Truths and Myths About Weather Folklore

Weather folklore has probably been around as long as humans have been able to communicate verbally. Is there any truth to these, or are they just part of human myths and legends? Here, we will classify some of the weather folklore as truth or myth.

“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.”

There is some truth to this, especially in the mid-latitudes where weather systems generally progress from west-to-east. In the morning, the sun appears above the horizon in the eastern sky. The sun will likely appear red when the photons (light particles) pass through the clouds that are composed of ice crystals. These clouds can sometimes signal the leading edge of an advancing storm system that can affect the area in the near future (i.e. cirrus clouds ahead of an approaching frontal boundary).

A red sky around sunset may indicate that fair weather is ahead. If an region is dominated by an area of high pressure, the air sinks. Sinking air can trap atmospheric aerosols like dust particles, and other fine particulates such as nitrates and sulfates from vehicular and industrial emissions. Which, in turn, can give the sky a deep orange to red iridescence as the refraction of light is greatly enhanced through the more dense particle matter suspended in the lower atmosphere.

A fiery glow within a deck of stratus clouds in eastern Pennsylvania during the Summer of 2015. Image credit: Harrison Sincavage
A deep, yellow and orange iridescence at sunset over Wichita, Kansas, on June 2nd, 2016. Image credit: Harrison Sincavage

“If there is a ring around the moon, expect rain or snow soon.”

When a storm system approaches, cirrus and cirrostratus clouds often approach ahead of the main system. These clouds are observed in the higher levels of the troposphere, and they are mainly composed of ice crystals.

As the moon shines through these thin clouds, you can often observe a ring (otherwise known as a halo) around the moon. Sometimes, you can see various colors that reveal the colors of the spectrum. When halos are seen in the sky (they can appear during the day as well), it is a sign of increasing moisture in the atmosphere as the ice crystals and/or water droplets refract light similar to that of a prism held up to a light source. The light particles are bent, and thus reveal the colors of visible light. This same process can occur in the atmosphere during times of ample lunar illumination such as a full moon, or during the day as well. 

Photo of a halo around the moon. Photo credit: Gladron Machado, Wikimedia Commons and is of public domain.
A 22° halo with two sun dogs at 45° perpendicular to the halo. This is caused by the refraction of the sunlight through the ice crystals within the high altitude cirrus clouds, and is indicative of the arrival of upper-level moisture. Image credit: Harrison Sincavage

“If the groundhog sees his shadow on February 2nd, there will be six more weeks of winter.”

On the 2nd of February, there is much pomp and circumstance in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, as a groundhog named Phil is pulled out of his “den” to see his shadow.  We can trace this legend back to Germany when there was an old saying on Candlemas Day: “On this day, if the groundhog emerges from his burrow and sees his shadow, he will crawl back into his den and there will be six more weeks of winter.”

This tradition was carried over by the German immigrants to Pennsylvania, and by the late 1880’s it became a yearly tradition in Punxsutawney. Is there any truth to this legend? This is totally a myth as there is no scientific evidence to validate the seasonal prognostication of our furry friend.

According to Earth Sky, the Punxsutawney groundhog has only been correct about 40 percent of this time since 1887. Unfortunately, that means that you can get better results by flipping a coin.          

Photo of a groundhog on the campus of Laval University, Quebec. Photo is of public domain.

“Lightning never strikes the same place twice.”

This is an old saying that we hear quite often. This is totally a myth, however. In fact, lightning can strike the same place more than once in a single thunderstorm. The more likely places for lightning to strike multiple times are tall buildings and television towers.

Image of a cloud-to-ground lightning strike near McPherson, Kansas, on May 9th, 2016. Image credit: Harrison Sincavage
A web of inter-cloud within the forward-flank of a supercell near Leoti, Kansas, on May 21st, 2016. Image credit: Harrison Sincavage
Another bolt of lightning within the general location as the previous bolt within a supercell near Leoti, Kansas, on May 21st, 2016. Image credit: Harrison Sincavage

“A cricket can tell you the current temperature by the frequency of its chirp”.

This one is actually true. A cricket is a cold blooded animal and the chemical reactions that allow it to chirp is determined by the temperature. Usually, you won’t hear a cricket chirp unless the outdoor temperature is at least 55 degrees Fahrenheit, however.

To determine the temperature, count the number of chirps that you hear in fourteen seconds and add forty. This can be repeated a couple of times so that you can get a good average. The accuracy of this calculation is good within one degree about seventy five percent of the time.

“If spiders are spinning their webs, look for dry weather ahead.”

This is true, since spiders are quite sensitive to changes in humidity. When the relative humidity is high, their webs absorb moisture and they can even break. When spiders sense higher humidity, they are apt to stay put. However, if the humidity is low, they will be more likely to spin their webs and the chances for dry weather conditions are high.

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