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The Rime of the Ancient Meteorologist

With all our modern scientific instrumentation, high speed computer models and informational sources used in forecasting and disseminating just what the weather will bring, you shouldn’t overlook the inherent guidance of good-old traditional weather proverbs.

Since Antiquity, farmers took note of flora behavior, cloud movements and sky color to know when to plant and harvest. Hunters studied the behavior of insects and animals to determine when it was safe to venture into the woods and valleys. And mariners, to this day the most subjected to the effects of ill weather both in terms of slow passages or life threatening situations, noted wind shifts and watched wave motions for signs of change. They all recorded what they observed in the form of short sayings, usually in rhyme for ease of memory. In this way, the information was passed down through the generations, honed by accumulated wisdom through time. Keep in mind though, since climates and weather patterns are inconsistent throughout the world, a weather proverb from one region may not be valid in another. Perhaps the most oft quoted weather proverb among mariners is: Red sky in morning, Sailors take warning. Red sky at night, Sailors’ delight. Well, a red sky at night (when the sun is to the west) is caused by light passing through dust particles in the air to the west. Dust indicates dry weather and since most weather changes come from the west, a red sky at night usually indicates dry weather approaching. A red sky in the morning, however, indicates that the dry air has moved away and a moist air mass may be on its way. The first recorded use of this particular forecasting tool can be found in the Bible. In Matthew 16.2-3, Jesus says to the fishermen, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ and in the morning ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” Yet another Biblical weather axiom is found in Luke 12:54: “When you see a cloud rise out of the West, straightway cometh the rain; and so it is.” There are countless weather rhymes, and here’s a few of the more often heard ones. Rainbow in the morning, Gives you fair warning. The sun is in the east in the morning, the shower and associated rainbows are in the west. Since weather generally moves from west to east, rain is approaching. Mackerel skies and mares’ tails, Make tall ships take in their sails. Cirrus clouds (mackerel skies or clouds that looked as if they’d been scratched by a hen, according to the old-timers) often precede a warm front which brings winds and rain. When halo rings the moon or sun, Rain’s approaching on the run. The halo (a dull silver or rainbow-colored circular ring) is caused by high cirrostratus (ice crystal) clouds that are indicative of an approaching warm front and predict rain within 20-24 hours. As proof, the U.S. Weather Service confirms that rain follows about 75 percent of sun halos, about 65 percent of moon halos. When the wind blows from the west, fish bite best. When it blows from the east, fish bite least. The predominant weather and winds move from west to east. A wind from the east is often associated with a low pressure storm system offshore, lows and their attendant storminess being well-known to retard the feeding of fish. Seagull, seagull, sit on the sand, It’s never good weather when you’re on the land. Or, when sea-gulls fly to land, a storm is at hand. Generally speaking, birds tend to roost more during times of low pressure. Before a hurricane especially, flocks of birds will be seen roosting. This may be because taking off is harder when the pressure is low or the air is thinner and since the natural updrafts are lessened. The winds of the daytime wrestle and fight, Longer and stronger than those of the night. Without the unsettling and weather motivating effects of the heat generated by the sun warming air masses, and causing sometimes massive uplifts, weather typically is calmer at night than during the day. Meanwhile, for when your voyage is over and you’re back ‘on the hard,’ consider: When leaves show their undersides, be very sure that rain betides. Up drafting gusts are typical with the approach of a thunderstorm, thus exposing the light green underside of the tree leaves. Catchy drawer and sticky door, coming rain will pour and pour. Or, when the chairs squeak, it’s of rain they speak. Particularly in the warmer months, high humidity and moisture saturated air often breed rain and thunderstorms. The high humidity levels also swell wood, lessening the spatial tolerances in the moving parts of furniture, doors and the like. Clear moon, frost soon, or Cold is the night when the stars shine bright. If the atmosphere is clear, the surface of the earth will cool rapidly as heat is radiated away at night. There is no “blanket” of clouds to keep the heat that the ground absorbed during the day from radiating back up into space. If the temperature is low enough on these clear nights and there’s no wind, frost may form. And finally, whether sitting at the galley table offshore or in your breakfast nook back at home, this non-rhyming proverb was actually one of many published in 1883 by the U.S. War Department… with no amplifying explanation given:

Just a little something to ponder as you stare down into your steaming mug wondering, “Hmmm… what might the weather bring today?”

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