Predicting the Weather the Old-Fashioned Way
Typical for this time of the year, the early storms signal the great changes that our planet experiences each year. Last week I was reading what the fishermen in the far reaches of Alaska had to say about their annual autumn return to southern waters. When preparting to leave the icy waters of Alaska for southern waters, they watched the behavior of the birds. If the birds were not preparing for migrations as they normally did, fishermen knew that it was probably a sign a storm was on the way. Long before the dopler radar systems and space technology, people knew to pay attention to signs, patterns of behavior, folklore, and direct observation to predict the weather. Over the years, I have found some of the ways very reliable ways of predicting the weather. The following are indicators of weather changes:
Observe the Clouds. Watch the clouds. By observing the direction of the clouds and the types of clouds, you can determine a great deal about the weather. Living right on the coast where I have a good view of what is moving up and down the river, in and out from the ocean and north and south across the mountains, clouds have become one of my greatest signals. Of course this morning, the river is socked in with fog…another type of cloud cover typical of our region.
Cumulonimbus, the big fluffy clouds forming early in the day, are often an indication of building severe weather.
Mammatus, or sinking air clouds look nimbus clouds but with more waves and striated patterns, and they ride lower in the sky than their Cumulonimbus cousins. These clouds are indicators of thunder storms.
Cirrus clouds, also called Mare’s Tails, form with their long, streaky patterns flowing high in the sky in long streamer-like patterns. Cirrus clouds are some of the best indicators of colder, stormier weather. In the Pacific Northwest, these are the clouds that can be spotted 36 hours, give or take, before severe weather.
Altocumulous, also called mackeral scales, appear as a large pattern of small, pieces of cloud streaming out of a larger white cloud. Often seen in the same sky as the Mare’s Tails (Cirrus clouds), the altocumulous clouds are a sure indication of severe weather and rain within 36 hours. Seafarers say, “Mares Tails and Mackeral Scales, tall ships carry short sails.”
Cumulous towers, the tall, billowing, tower-like formations, signal rain within the day;
Nimbostratus clouds, the low, dark clouds that hang heavy overhead, signal imminent rainfall.
Clouds carry the weather, and have much to tell us as we observe and study their movements, appearance, and messages.
Dew on the Grass. Another sign to help you predict the weather is checking the morning dew. At sunrise, if the grass is dry, the chances are there will be clouds, wind, and rain in the day’s forecast. If there is dew on the ground, the chances are the day will be free of rain. This method, however, doesn’t work when it has rained the night before.
Sailor’s Lore: “Red sky at night, a sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.” I was raised on this one, by my mother who grew up on an island and who watched the sea and sky regularly wherever she was. When looking to the west at sunset, if you see a red sky (not a red sun), you are observing a high pressure area with dry air stirring up dust particles giving the sky its reddish hue. This indicates that dry weather is moving toward you, thus, good weather.
When viewing the Eastern Sky, if you observe a red sky at sunrise, you are observing the passing of the high pressure movement as it leaves you. What follows a high pressure system is a low pressure one, and the low pressure brings moisture.
Rainbows. Spotting a rainbow in the west, in the Northern Hemisphere, indicates that the sun is shining through a wet weather system in the west. Most storms in the North move from east to west, so this is an indication that rain is moving toward you. A rainbow in the east around sunset, means the weather system is passing away. The expression, “Rainbow in the morning, take warning,” is an expression meaning rain is on the way.
Follow the Wind. Detecting the direction of the wind is another way to to determine potential weather changes. If you have a wind sock or other wind detector, you can watch the winds change. If you cannot determine the direction of the wind by the feel of it, toss a piece of grass or small twig up in the air, and watch what happens. Or watch the leaves on the trees blow. I have a deciduous plum tree right outside my window, and even when there’s not a leaf left on it, I can observe the slightest sway of the small twigs and branches, letting me know the wind’s direction. When really severe weather is expected, notice the leaves on the deciduous trees. If they are showing the underside of their leaves, this is an indication of bad weather approaching. Watching birds can also help you figure out the wind’s direction. Many birds fly on the air currents. Others sit on wires, branches, or logs, and you can tell by watching them how they are being moved by the wind.
Smelling Rain or Snow. Using our olfactory sense, smell, we can sense change in the weather. When you close your eyes, and breathe in, you can smell a number of things that indicate a turn in the weather to rain or snow. Plants emit waste before a storm, giving off an odor that smells like compost. This indicates rain is on the way.
If you live near an estuary, swamp, lagoon, or tidal area that allows you to observe the muddy bottoms at different times of day, you will notice somewhat unpleasant smells that result with gases are released from the mud just before a storm.
The old saying, “flowers smell best just before a rain,” seems to be true, as flowers too release their scents just before a rain.
Humidity. Sometimes your hair gets curlier, salt clumps in containers, heads ache (literally, you get a headache or feel the build up of pressure in your sinuses), or that old injury starts to ache. My Dad’s knee was his best barometer. If it hurt, he knew it was going to rain the next day…and he was usually right.
Animal Behavior. There are numerous ways animals predict weather changes. Birds tend to fly higher in the sky during clear weather. Birds are affected by low pressure; it makes their ears hurt, so they fly lower when there’s a low pressure system approaching. Animals, including birds, get quieter before a storm. If you live inland, you might notice that seagulls are seen farther inland when a storm is approaching. Cows will gather closer together in storms and will lie down if there’s thunder. Notice anthills, for if rain is coming, ants will build their hills higher to protect themselves from the rain. Cats will clean behind their ears before rain and turtles will search for higher ground. I know some animals will turn their backs to an approaching storm. Let me know of other animal behavior you have noticed.
Campfires/Outdoor Burns. If you are building a fire outdoors, and you notice the smoke swirling and descending, this indicates a low pressure is building–that means rain is on the way.
Watch the Moon. A ring around the moon, caused by rain shining through cirrostratus clouds, indicates rain within three days. “Circle around the moon, rain or snow soon.” If the moon appears reddish or dusty at night, this is an indication of a low pressure system building. It the moon is clear and bright, the low pressure has probably cleared up.
What are some of your ways of predicting weather? Whether you are a sailor, fisher, farmer, rancher, gardener, or general observer of the weather, let us know what you have observed, and how you have learned to follow the sky, watch water, and pay attention to the world around you to teach you about our weather. You can reach me at email@example.com.
Remember, “Whether it rains, or whether it stops, we’re going to have weather, whether or not.” Enjoy it, whatever it is. And if all else fails, visit the National Weather Service to get the most up-to-date information.