Monday, June 28, 2010

Weather Folklore

Susan Thurn,
CNHM Director of Education

“Wait a day and the weather will change.” Although a common saying in northern Wisconsin, it hasn’t been true lately. Although we have been the lucky recipients of some long-awaited, much-needed rain, cabin fever is setting in to my brain. Also, with several education programs at the Museum this past week, I’ve been looking upwards a lot to find out if we are doing outdoor or indoor explorations, I also have been interested in how to tell if it’s going to rain, and interested in how people can know this without going to the local television forecast, or the Doppler radar on the internet. People have been forecasting the weather for centuries. They have looked to plants and animals – are ants moving to higher ground, do the frogs croak more frequently, is a sheep’s’ wool uncurled? Are there signs we can use to tell us if it is soon going to rain?

First, I go to the Museum’s Naturalist, Cully Shelton, as he always seems to know when it’s going to rain in the next few minutes. Cully recently told me, “When the clouds seem so low you could touch them…when the clouds are touching the trees, then it’s likely that there is going to moisture precipitating out of them in a short length of time. Another favorite observation I use is when you see puffy, white cumulus clouds, which means that within a 12 hour period there should be rainfall.”
What about some of the folklore we all know? "When the glass is low on a ship, the sailors get ready for a storm,” or "When your joints hurt, a storm is coming," are common occurrences we often hear. Both of these folklore statements refer to low air pressure systems which do often mean storms are on their way.

"Red Sky at night, sailor's delight. Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning." It turns out there is some truth to this saying. When our western sky is clear, we often get a red sunset because as the sun sets, its light shines through the lower atmosphere containing more dust, smoke, or pollution. With these clear skies and high air pressure, the air sinks, causing the contaminants to be held closer to the earth surface. These particles scatter the shorter wavelengths of light, leaving longer wavelengths that create orange and red colors, creating the sky that brings weather delight to the sailor. If the sky is red in the morning eastern sky, the high pressure may have already passed, and a low pressure period may follow, usually bringing clouds, rain and storms.

Another favorite folklore statement is, "Mare's tails and mackerel scales make tall ships take in their sails." These mackerel fish scale looking clouds make reference to cirrocumulus clouds, and mare’s tails represent cirrus clouds. Both types of clouds can indicate a warm front that is approaching where two air masses meet, bringing changing winds and precipitation. This prediction of high winds would make it necessary for boats to reef their sails.

"When the stars begin to huddle, the earth will soon become a puddle" is another clue that can be used to forecast weather. As clouds increase, large areas of stars are hidden, while a burst of stars can seem to be huddled together in a section of clear sky. As this sign means the clouds are increasing, the chance of rain is definitely possible.

There are also some clues we can also learn from nature. Some flowers close up as humidity levels rise so their pollen doesn’t get washed away. Cicadas cannot vibrate their wings in high humidity, so can be silent with approaching rain. Swallows sometimes fly lower when there is dropping air pressure. Crows and geese have been known to call more frequently with falling air pressure. Flying insects are more active when air pressure is dropping, staying closer to the ground so that it might seem like they are swarming. With all of these clues, who needs a television or computer?

Nature Watch is brought to you by the Cable Natural History Museum. For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and new exhibit, On Lake Owen: The Art of Walter Bohl, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M or on the web at to learn more about exhibits and programs.

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