"Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.
Red sky at night, sailors delight."
We've all probably heard that classic rhyme. Old weather superstitions, proverbs and wives' tales like this are embedded in our culture. But how many of them are true?
Well it turns out that there's a lot of wisdom in these old wives' tales. That red sky at night and morning ditty is a classic example. According to the Library of Congress, both parts of the rhyme are true. A red sky at night means the atmosphere is full of dust particles, an indication of both a high pressure system and stable air. In other words, good weather is about to follow. But a red sunrise on the eastern horizon indicates high water content in the atmosphere and a storm is on its way.
So what about some of these other maxims? Another rhyming weather saying predicts "If there is a halo 'round the sun or moon, then we can all expect rain quite soon." Yup, this one is true, too. As Tristan Gooley, author of "The Walker's Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs" (Sceptre Press), writes at the Natural Navigator, that halo is a refraction of light through the ice crystals in high cirrus clouds. Cirrus clouds are among the first to appear ahead of a storm front.
Some sayings are kind of half-true. Here's one example: "No weather is ill if the wind is still." The "Weather Folklore and Sayings" web page published under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) banner covers this one. Calm conditions indicate a high pressure system when precipitation and clouds are less likely to develop. But this ties to another common saying: "the calm before the storm." Calm conditions can exist just before a storm, so don't count on staying dry all day long just because there's no wind.
Here's another fun one: "When windows won't open, and the salt clogs the shaker, the weather will favor the umbrella maker." This one's true, too. As NOAA explains, wood swells when there's moisture in the air. Salt absorbs moisture, too. If your door is sticking or your salt won't shake, the air is damp and there's a greater chance of rain or other precipitation.
These aren't isolated truths amidst the lore. It turns out that quite a few of these old wives' tales about the weather speak the plain, honest truth. Author George D. Freier cataloged an amazing 600 such true sayings in his 1992 book, "Weather Proverbs" (Fisher Books). One of my favorites is cats only lick themselves during fair weather. That's because moist air is more conducive to electricity. No cat wants to get a static shock on its tongue!
Why are so many of these sayings true? As NOAA's James White wrote, folklore and science are both based on repeated observation and evidence. The reason many of these wives' tales hold water is that they came from observations of the same phenomena time and time again.
Of course, there are a few sayings and common "knowledge" that just don't pan out in the midst. For example, we probably all know people who claim a storm is coming because their joints ache. The truth is a bit more complex. As climatologist Paul Knight told Yahoo News in 2012, a person's joints may be sensitive to changes in humidity or barometric pressure, but "a direct cause-and-effect relationship has never been proven." Take that, Mom.
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