Folk Legends and the Weather
By Tim Mead    September 9, 2010

Weather is with a fisherman all the time
Weather is with a fisherman all the time - photo by Gordy Johnson

Folk Legends and the Weather   By Tim Mead

The following article is copyrighted by Tim Mead and may not be duplicated or reproduced without his expressed written permission

Angler, hunter, camper, hiker – and lots of us who combine all those activities – have to be concerned about the weather.   Not only are our activities affected, our safety as well may be affected.

Despite the frequent references to errors by “the weather man,” professional forecasting has become much more reliable over my lifetime.   No more TV weather men who go out behind the station, look at the sky and say, “Looks like rain.”

Often, however, outdoor folks do not have access to professional weather assessment.   We are thrown back on our own powers of observation.   There are dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of rhyming folk wisdom to assist us when we are in the field.   Terri Bennett, long-time meteorologist for WCNC-TV in Charlotte, North Carolina, holder of the American Metereorlogical Society of Seal of Approval, and now webmaster at, helped me in assessing the merits of some of the most popular of the weather folk wisdom.

Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.  

Red sky at night, sailor's delight.
              Red sky at night, sailor's delight.
Red sky at night, sailors delight.   Mrs. Sebastion, when I was in 8th grade in Springport, Michigan, was the first to explain the significance of this bit of folklore to me.   The color of the sky varies according to the particles suspended in the atmosphere.   Dry particles scatter sunlight, yielding a reddish glow.

Bennett explained, “This piece of weather folklore can be traced back 2000 years to a version that appears in the Bible at Matthew 16:2-3.   Here’s how it works.   Generally speaking, weather moves from west to east in the mid-latitudes.   A red sunrise implies that clouds are advancing from the west and a storm is moving in, thus ,’sailor take warning.’”

A red sky implies that clouds are retreating and clear weather is in the offing, thus, “sailor’s delight.”   Of course, the sunrise or sunset can be colorful with or without clouds.

When dew is on the grass, rain will never come to pass.   Floyd Tester told me this one when I was a boy.   We were walking across the grass at his sawmill in northern Michigan and the morning dew covered our shoes.   He assured me it would not rain all day and I could go fishing.   Dew on the car of windows suggests the same thing – not going to rain today. Morning dew is caused by a drop in temperature of the earth’s surface, a result of a clear nighttime sky which allows the heat of the day to escape into space.

Bennett elaborated, “This comes from the fact that on a clear night,

Peering at the sky for weather clues. What should Larry be looking for?
            Peering at the sky for weather clues.
             What should Larry be looking for?
the air temperature often cools to the dewpoint temperature and dew forms.”   The dewpoint is the combination of falling air temperature and suspended moisture that results in condensation of the moisture.   She added, “Just because it is clear at night does not mean that rain won’t move in during the daylight hours after sunrise."

Every five of blow, drops it five degrees below.   Every outdoor person has experienced the bitter chill of the winter wind.   A thermometer cannot measure wind chill.   As cold air moves over exposed skin, it pulls heat away from the body more rapidly than it the air is warmer.   Bennett said, “This is a rough approximation of the wind chill.   It is not exact, but it does make the point that the faster the wind blows, the colder the wind chill.   Wind chill, of course, is only relative to exposed skin.

Recently meteorologists have recalibrated how the wind chill is calibrated to make a better approximation of what we actually feel.   The formula is available at

“The anvil is the leading edge and often the first visible sign of an approaching thunderstorm.   You could see the anvil and never get beneath the actual rain/lightning part of the storm.   Thunderstorms showing an anvil are typically the mature stage and on the verge of weakening.   Of course, soon is a relative term in this one.

The anvil is readily visible because it is the top of the thunderstorm cloud that has been caught by atmospheric winds and dragged ahead of the storm.   If with your nose you “smell” the storm – usually a high concentration of ozone -- stormy weather is on its way.   While we may not realize it, we “smell” the atmosphere all the time.   Ozone after a lightning strike is only one example.   High pressure, the sort that usually accompanies fair weather, minimizes scents.   Bennett noted, “On humid days, smells are often stronger.”

When clouds form in layers, the air is asleep.   But when it’s awakened, the clouds form a heap.   Warm air rises.   When warm air sits atop cooler air, there is not much up-and-down movement, thus we have a stable air mass.   If the reverse is the case, warm air under cool air, the warm air pushes upward leading to instable weather.

Layers of clouds, Bennett said, “are formed in stable air masses and of the stratus family.   They are not always benign – they can produce precipitation which can last for hours.  

The anvil's head
                                          The anvil's head
Stable air mass weather tends to be less severe, but I would not call it ‘asleep.’

She said, “Clouds that appear in heaps are of the cumulus variety and signal vertical motion in the atmosphere.   Not every cumulus cloud makes precipitation or a storm, but the stormiest weather is often associated with cumulonimbus, which are thunderstorms.”

When I was a kid, Dad used to tell me, “Rain before seven, stop before eleven.”   Retrospectively, I think he was merely trying to tell me I could go fishing in a few hours.   When I offered that proposition to Bennett, she simply said, “Nothing to it.”

Folk lore, perhaps, but often rules of thumb, like these weather-oriented ones, have a scientific explanation well worth consideration by outdoor activists.

Weather affects not only the fish and game we seek.   Weather also affects us and sometimes folk wisdom helps us anticipate what is about to happen.


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           Last updated on ...December 12, 2010