How Sayings and Proverbs of the Past Can Help You With a Weather Forecast

Today with the 24-hour news cycle, getting a current weather report is no more challenging than turning on the television. But how often are those forecasts wrong? Or what if there is NO television to turn on, like when you’re on a five-day hiking trip. Then what?

 In a survival situation, knowing what the weather will be like tomorrow may be the difference between building a shelter today out of dry materials and collecting dry firewood and waiting blindly until tomorrow, when it rains and everything is wet—including you . . . and then hypothermia sets in. How did people forecast the weather before Doppler Radar, satellite images, and American and European Storm Modelling Systems? The answer is they looked at the sky. The weather proverbs of the past were based on those observations.


“Mare’s Tail” clouds

“Mares’ tails and mackerel scales make lofty ships to carry low sails.”

Cloud formations can tell us quite a bit about what the weather is tending toward. The clouds often referred to as “Mares’ Tails” (alto cirrus uncinus clouds) bear a slight resemblance to the tails of horses and mares and foretell of rain coming within 12 to 18 hours. They are high-altitude clouds usually forming above 18,000 ft. up to 45,000 ft.

“Mackerel Sky” clouds

“Mackerel Scales” or a “Mackerel Sky” refer to clouds that resemble the fish scales on the mackerel. These clouds are also high-altitude clouds (cirrocumulus or altocumulus) that clump together to give the clouds that fish scale appearance. Another weather proverb that was derived from these clouds is as follows: “Mackerel sky, mackerel sky. Never long wet and never long dry.”

“If there is a ring around the sun or moon, you can expect rain very soon.”
The “ring” the proverb is referring to looks like a halo and is caused by the refraction of light through the ice crystals of the high cirrus clouds that cause the mares’ tails and mackerel sky clouds. The halo (or ring) is just a result of the light from the sun or reflected light from the moon bending  as it passes through the hexagon-shaped (6 sided) ice crystals in the high cirrus clouds.  The halo is precisely  22 degrees in radius (or 44 degrees in diameter). A double halo, sometimes with spokes, may be seen on rare occasions


 “Red sky at night, sailors’ delight, red sky in morning, sailors take warning.”
The color of the sky can also be an indicator of upcoming weather. We’ve all heard this proverb and here again there is science to back it up. In the mid-latitudes where we live, the weather typically comes from the west toward the east. In the evening, the sun is low in the western sky so the sunlight has to pass through a lot of atmosphere to get to our eyes. If there is dust in that air (no rain has washed it out of the air), that dust will scatter the blue light out into space. However, the red light, due to its longer wavelength, makes it through the dust particles to our eyes and we see a “red sky.”
A red sky in the morning means that the low morning sunlight is passing through a lot of atmosphere and if that air is full of dust particles, it means that the good weather has already passed us. Since our weather is typically cyclical—rain, then nice weather, then rain again—there is a good chance rain will be coming soon.
“When dew is on the grass, rain will never come to pass.”
If you think about what causes dew to collect on grass, this proverb makes sense. Dew forms when the grass gets colder than the dew-point temperature. If the sky is cloud-free at night, the grass cools and the ground heat radiates upward into a clear, dry atmosphere and then continues to outer space. A cloud-free night generally is followed by a sunny day. If the night is cloudy and the atmosphere has high humidity (a harbinger of rain,) the air’s water vapor absorbs some of the ground heat and redirects it back to the ground, warming up the grass and keeping the grass dew-free. 
So dew on the grass is a sign of a high pressure system, and therefore, good weather.
“When the ass begins to bray, look for rain to come today.” 
Falling atmospheric air pressure is a sure sign that rain is coming. Low pressure has also been shown to make animals more active and irritable. For example, dogs bark more, birds chirp more, donkeys bray, more and frogs croak more. While our four-footed friends seem to feel this more acutely than we do, humans also seem to react to low pressure. The low pressure area of an incoming storm causes the tissue around our joints to expand, putting pressure on those joints (knees, ankles wrists etc.). This leads to another weather proverb: “When your joints start to ache, rainy weather is at stake.”

“Trout jump high when rain is nigh.”

 The key here is the correct translation of the word “nigh.” It is an old-fashioned word meaning near, or very close in time or place. So the 21st century translation of this proverb is “Trout jump high when rain is coming.” with the obvious problem that the word “coming” not rhyming with the word “high” in the saying. Scientifically however this makes sense. Rain is associated with low pressure systems (a falling barometer reading is a sure sign of rain). When the atmospheric pressure drops, that allows plant particles trapped at the bottom of lakes to rise closer to the surface. This plant material is food for small fish, which feed on it and the small fish are food for larger fish. These larger fish, in their aggressive pursuit of the smaller fish, break the surface of the water (jump out of the water as they dart from below toward the surface to catch the little fish).

Bad Weather coming

Good Weather coming

“When smoke hangs near the ground, thunderstorms will be coming ‘round.” 
If you look at the smoke from a campfire and it hangs close to the ground (after it gets away from the heat of the fire), that’s a sign that bad weather is approaching. Smoke particles tend to absorb moisture from the air. The more moisture in the air, the heavier the particles, the lower they float, and less they disperse.  If the smoke rises quickly, it’s a sign that good weather is ahead.  This is true regardless if the smoke is coming from a chimney or your campfire.  It also doesn’t matter if its summer or winter although in the winter it forecasts a winter snowstorm is approaching

“Bugs will come a-calling when rain will soon be fall’in”

Did you ever notice that those small pesky bugs and mosquito seems to get especially bad just before it rains.  Insects seem to change their behavior based on barometric pressure.  When there is a drop in pressure they seem to increase their activities so when the barometric pressure drops indicating an approaching storm insect activity rises significantly.
“Fog in the hollow, send the hogs to wallow”
Sending the hogs to wallow means to send them to the watering hole to lay in the water and mud because it will be a sunny and hot day, hence fog in the hollow (low area means a nice sunny day is ahead.  Now for the science behind that.  Fog that forms in low lying areas is called radiation fog (or valley fog) and is a result of infrared cooling. This happens on a cloud-free night when a humid air mass can lead to fog formation. This radiation fog is most common in August and September because nights get longer, air masses begin to cool, and land and water surfaces that have warmed up during the summer are still evaporating a lot of water into the atmosphere. Once the temperature reaches the dew point, radiation begins to develop. Radiation fog often forms in the valleys first since this is where the coldest air sits; for that reason, you might know it as “valley fog” or fog in the hollow. The cloud-free night that served up idea conditions for this fog to develop is usually followed by a fair sunny day.
“Fog  seen on the hill, rain barrels will soon fill”Fog that forms on higher areas (“on the hill”) is know as “frontal fog“.  Frontal fog forms near a weather system when raindrops, falling from relatively warm air above, evaporate into cooler air close to the Earth’s surface and cause it to become saturated. This type of fog is often first spotted over higher land or hills and rain usually follows.

There are other types of fog that do most people are unaware of that do not predict weather.  They are up-slope fog, freezing fog, also know as “pogonip,” the Shoshone word for “cloud” , frozen fog, and evaporation fog (often seen over water),



“If the fog goes up the hill it brings water to the mill.  If the fog goes down the hill it takes water from the mill”
This saying is a combination of the two fog proverbs above.  The first part stating”fog going up the hill” refers to fog on the tops of hills or frontal fog indicating rain is coming or “bringing water to the mill”.  The second part of the proverb states “fog going down the hill” refers to fog in low lying areas or radiant fog indicating nice weather ahead so that you will need to “take water from the mill”.



“When windows won’t open and the salt clogs the shaker, the weather will favour the umbrella maker”When it rains there is high humidity in the air.  High humidity also makes wood swell making doors harder to close and drawers harder to shut.  Salt will also absorb moisture in the air making it clump easier and therefore clog the small holes of a salt shaker more easier than in nice weather with low humidity and drier salt.

“Rain before 7,  clear after 11.”
While not 100% accurate, if it’s raining at 7, there is a good chance that it has been raining a good part of the night and the storm may be close to ending. Combine that with the fact the sun is now shining on the top side of the clouds, warming them and helping them to rise and dissipate, and the chance of breaking up the entire cloud formation is highly favorable.
“If birds fly low, expect rain and a blow.” 
There could be two possible explanations for this proverb. The first is that it is easier for birds to fly higher when the air pressure is high and more difficult when the air pressure is low (indicating bad weather). It is also a fact that bugs tend to come out and fly before storms hit, so the birds might be flying low before a storm to feast on a meal of flying insects.

Seeing the underside of leaves



“When oaks and maple leaves thus curl, dark storm clouds begin to whirl.”When the humidity is high and the wind begins to pick up the leaves on trees like the oak, maple, and aspen, with curl slightly to show the back of the leaf, that indicates a storm is coming.


“Frogs croaking in the lagoon, means rain will be coming on soon.”
Frogs, like most amphibious creatures, like higher temperatures and moist skin to be active. High temperatures in the evening combined with high humidity (moistening the frogs skin), both indicators of rain also cause frogs to be more active and croak more.

“When the flies begin to bite that’s a sign that rains in sight.”
We generally don’t think of flies as “biting insects however about 6 hours before a rain those pesky little annoying creates turn into blood thirsty  vampires.


“If the new moon holds the old in sight, fair weather will come to light.” 
This cryptic proverb refers to atmospheric conditions on or near the new moon. On the day of or surrounding a new moon, it may be possible to actually see the entire moon in what is called “earth glow,” or the light from the earth reflected back onto the moon and then back to our eyes. It is very faint and dim and normally can not be seen due to turbulence in the air, as well as molecules and dust particles banging into each other in low-pressure weather systems. However, during high-pressure systems (which bring fair weather) the atmosphere clears up significantly and dim objects can be more easily seen with the human eye, like the earth glow of the moon.
“When sound travels far and wide, bad weather will soon betide.” 

Again science facts are the basis of this proverb. Sound travels at different speeds through different materials. For example, it travels faster through solids than through air. It also travels faster and farther through moist air (high humidity air) than dry air.  A similar proverb is “When you hear the train expect it to rain”

“If you see 3 suns in the air the weather will change and will not be fair”
The phenomenon is know as “Sun Dogs” and seen within a few hours of sunset.  hey are caused by the refraction of light off ice crystals in the atmosphere.  The images appear at 22 degrees to the right and left of the real sun and at the same altitude as the actual sun.  The scientific name is parhelion (plural: parhelia) from the Greek parēlion, meaning “beside the sun.” however the common name of “sun dog” comes from the Native Americans. Their stories tell of how the actual sun was the hunter and that the images of the sun, one on his right and one on his left, were his “hunting dogs”, following the hunter as he traveled down into the sunset.
” If dew appears before midnight, the next day will be sunny and bright”
If dew forms on the grass shortly after sunset its typically caused by the rapid cooling of the ambient air temperature resulting from the daytime heat quickly escaping to outer space due to the absence of cloud cover.  Since clouds are needed to bring rain it logical to assume that the next day has a high probability of being a clear sunny day.
“When your joints and bones give you pain, be assured it soon will rain”
If you’ve ever broken a bone or have arthritis in your joints you know this proverb is a statement of fact.  About a day before it rains your joints begin to ache or the bone you boroke years ago starts to hurt once again.  The reason for this is simple, as the low pressure system from the storm approaches it puts less pressure on your joints and bones.  This allows the tissues around those areas to expand (read this as “swell).  This swelling i s what causes the pain we feel in our joint and around past injuries.
“If clouds move against the wind, bad weather will soon descend.”  

If clouds move in a different direction than you feel the wind is blowing at ground level, this is because the winds in the upper atmosphere are moving in a different direction than the wind at ground level. This is known as “wind shear” and creates an unstable atmosphere that leads to rain and storms. In extreme circumstances, this is how hurricanes are formed.


“When cows lie on the ground, puddles of rain will soon be found”
While controversial many farmers as well as the Farmers Almanac believe that cows are a reliable predictor of an upcoming storm.  If a majority of the herd is standing in a pasture you can expect good weather for the next few days but if a majority of the herd is lying down rain can be expected within 24 hours.

The “Wind Weather Poem”

Lastly… there is always the wind direction poem that gives a pretty accurate of the weather to come in about 18 hours…
Wind from the West
Weather at its best
Wind from the South
There’ll be water in your mouth
Wind from the East
Not fit for man nor beast
Wind from the North
Its going to be cold (or “cold weather comes forth” if you must have it rhyme)
This poem just summarizes that wind directions typically bring certain types of weather. Western winds usually bring good weather, while southern winds are harbingers of rain. Eastern winds often bring bad storms, while a northern wind will bring a drop in temperatures.
While these proverbs and sayings are not 100% accurate, they will definitely outperform most any weather forecaster on the planet!

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