Humans have been observing the weather and creating weather proverbs ever since they’ve been humans, and with good reason. For hunter-gatherers like the Ugg family, back in the days of the home cave, bad weather meant sitting tight. Not a good idea to undertake a journey if you were likely to face floods or deep snow. Once the agricultural age dawned, weather took on even more importance. Lacking a written language, not to mention computer modeling, humans spent a lot of time observing the weather and developing pithy sayings to help people remember and predict what to expect weather-wise.
Weather Proverbs and Science
So how accurate are these weather proverbs? As is so often the case, the answer is “it depends.” First, location matters. There are some weather proverbs that seem to be accurate pretty much anywhere, but others are dependent on topography, prevailing winds, atmospheric pressure and altitude. Windward slopes (mountain slopes that face the prevailing wind) get more rain than their counterparts, the leeward slopes. Air traveling up the windward slopes cools as it rises, creating clouds and precipitation. Downslope winds (think chinook or the Santa Ana winds) are much warmer and drier, so no rain. High air pressure means air doesn’t rise; upper elevation cold is what makes air moisture condense to form rain or snow. So low air pressure means cold air climbs and moisture condenses.
The exact reading on a barometer is not what predicts weather changes – it’s the movement from high to low or vice versa. However, really bad weather and much lower barometric readings go hand in hand. The worst typhoon on record, Typhoon Tip (also called Typhoon Warling) registered the lowest-ever recorded sea level barometric pressure of 25.7 inches of mercury. Other things that affect the weather are the earth’s rotation, the moon’s gravitational pull, distance from the equator, major fires, volcanic eruptions, the amount of snow on the ground, ocean temperature and many other minor factors.
Weather Proverbs and Accuracy
A few weather proverbs will be accurate no matter where you are. Others may be more accurate at certain times of the year or in certain climates. Here are a few:
- “Ring around the moon; rain soon.” The ring comes from ice crystals, which results from an advancing warm front. Light reflecting off the crystals creates a halo effect. This typically applies to winter weather, at least in my location. I’ve seen the occasional ring in summer but it doesn’t result in any rain. That might be different in a more humid climate.
- “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in morning, sailors take warning.” This is most accurate in middle latitudes where prevailing winds blow west to east. A red sky in the morning means the sun is reflecting off the clouds and moisture in the air. I find this one to be most accurate when what you see is literally a red sky – it could be lots of reddish cloud undersides or a diffuse sheen of red over the sky rather than clouds themselves. However, if there’s a large fire in your area, atmospheric smoke can have the same effect. So can pollution.
- “High clouds (or high-flying geese) mean fine weather.” Very high, thin clouds mean high atmospheric pressure, so this one is usually right on the money. Geese are very good at finding optimum air density, which decreases their flying effort. So high-flying geese mean high barometric pressure and fair weather.
- “Clear moon, frost soon.” Lack of cloud cover means the surface of the ground cools rapidly, resulting in frost. This one applies in the cold seasons only.
- “It smells like rain/snow.” Moist air means increased humidity and a higher likelihood of rain. The strength of outdoor scents increases with the humidity – flowers smell stronger, as does tobacco smoke, and more offensive scents such as manure also get stronger. Very cold moist air, however, diminishes odors, so if snow is in the offing, you will smell fewer scents when you step outside.
- “When spiders’ webs in air do fly, the spell will soon be very dry.” High humidity causes the webs to absorb water, which makes them heavier and more likely to break. Spiders that spun webs in conditions of high humidity were more likely to go hungry and less likely to reproduce. So the smart girls (male spiders don’t spin webs in most species) don’t spin webs when the humidity is high.
- “The ash before the oak, choke, choke, choke; the oak before the ash, splash, splash, splash.” This particular proverb is one of the few fairly accurate long-range weather predictors. It’s based on soil moisture and the concept that Ma Nature tries to balance wet and dry years over the long term. Dry and wet years tend to follow cycles (which are certainly being disrupted by climate change). Short cycles run 9-10 years, longer 25 years. Over a roughly 25-year period, the weather will go from many very wet to many very dry years. If weather has been dry in the fall and winter, deep-rooted trees like oaks have more access to lower levels of soil moisture and will bud before shallow-rooted trees like the ash. In years with wet fall/winter weather, the shallow-rooted ash takes the lead. This is why long-term weather records are so important. I would suspect this saying probably applies to other shallow or deep-rooted trees, not just ash and oak.
- There are a number of weather sayings related to things like the thickness of onion skins or the number of acorns on the trees. While they are usually about predicting the upcoming winter, my experience is they have more to do with the previous year’s weather. A heavy acorn crop is more likely to occur when temperature, precipitation, etc. are best in the current year. Many fruit and nut trees are also genetically programmed to produce “super crops” every few years, so the size of the crop may have nothing to do with the weather.
Weather and the Human Body
The human body itself is a fairly accurate weather predictor. Many people who suffer from migraines report an advancing low pressure front will trigger migraines. If you’ve ever had a fracture, the area may ache when bad weather is moving in. Those with arthritic joints may also complain of more joint pain when the barometer drops. The theory behind this is that a barometric low allows body tissues to expand or makes blood vessels dilate. Pain probably comes from tissue expansion in an enclosed space, such as the skull, inelastic scar tissue or joint capsules. There may be other factors, though, as temperature drops of 10 degrees or more also seem to cause joint pain.
When the barometric pressure drops, so does your blood pressure. Your blood also becomes more viscous (thicker) during cold fronts, and those who are diabetic have more trouble controlling blood sugar. You may also notice changes in sinus pressure when the barometric pressure changes. Winter affects symptoms that precede or accompany women’s menstrual cycles. Mood swings and cramps may be worse in winter and ovulation frequency decreases by about 30%. These bodily symptoms probably aren’t going to help much with weather predictions, however.