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Red Sky at Night: Ten Weather Wives’ Tales Debunked

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We’re leaving for a beach vacation in two days and I’m worried it will rain the whole time. We desperately need this vacation. And we really need some sun.

Here’s what the weather report says: “Thirty to forty percent chance of rain.” A euphemism for “We don’t have a clue.”

Since I can’t find my trusty Magic 8 Ball, I’m leaning on my favorite old wives’ tales about weather prediction. Usually when I look into a wives’ tale—such as how chocolate will give you acne—I’m schooled in the scientific reason why it’s false. (Great! I love chocolate.) To my surprise, though, some of my favorite wives’ tales about weather have at least a nugget of truth. Many originated with farmers and fishermen whose livelihood—and in some cases, lives—depended on accurate weather prediction. Still, many supposed predictors of weather only tell you what the weather is already doing. I pulled together this list of common weather wives’ tales to see which had some truth … and which we should all ignore.

1. Look to the stars. If you see stars at night, you’ll wake up to a sunny day. If you don’t see stars, get out the galoshes. Okay, not exactly a brain teaser. If it’s cloudy, you won’t see stars and that could indicate rain the next day. But don’t count on it. Storms can move quickly.

2. Red sky at morning, sailor’s take warning; red sky at night, sailor’s delight. This is referenced in the Bible and Shakespeare, so it must be true, right? It can be a somewhat accurate predictor if you observe the sky at the right time, such as when the sun is setting. When the sky is red, it suggests there are a lot of dust particles in the air, which means high pressure and stable air coming from the west. Good weather is likely to follow.

3. When leaves show their undersides, be very sure that rain betides. Weather experts say this one is generally true, though it depends on the tree. Poplars, for example, are good weather forecasters. Leaves are reacting to sudden changes in humidity, which soften the leaves’ stalks.

4. Animals can sense a storm first, especially dogs. Some animals are more sensitive to changes in pressure. If your dog has a keen sense of hearing, he may detect thunder sooner than you can … but not by much. Some scientists believe animals may be able to pick up on earthquakes and tsunamis a few seconds sooner than humans. The idea that dogs eat grass before a storm is false. Your dog may be munching grass because he’s sick, but more likely he’s eating it because it’s there.

5. Seabirds, stay out from the land; we won’t have good weather while you’re on the sand. Yes, seabirds tend to seek land when it’s raining, and they are able to detect low-pressure systems. But their behavior won’t give you much of a warning. If you see birds gathered on the beach, chances are you’re already wet.

6. If cows in a pasture are lying down, it’s going to rain. Some marginally plausible theories for this one include the possibility that cows want to keep a dry spot for themselves by lying on the ground or to preserve their own heat. Or the change in pressure may decrease their appetite, prompting them to sit a spell rather than graze. Or this bit of lore may be as useful as yesterday’s weather report.

7. Ouch! My tooth/my knee/my hand/my foot hurt. Some people swear they can predict rain based on their aches and pains. This could be due to a fall in barometric pressure, which causes blood vessels to dilate slightly, enabling a storm to affect everything from bones and joints to muscles and sinuses. Some doctors, though, are skeptical.

8. Listen to the crickets to check the temperature. To calculate the temperature in Fahrenheit, count a cricket’s chirps over fourteen seconds and add fourteen. Exact formulas vary, but this one is endorsed by the Old Farmer’s Almanac. And it pretty much works due to the cricket’s metabolism varying based on the weather. Amazing!

9. If a spider spins a web in the morning, you can expect a fair day. If a spider destroys its web, a storm will soon follow. Some say spiders will avoid the middle of their webs when rain is approaching. Again, it’s doubtful spiders get enough of a warning to change their behavior in time to predict future weather.

10. If a groundhog sees his shadow on February 2, six more weeks of winter will follow. A Canadian study found a 37 percent accuracy rate using sunshine on February 2 to predict a prolonged winter. Bits of weather-lore were woven together over time to create this enduring and puzzling tradition. I feel sorry for those homely little guys who have to endure the glare of TV cameras once a year when they have no news to report.

Weather folklore, it turns out, is about as helpful as the meteorologists who tell me it may —or may not—rain on my vacation. Because I’m an optimist, I’ll look to the signs that point to sunny, warm weather for our vacation and ignore the others. But I’ll be watching dogs, cows, and spiders closely … just in case.


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