With dozens of weather satellites circling the globe, computer-generated weather models running 24/7, and forecasters generating reams of data each day, weather forecasting should be fairly straightforward. But as everyone living in coastal Virginia knows, our regional weather forecasts frequently miss the mark, leaving gardeners high and dry or picnickers running for cover.
Predicting weather often seems like a throw of the dice, but talk to some of your neighbors who grew up prior to weather apps and weather channels, and they will tell you they got along just fine predicting the weather. All they had to do was look up at the clouds, eat a persimmon in the fall, watch the woolly bears, or glance at their cattle to know what Mother Nature had in store, short and long term.
Steeped in wisdom, folklore, and superstition, weather prognostications were passed down from one generation to the next, their origins often obscured by time and distance, but nevertheless appearing to have some scientific merit in predicting the weather. Some continue to be well known; others less so. Before you dismiss them as old wives’ tales, let’s take a look at some before passing judgement.
Beyond a doubt the most well-known of weather prognosticators is Punxsutawney Phil. On February 2 each year thousands gather in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to learn whether an indignant groundhog, rousted from his warm burrow, will see his shadow and thus predict the end or continuation of winter.
According to legend that dates back to the late 1700s, German settlers brought the tradition of Candlemas to the colonies. Legend went that if Candlemas Day dawned fair and bright, winter would continue awhile longer. If clouds obscured the sun, spring was just around the corner. The tradition morphed into a myth that if the sun came out on Candlemas Day, and a hibernating animal would cast a shadow, winter would linger.
In Pennsylvania, the Inner Circle cares for Phil and a little known fact is that this auspicious group determines a few days in advance as to whether Phil will officially see his shadow or not. This discontinuity between fact and legend was never more obvious than in 2015 when Phil “saw” his shadow despite the heavy overcast and a major snowstorm was bearing down on the region. According to fact checkers, Phil has been accurate just 39% of the time, suggesting perhaps that he might want to reverse his prediction format. Nevertheless folks all around the country eagerly await Phil’s prognostication after a long, dreary winter.
In late September, when summer often lingers, the woolly worms make their way across my road. These familiar, fuzzy, caterpillars, commonly called woolly bears, are studied carefully by weather aficionados. The immature larvae of the Isabella tiger moth, the woolly bear is made up of thirteen, distinctive brown and black segments, which supposedly correspond to the thirteen weeks of winter. Woolly bears vary their color palette from year to year; some years more black than brown, and vice versa.
Legend has it that the more brown the segments are, the milder the winter, the more black, expect more cold and snow. In 2014 the woolly worms were decidedly dark and we experienced a second year of bitter arctic waves.
The annual Woolly Worm festival in Banner Elk, NC is ground zero for woolly bear prognostications. For those who scoff at the notion, Mike Peters, entomologist at the University of Massachusetts, has this to say: “There could in fact be a link between winter severity and the bands of a woolly bear. There’s evidence that the number of brown hairs has to do with the age of the caterpillar. The more brown hairs, the older the worm. In other words, how soon it emerged in the spring. The band therefore says something about a heavy winter. The only thing is — it’s telling you about the previous winter!”
For believers however, the woolly bear has remained a reliable forecaster. This year the tiny crawlers are predicting a milder winter than last. Let’s hope they’re right!
Shovels & Spoons
When we planted our first persimmon tree, we didn’t know we were planting a tree steeped in weather lore. According to legend, cut open a ripe, locally grown persimmon, extract the seed, section it, and examine the shape of the kernel inside. If the kernel is spoon-shaped, expect lots of heavy, wet snow. Spoon equals shovel, which equates to abundant snowfall. If the kernel is fork-shaped, expect a mild winter. A knife-shaped kernel predicts ice and biting winds.
The Farmer’s Almanac publishes the annual forecast made by the Persimmon Lady, Melissa Bunker, of Star, NC. Her prediction this year is for a cold start and a mix of snow and ice. Knowing that weather varies greatly from one region to another, I waited patiently for our own persimmons to ripen, only to discover one morning that the deer had eaten every one! Better break out the snow shovel and salt just in case.
That old wives’ tale that when a cow lies down in the pasture, rain will shortly follow, may not be so far -fetched. Researchers have discovered that cows spend more time on their feet when it’s hot, helping to lower their core temperature. Cows lie down to conserve body heat, often in advance of a weather system bringing colder or wet weather. Rain is often preceded by a change in barometric pressure, which many animals can detect.
Also, many animals can smell ozone in the air from an approaching thunderstorm while it is still miles away. Being the tallest object in a pasture has its disadvantages and some speculate that by lying down, the cows are lessening their chances of a lightning strike. In this respect, cows may be smarter than us.
Of course some farmers chuckle at the notion. Cows are herd animals, after all, and often follow the leader. Nevertheless I often observe my neighbor’s Black Angus before venturing out. A few weeks ago they lay clustered under a shade tree, and a few hours later we received two inches of rain and the temperature dropped ten degrees. The Weather Channel had predicted clear skies.
Red Skies & Mares Tails
Local watermen and farmers have always known that the appearance of the sky, clouds, sun, and moon have often provided accurate indicators of approaching weather. The old limerick “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailors delight” is an atmospheric observation that goes back several centuries.
Weather over North America typically moves from west to east on prevailing winds. The colors we see in the sky are caused by rays of sunlight split into the color spectrum as they pass through the atmosphere and bounce off water vapor and dust particles. The amount of water vapor and dust in the air are good indicators of weather conditions.
At sunrise, the sun is low in the sky and transmits light through the thickest part of the atmosphere. A red sky suggests an atmosphere loaded with moisture; a good indication a storm system is moving in.
Conversely, a red sky at night usually indicates high pressure and stable air coming in from the west, a promise of good weather to follow.
Mares’ tails, those high, wispy, cirrus clouds, are comprised of minute ice-crystals and are forerunners of unsettled weather. On a moonlit night, a ring around the moon is refractive ice crystals that signify the approach of rain. During the day, those ice crystals can create sun dogs or mock suns that appear as a pair of bright spots on either side of the sun in midafternoon as the sun is descending. Rings and sun dogs are more common in winter.
For some folks, a roasted goose took the place of the proverbial turkey on Thanksgiving. When the goose was carved, the breastbone was carefully preserved and allowed to dry. If the bone turned blue, black, or purple, a cold winter was sure to follow. White or light tan indicated a mild winter.
When one looks to science for an explanation, the darker color indicated the bird was absorbing a lot of oils, which acts as a protective barrier against the cold. The more oil indicated the bird was anticipating a cold winter.
So there you have it; a sampling of weather lore and prognostications. There are many others of course—if March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb; rain before seven, stops before eleven; wild geese flying north signify warm weather’s arrival; a dry May promises a wet June. Many of us were taught these sayings in school, and many hold scientific merit.
The truth is, nothing can reliability predict the weather months in advance, although the Old Farmer’s Almanac tries. Relying on many of these tools, the ninety-eight year old publication claims eighty percent accuracy. With El Nino building, weather forecasters are predicting a mild winter for the Atlantic Seaboard. The Almanac, however, calls for a repeat of last winter. Depending on who you believe, that’s good news or bad. Nevertheless, limericks, folklore, old wives’ tales, and natural phenomena are part of our culture and our heritage that shouldn’t be dismissed so lightly.