Familiar weather proverbs aren't just old wives' tales

July 16, 2011 

Most of us along the coast have heard the proverb relating to the clouds -- red sky at morning, sailor take warning; red sky at night, sailors delight.

Although the origin is questionable, old proverbs such as this were the earliest method available to predict the weather. Long before meteorologists knew which end of the pointer to use or where to stand around the map, and decades before the advent of Doppler radar, predictions were passed down from generation to generation, which made life a little easier for those who frequent the outdoors.

Much is lost with the passing of the older generation. These days, predicting the weather seems to be about which individual knows what button to push and when. Answers are based more on estimates and the SWAG method. For readers uninformed of military lingo, the SWAG method is defined as "Scientific Wild Guess."

So what does a red sky indicate? It relates to the formation and color of clouds. With each sunrise and sunset, the sky takes on a reddish tint when filtered through the atmosphere. For a red sky to appear at morning, the eastern sky needs to be clear of clouds and the western sky must be cloudy.

Since the prevailing wind direction in the northern hemisphere is west to east, a red sky at morning means that storm clouds are in the near future. And a red sky at night means the clouds are to the east and clear skies are to the west, which means favorable nights.

Let's not forget moon and sun rings, which are formed by ice crystals in the clouds. To some this is an indicator of rain or snow and a weather change is imminent within the next 24 hours.

This proverb takes on quite a bit of speculation. To simplify the topic, let's just say the SWAG method applies to some degree. Ice crystals will refract light and upper clouds known as cirrostratus will cause the rings.

Not all clouds offer assistance. Wind direction also plays a dramatic role in proverb predictions. Once again, life among the outdoors offered many telltale signs of weather changes.

This much-beloved proverb gives us an idea as to which direction we should focus:

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.

Along the eastern seaboard, prevailing winds blow from the west, and a shift in the wind to the east or north means trouble. Most anglers will tell you a northeast wind spells disaster for fishing.

Early settlers with an eye to the sky knew well the importance of wind direction, which is the main reason weather vanes came about -- a lost art now concentrated more for ornamental landscapes than any real use. Why look outside when the well-suited and overpaid can tell us all we need to know?

Keep some of the old world alive -- you never know when you might need it.

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