Back before television and radio, cultures throughout the world predicted the weather by watching the signs nature gave them. Plants, insects, animals, and the heavenly bodies all give hints as to what we can expect for the forecast, if only we learn to interpret their subtle clues.
Old time farmers watched the signs and seasons to know when to plant and when to sow. Sailors watched the sky for warnings of an approaching storm or the blessing of clear skies. Some of their methods were mere folklore, and some had actual merit.
Here are some ways people of days gone by predicted the weather. You decide if they’re legit or bogus.
Becoming Your Own SHTF Weatherman
It’s easy enough to tell if a storm is closing in when the sky turns dark with heavy gray clouds. But can you identify what other cloud formations are signaling?
Clouds that are white and thin and scattered across the sky with mostly west winds indicate the weather will be fair with little change. These clouds may look feathery and semi-transparent, rippled and wave-like, or like a milky haze.
If high clouds begin to thicken, turn a gray or yellow color, and gradually drop in altitude, it is a strong indication of rain. If high clouds move from the south or southwest with surface winds prevailing from the east, it is an indication that rain could begin in six to twenty-four hours.
Clouds that stay high won’t bring rain.
Upper clouds coming out of the northwest in the morning are a sure sign of fair weather.
Middle clouds often appear fluffy like cotton balls, usually forming in rows. When these cotton balls begin to cluster together to form more of a blanket than patches, there is a good possibility of rain within six to twelve hours.
Clouds that sail contrary to the wind predict rain.
If a series of low hanging, puffy clouds come together and turn the sky overcast and gray, there’s a good chance of rain.
When the same stratocumulus clouds appear patchy in a blue sky, moving in the same direction as the surface winds, the weather will stay clear for 24-48 hours.
Sailors had a saying to help them remember when it was time to bring their sails in. “If clouds look as if scratched by a hen, Get ready to reef your topsails then.”
Clouds moving in opposite directions at different speeds and altitudes foretell heavy rains.
“When ye see a cloud rise out of the west, straightway cometh the rain;
and so it is.” Luke 12:54
Sudden shifting of the wind can tell you much about what to expect in the hours ahead. Farmers of old used weather vanes to keep an eye on what was going on above.
Three hundred years ago, English writer Izaak Walton put to rhyme the observations he made of the correlation between wind and weather:
When the wind is in the north,
The skillful fisher goes not forth;
When the wind is in the east,
‘Tis good for neither man nor beast:
When the wind is in the south,
It blows the flies in the fish’s mouth;
When the wind is in the west,
There it is the very best.
The Direction of Wind Tells A Lot
East winds bring rain.
West winds bring fair weather.
A South wind brings rain.
Northeast winds forewarn violent storms.
Southeast winds indicate less severe storms.
Northwesterly and Southwesterly winds generally bring fair weather, with northwest winds bringing cold air and southwest winds carrying warmer air.
People living in the southeast can foretell relief from dry spells when the wind makes a sudden and strong shift in direction.
A strong, steady southeast wind predicts a good chance of rainfall within the next day and a half.
Winds from a northeasterly direction indicate severe cold and possible heavy snow.
You can expect temperatures to rise when the wind blows from the south, particularly if the night sky is cloudy or there is a clear sky during the day.
Many sayings have been put to memory and penned to paper regarding signs in the skies.
“Evening red and morning gray
Sends a traveler on his way,
Evening gray and morning red,
Brings rain down on his head.”
A red morning sky is a sign that the day will hold bad weather.
“An evening gray and morning red, Will send the shepherd wet to bed.”
“When it is evening, you say, ‘The weather will be fair, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning you say, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and lowering.'” Matthew 16:2
When distant sounds seem louder and sharper than usual, rain is likely.
When smoke rises slowly be prepared for wet weather.
A night sky with patches of clouds indicates rain.
“Rainbow at night, shepherd’s delight.
Rainbow in morning, shepherd’s warning.”
If eastern clouds turn pink and eventually the whole sky blushes just before a sunrise, fair weather will follow.
When the night sky is clear with little to no wind, temperatures will fall.
Weather Today May Predict The Future
Three foggy mornings in a row foretell rain.
A late frost means a long, hard winter.
The longer and hotter the summer, the longer and colder the winter. Extremes breed extremes.
Rolling thunder in the fall foretells a hard winter.
The first frost will occur six months after the first thunder in spring.
“If Candleman’s Day be bright and clear, We’ll have two winters in the year.” (Candleman’s Day will be Feb. 2nd, 2016.)
Watching what’s happening around the sun, whether it’s the color of the sky or the pattern of the clouds, is another way ancients predicted what the weather would hold.
“If the sun comes out while it’s raining,
you can expect rain again the following day.”
A gray sunset with lowering clouds, or a green or yellowish-green sunset indicates rain.
“If the sun goes pale to bed, ‘Twill rain tomorrow, it is said.”
A halo of clouds around the sun (or moon) after a day of fine weather indicate storms will follow.
A clear sunset predicts good weather.
Haziness around the sun predicts a storm.
“When sunspots are most numerous, rainfall will be greatest.”
Solar changes can cause excessive heat waves, prolonged droughts, and great floods.
For centuries peoples around the globe have relied upon the moon to guide them in their hunting, harvesting, butchering, planting, and sailing. Here are some sayings they’ve relied upon throughout the years to help them foretell the weather.
“When a crescent moon is tipping as if to spill its contents, rain may come.”
“A moon with a circle brings water in her back.”
“If the moon shows a silver shield,
Be not afraid to reap your field,
But if she rises haloed round,
Soon we’ll tread on deluged ground.”
“Clear moon, frost soon.”
“If three days old her face be bright and clear,
No rain or stormy gale the sailors fear;
But if she rises with bright and blushing cheeks,
The blustering winds the bending mast will shake.”
– J. Lamb’s “Aratus”
If the moon’s tips are pointed up, a dry month will follow. If the tips are turned down, the month will have rain.
The Indians theorized that if they could hang their powder horn on the crescent moon, the woods would be too dry for hunting. If he could not hang it on the crescent moon, he reasoned that the woods would be wet and perfect for silent hunting on foot.
The Welsh had a similar saying. They believed that the moon would be “dry” if they could hang their hat on its horns.
Ice crystals in cirrus clouds, atmospheric density, temperature, and water vapors all play a role in the appearance of stars in the sky.
“When the stars begin to huddle, the earth will soon become a puddle.”
When stars seem to twinkle excessively, precipitation is in the near future.
If stars flicker in a dark night sky, rain or snow is due. Especially watch for this in the North Star.
When the sky seems crowded with stars, be prepared for rain, or frost in the winter.
Plants can actually be very good predictors of the weather. I remember as a little girl, my father would point out the leaves on the trees exposing their lighter undersides. He would tell me, “See the upside-down leaves? Rain’s coming.”
It’s true. When the trees turn their leaves over, rain is on its way. Especially watch sugar maples, poplars, linden, plane, and sycamore trees.
A strip of seaweed hung in your house will stay dry in fair weather, and will become sticky when rain is on the way.
“When grass is dry in morning light,
Look for rain before the night,
When dew is on the grass,
Rain will never come to pass.”
When the pine needles on trees turn west there will likely be heavy snow.
When trees split their bark in the winter, spring will be hot and dry.
When the hay in the fields leans northeast, you can expect a hot and long summer.
When trees drop their leaves early, the fall will be short and winter will be mild. When trees hang on to their leaves longer than usual, winter will be severe.
“If on the trees the leaves still hold,
the coming winter will be cold.”
If the moss on the north side of a tree dries up in fall expect a mild winter.
If acorn, hickory, and pecan nuts grow thick and tight husks, the winter will be hard.
Tobacco becomes moist before rain.
A bunch of hemp that becomes damp signals coming rains.
When the scent of flowers is unusually strong, rain will follow.
Moss that is soft like a cushion indicates rain. Dry and brittle moss indicate fair weather.
When sunflowers raise their heads skyward, expect rain.
When natural ropes are difficult to straighten out or become short and tight, rain is coming.
When berry crops and fruit trees bloom earlier and bear heavier than usual, prepare for a hard winter.
Root crops sown in fall grow deeper before a severe winter. Also, onions will have more layers, and potatoes will have thicker skins.
Mushrooms grow abundantly before rain.
Clover foretells rain when it turns its leaves upside down.
If milkweed closes at night, rain is coming.
Persimmon seed has been used to predict the coming winter. Cut open a ripe persimmon grown locally, and split the seed in half. If the kernel is shaped like a spoon, you’ll have lots of wet, heavy snow (spoon = shoveling). If it is shaped like a fork, you’ll have powdery, light snow. If it’s shaped like a knife, you’ll have cold, “cutting” winds, but not much accumulation.
Nature has endowed animals with the gift of instinctively knowing when to prepare for bad weather. We can study their ways to learn how their behaviors predict prevailing atmospheric conditions indicating weather changes.
Here are some sayings of old regarding animals as forecasters.
“When rooks wing low, expect rain.” (Rooks are similar to crows.)
Wild geese fly high in fair weather and drop low in foul weather.
Swallows flying high in the evening sky are a sign of fair weather. When they swoop low, rain will come shortly.
When birds cease their singing, listen for thunder. When crows are noisy and restless, rain is coming.
Birds and poultry oil their feathers before rain.
A single crow in flight is a sign of bad weather; two crows flying together is a sign of fair weather.
“If the cock goes crowing to bed, He’ll certainly rise with a watery head.”
“A noisy crane means rain.”
When chickens pick up small pebbles and are particularly noisy, rain is due.
Robins land in treetops and sing loudly before a rain.
When birds ruffle their feathers and huddle together, rain is likely.
When chickens stay out in the rain, it will likely rain all day long.
When geese can walk on top of the snow in March, you can expect a muddy spring.
“When birds fly low, there will be much snow.” In warmer months this could also signify rain coming.
When it is hard to scare crows out of the field, the winter will be harsh.
“When the rooster crows at noon, rain will come soon.”
“When summer birds fly away, summer goes too.”
When woodpeckers peck low on tree trunks, it is a sign of future warm weather.
After martins appear in spring there will be no more hard frosts.
Insects and Creepy Crawlies
Bees will not swarm when a storm is approaching.
You can expect rain when you notice the bees making short trips from the hive or staying within.
Flies become more bothersome and swarm when humidity rises before rain.
Wooly Bear Caterpillars are often looked to for winter predictions. According to folklore, the more brown on the caterpillar, the less harsh the winter. The more black on the caterpillar, the harsher the winter will be.
When spiders are busy during a rain, it will not last long.
When ants build up their homes and move in straight columns (instead of scattering), rain is coming.
“If ants their walls do frequent build, rain will from the clouds be spilled.“
“When bees to distance wing their flight,
Days are warm and skies are bright;
But when their flight ends near at home,
Stormy weather is sure to come.”
Crickets become more lively before a rain.
When spiderwebs glisten with dew, yet there is no dew on the grass, rain will come before nightfall.
Spiders will break their webs and hide before a hard rain.
“When spiders’ webs in air do fly, the spell will soon be very dry.”
Caterpillars will turn a darker color in fall if there will be a hard winter.
When lots of fireflies are out at night, you can expect fair weather for the next three days.
Earthworms will come out when rain is coming.
When ants carry their eggs out of their homes to warm in the sun, you can expect good weather. When you see them hurrying to bring their eggs back in, a storm is approaching.
A cricket heard singing in the house foretells a long, cold winter.
When hornets nests are built low and thick, winter will be harsh.
When butterflies are seen migrating in early fall, winter will come sooner.
Crickets can give you a pretty close estimate of the temperature (in Fahrenheit) outside. Count the number of chirps you hear in 15 seconds and add 37. This number will give you an approximation of the temperature outside.
When hogs run around with hay in their mouth rain will soon fall.
When cattle lay in the pasture early in the day, rain is coming.
Sheep will run and jump in a lively way before a storm.
When cattle extend their necks and sniff the air, rain will come shortly.
When cattle gather at one end of the field with their tails toward the wind, rain or strong gusts can be expected.
When horses stay in close groups, a storm is coming.
When a cow calls out three times in a row, a storm is approaching.
When horses roll in the dirt and shake it off, it’s a sign of dry weather.
Cats and Dogs
If a cat cleans herself against the grain, washes her face and ears, or settles down with her tail to the hearth, bad weather is coming.
When dogs turn away from meat, eat grass in the morning, and dig holes in the yard, rain can be expected.
Dogs sniffing the air repeatedly indicate a change in weather.
Dogs tend to bury more bones in the fall if there’s going to be a bad winter.
Reptiles and Fish
When rain is on its way, snakes will come out.
Fish foretell a coming rain when they swim close to the surface and bit avidly.
When pike lay motionless in a stream bed, rain or wind is close.
Trout leap preceding rain.
Bubbles appearing over clam beds are a sign that rain is coming.
Trout swimming in circles signify a mild winter.
When pack rats build high nests, you can be sure of a severe winter.
When squirrels do not chatter, and gather many nuts (even green ones) early in the fall, expect a cold, long winter.
Extra fluffy squirrel’s tails and nests built low in the trees predict a cold winter.
Heavy coats of fur on animals foretells a severe winter. When rabbits get heavy fur around their feet, this also signals a cold winter.
When beavers add more wood to the north side of their homes, the winter will be long.
When bears store food in fall, a cold winter will follow.
You can judge the direction of coming storms by watching to see which of its holes the hedgehog plugs up.
When squirrels hole up in fall, a cold winter is coming.
Bats flying late at night are a sign of good weather. If they screech while flying, expect rain the next day.
When rabbits are extra fat in October and November, you can expect a harsh winter.
Wolves howl more before a storm.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac tells of a turn of the last century method of predicting the coming winter weather with a goose bone:
Here’s how it worked:
Around Thanksgiving, Grandma would cook a freshly killed goose. She would roast it, carve it, and serve it, always being careful not to cut the breastbone from the carcass.
After the goose had been eaten, she would carefully remove the breastbone and cut away all the meat and fat left clinging to it. Grandpa would take the bone and put it on a shelf to dry, keeping an eye out for the coloration that would follow. If the bone turned blue, black, or purple, a cold winter lay ahead.
- White indicated a mild winter.
- Purple tips were a sure sign of a cold spring.
- A blue color branching out toward the edge of the bone, meant open weather until New Year’s Day.
- If the bone was a dark color, or blue all over, the prediction was for a real bad winter.
That’s it. And there was even an explanation. An overall dark color meant that the bird had absorbed a lot of oil, which acted as a natural protection against the cold. The darker the blue coloring, the tougher the winter ahead would probably be.
Anemometer- There are many different styles of anemometers, but earlier models were typically made up of three or four cups mounted at equal angles to each other on a vertical shaft. As the wind blows, the shaft is turned at a rate proportional to wind speed. By counting the turns of the shaft over a set time period, once could estimate the average wind speed. Wind speed helps indicate a change in weather patterns.
Weather vane- Weather vanes are designed to turn and point into prevailing winds, indicating which direction the wind is coming from. As was discussed previously, you can tell a lot about the coming weather by studying wind directions.
Barometer- A barometer is a scientific instrument used to measure atmospheric pressure. There’s much more to it than this, but to put it in very simple layman’s terms, high pressure indicates fair weather, low pressure signals a coming storm.
Weather Journal- Keeping a record of observed weather patterns and nature’s corresponding behaviors is a great way to become more efficient at forecasting. Take note of things you observe in the sky and on the ground and how they relate to the weather, and before long you’ll recognize reliable patterns.
What weather predictions have you been taught growing up?