers as the day progresses.

When rain comes before the wind, dories, gear and vessel mind;
When wind comes before the rain, soon you'll make the set again

When rain comes before wind, it is often the result of an approaching front, which frequently means unsettled weather for a day or two. If wind comes before rain, it is often just the downdraft from an approaching local rainstorm, which will likely blow over in a few hours.

When the wind is blowing in the North
No fisherman should set forth,
When the wind is blowing in the East,
'Tis not fit for man nor beast,
When the wind is blowing in the South
It brings the food over the fish's mouth,
When the wind is blowing in the West,
That is when the fishing's best!
Missing image
Cold, blustery northerly winds typically accompany a low pressure system.

This description of wind direction is an excellent illustration of how the weather events of an active low pressure area present themselves. With the approach of a low, easterly winds typically pick up. These gusty winds can be unpleasant for a number of reasons; they are often uncomfortably warm, dry, and dusty in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. Northerly winds, which follow around a low, are cold and blustery. Sailing in conditions of northerly winds requires expertise and a boat capable of handling heavy waves. Southerly winds bring warm temperatures, and though they may not necessarily feed the fish, they do provide pleasant fishing weather. The best circumstance, however, is to have a westerly wind blowing; the wind condition is likely to persist for some time, the weather should remain fair and clear, and the wind should be relatively constant.

It should be noted that wind and weather observations will be different for a low passing to the north of the observer than for one passing to the south. When a low passes to the north, the winds typically pick up from the east, swing to southerly (possibly accompanied by light precipitation, usually not) with the passage of the low's warm front, and then switch to northwesterly or westerly as the cold front passes. Typically, if there is any heavy precipitation, it will accompany the passage of the cold front. When a low passes to the south, on the other hand, winds will initially pick up from the east, but will gradually shift to northerly. Overcast skies and steady precipitation often occur as the center of the low passes due south, but skies will clear and winds will gradually become westerly as the low moves off to the east. No observer will experience all the weather elements of a low in a single passage.

No weather is ill, if the wind be still.

Calm conditions, especially with clear skies, indicate the dominance of a high pressure area. Because highs are regions of descending air, they discourage the formation of phenomena typically associated with weather, such as clouds, wind, and precipitation. Calm conditions, though, may also result from a circumstance known as "the calm before the storm," in which a large thunderstorm cell to the west may be updrafting the westerly wind before it can arrive locally. This situation is readily identifiable by looking to the west — such an approaching storm will be close enough to be unmistakable. In winter, though, calm air and clear skies may signal the presence of an Arctic high, and it is difficult to imagine describing a temperature of -35°C as pleasant.

Seagull, seagull sit on the sand.
It's never good weather when you're on the land.

Seagulls are not especially fond of standing or walking. They are naturally at home in flight, and where they can, they sleep on the water. However, seagulls, like people, find gusty, turbulent wind difficult to contend with, and under such circumstances, the water is also choppy and unpleasant. Seagulls huddled on the ground are not likely a predictor of bad weather as much as they are a sign that the weather is already bad.

When halo rings the moon or sun, rain's approaching on the run

A halo around the sun or moon is caused by the refraction of that body's light by ice crystals at high altitude. Such high-level moisture is a precursor to moisture moving in at increasingly lower levels, and is a good indicator that an active weather system is on its way. Halos typically evolve into what is known as "milk sky", when the sky appears clear, but the typical blue is either washed-out or barely noticeable. This high, thick cirrostratus cloud is a clear indicator of an approaching low.

When windows won't open, and the salt clogs the shaker,
The weather will favour the umbrella maker!

Moisture in the air causes wood to swell, making doors and windows sticky, and salt is a very effective absorber of moisture. With a high level of moisture in the air, the likelihood of precipitation is increased.

A cow with its tail to the West makes the weather best,
A cow with its tail to the East makes the weather least

Cows, like people, prefer not to have the wind blowing in their faces, and so typically stand with their backs to the wind. Since westerly winds typically mean arriving or continuing fair weather and easterly winds usually indicate arriving or continuing unsettled weather, a cowvane is as good a way as any of knowing what the weather will be up to for the next little while.

A summer fog for fair,
A winter fog for rain.
A fact most everywhere,
In valley or on plain.
A cold air mass sweeping across  and  from the northwest collides with the moist air above the lakes and produces lake effect snow.
A cold air mass sweeping across Lake Superior and Lake Michigan from the northwest collides with the moist air above the lakes and produces lake effect snow.

Fog is formed when the air cools enough that the vapor pressure encourages condensation over evaporation. In order for the air to be cool on a summer night, the sky must be clear, so excess heat can be radiated into space. Cloudy skies act like a blanket, keeping the heat in. So if it is cool enough (and clear enough) for fog to form, it will probably be clear the next day. Winter fog is the result of two entirely different circumstances. Above the ocean or a large lake, air is typically more humid than above land. When the humid air moves over cold land, it will form fog and precipitation. (To the east of Canada's Great Lakes, this is a common phenomenon, and is known as the "Lake Effect.") In northerly climates, ice fog may form when the temperature drops substantially below freezing. It is almost exclusively an urban phenomenon, when the air is so cold that any vapor pressure results in condensation, and additional vapor emitted by automobiles, hosehold furnaces, and industrial plants simply accumulates as fog.

When sounds travel far and wide,
A stormy day will betide.

This piece of lore is true in summer but possibly false in winter. Moisture-laden air is a better conductor of sound than dry air, so moist air carries sounds farther. In winter, temperature also becomes an important factor. If the air is warm and moist, the rule holds. If the air is very cold, it is also very dense and a better sound conductor than warm air, and also likely to be much drier. When sounds carry over a long distance, the cold, clear weather is likely to linger.

If clouds move against the wind, rain will follow.

This rule may be true under a few special circumstances, otherwise it is false. By standing with one's back to the ground-level wind and observing the movement of the clouds, it is possible to determine whether the weather will improve or deteriorate. For the Northern Hemisphere, it works like this: If the upper-level clouds are moving from the right, a low-pressure area has passed and the weather will improve; if from the left, a low pressure area is arriving and the weather will deteriorate. (Reverse for the Southern Hemisphere.) This is known as the "crossed-winds" rule. Clouds travelling parallel to but against the wind may indicate a thunderstorm approaching. Outflow winds typically blow opposite to the updraft zone, and clouds carried in the upper level wind will appear to be moving against the surface wind. However, if such a storm is in the offing, it is not necessary to observe the cloud motions to know rain is a good possibility. The nature of airflows directly at a frontal boundary can also create conditions in which lower winds contradict the motions of upper clouds, and the passage of a frontal boundary is often marked by precipitation. Most often, however, this situation occurs in the lee of a low pressure area, to the north of the frontal zones and convergence region, and does not indicate a change in weather, but rather, that the weather, fair or showery, will remain so for a period of hours at least.

A coming storm your shooting corns presage,
And aches will throb, your hollow tooth will rage.

There have been medical studies done which indicate some people experience this effect. The most likely reason is that with a fall in atmospheric pressure, blood vessels dilate slightly in reaction. This has the effect of aggravating already-irritated nerves near corns, cavities, or arthritic joints.

False lore, and why

If on February 2 (Groundhog Day in the United States and Canada) the groundhog sees its shadow, thirty days of winter remain. If not, spring will follow immediately.

Annual records show that the groundhog prediction is correct half the time and incorrect half the time. In other words, there is no correlation between the behavior of groundhogs and the date when spring begins.

If spring comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb.

According to records, fierce weather when spring begins does not necessarily imply gentler weather later. Spring comes in and goes out equally as often in either guise.

Rain before seven, clear by eleven.

Late-night rains and early-morning rains may simply be the last precipitation of a passing weather front. However, since fronts pass at night as often as they do in the day, morning rain is no predictor of a dry afternoon. This lore can describe non-frontal weather. Given sufficient surface heating, a late-day rainstorm may continue to develop into the night, produce early precipitation, then dissipate by late morning. This, though, is the exception rather than the rule.

When March blows its horn,
your barn will be filled with hay and corn.

"Blows its horn" refers to thunderstorms. While March thunderstorms indicate that the weather is unusually warm for that time of year (thunderstorms can occur only with a sufficiently large temperature difference between ground and sky and sufficient amounts of moisture to produce charge differential within a cloud), it is no indicator of the long-term weather trend. It is still unwise to plant your annuals before the long May weekend.

Cats and dogs eat grass before a rain.

While it is true that cats and dogs eat grass, it has nothing to do with the weather and is probably due to the fact that cats and dogs are not exclusively carnivorous. Some researchers believe that dogs eat grass as an emetic when feeling ill.

Onion skins very thin
Mild winter coming in;
Onion skins thick and tough
Coming winter cold and rough.

This verse, and so many others like it, attempts to predict long-range conditions. These predictions have stood the test of time only because they rely on selective memory: people remember when they have predicted correctly and forget when predictions don't hold. One possible factor which could provide these predictions with a thin edge of credibility is that there is some degree of consistency in weather from year to year. Drought cycles or El Niño winters are a perfect example of such circumstances. A pattern of cool summers and warm winters, for instance, may produce patterns in other natural events sensitive enough to be affected by changes in temperature or precipitation.

In the British Isles, Saint Swithun's day is supposed to forecast forty days of rain if there is any precipitation on the saint's feast day. In France, the feast day of St. Médard fulfils the same function. In Russia, the weather on the feast of the Protecting Veil is popularly believed to indicate the severity of the forthcoming winter.

A reliable prediction

This ode to the weatherman is one which never fails:

And in the dying embers
These are my main regrets:
When I'm right no one remembers;
When I'm wrong no one forgets.


  • "The Story of Weather" - Bill Giles (ISBN 0-11-400355-6)
  • "Instant Weather Forecasting in Canada" - Alan Watts (Library of Congress #68-9173)

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