I thought my grandmother was psychic. One day in the mid-90s in Richmond, Virginia, where I grew up, the temperature had soared above 100 degrees, as it often does in the height of summer. Everything seemed to melt under the oppressive heat that day. My grandmother looked down and began vigorously massaging her knees, like a diviner rubbing a crystal ball. Looking at me, she said, “It’s going to be a storm.”
She was right.
I learned later that my grandmother was not sighted. Instead, she used the pain in her joints to predict rain, a phenomenon that has been widely studied, with inconclusive results. Before humans became addicted to technology, we used our senses, including observing animal behavior and the shape of clouds, to help us predict the weather.
Over time, those sightings were stitched together, forming a story, said Mark Wysocki, a New York state climatologist and professor of meteorology at Cornell University. “People started passing them on verbally, or as civilization started to evolve more, people started writing these things down,” he said.
Sandi Duncan, editor of Farmers’ Almanac, where weather knowledge is still regularly discussedcompared the transmission of weather knowledge over time to a telephone game, adding that some of it may have been altered to rhyme.
Human survival, especially that of sailors and fishermen, has always depended heavily on the weather. One of the most recognizable anecdotes, “Mackerel clouds in the sky, expect more wet than dry,” dates back at least a few hundred years to sailors.
“At sea there was no communication then, there are no cell phones,” Mr Wysocki said. “So sailors had to rely on sky conditions, wind direction, waves.” Ship captains would record their observations in diaries, which would be shared.
The science behind the phrase holds up. Clouds that look like mackerel scales are called altocumulus clouds and form before a big storm approaches, Wysocki said. “If you see something like this happening, then it’s kind of a warning sign that we have an unstable atmosphere,” he said.
Meteorological knowledge related to sky color and cloud shape can be explained by science, Wysocki said. “Red skies at night, sailors’ delight; red skies in the morning, sailor’s warning”, is usually true. When a red sky is observed at sunset, sunlight passes through a high concentration of dust particles, usually a sign of high pressure and stable air moving in from the west, according to the Library of Congress. When a sunrise is colored red, it means the good weather has already passed, signaling that a potential storm could be moving in.
Anecdotes based on birds, insects and other types of animals are often less scientific and can be misleading.
In the Midwest and Northeast, the woolly bear caterpillar is sometimes used to predict the severity of an upcoming winter. According to meteorological traditions, the longer the black stripes of the caterpillar, the harsher the winter will be; the opposite is predicted if the middle brown band is wider. The National Weather Service debunked this myth. The colors of a woolly bear caterpillar are directly related to the duration of its feeding, its age and its species. Similarly, efforts to use groundhogs in early February to predict another six weeks of winter or an early spring have been demystified.
“Squirrels scavenging nuts will cause the snow to pile up quickly” is another popular weather proverb, but Mr Wyscoki said it’s wrong: conditions may have simply been optimal for the oaks produce more acorns, making the squirrels seem to gather more. “People see it once, and they don’t come back to check 20, 40 times,” he said of the seemingly related phenomena. “You have to have multiple experiences, multiple observations for it to work.”
Farmers also once relied on these sayings, some of which were printed in almanacs. “When we started the Farmers’ Almanac in 1818, we offered weather forecasts, but they were much more general than they are now,” Ms Duncan said.
The shift from winter to spring regularly brings severe weather to large parts of the United States. In early March, a series of powerful thunderstorms killed at least 12 across Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee.
“I think we’re going to have a pretty active severe weather season,” said John Sirlin, a storm chaser for more than 30 years.
Mr. Sirlin, 47, lives in Arizona and prefers to chase storms in the Northern High Plains. He knows weather lore and routinely uses basic observations, along with technology, to predict weather behavior.
“There are so many different things you can learn about the weather just by using your senses,” he said, including paying attention to wind direction and noticing changing cloud shapes, which can reveal the stability of the atmosphere.
But this information must be read properly to assess potential hazards like hail and tornadoes, or, in the case of my grandmother and her aching joints, thunderstorms.
“What’s really cool about the atmosphere is that it gives you clues and signals about all these different things if you learn to pick them up and interpret them correctly,” he said.
This spring, he and storm chasers deployed across the United States in anticipation of extreme weather. Mr Sirlin has “a lifelong passion and obsession with the weather” and notes that he is always learning.
“After thirty years, every time I go out, I always learn something new and I learn something different.”