Probably for as long as there have been people, there have been weather sayings. Some sayings turn out to be based on scientific fact, others are just superstition or wishful thinking. Some may work well in some places and not at all in others. I have evaluated some sayings that I know to see if they work for me and I have also come up with my own sayings based on my observations.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 13, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Red in the morning - My dad's favorite weather saying was "Red at night, sailors' delight. Red in the morning, sailors take warning." This means that if the sky is red at sunset, the weather will be good and if it is red at sunrise, the weather will be stormy. Variations of this saying have been around for thousands of years and it does have a basis in scientific fact, which you can read in this link. This saying worked well in Pennsylvania. However, it has been a totally different story here in California. Many times I have driven to work toward the most striking red, pink, and peach sunrises and not one of those times did it rain. In my case, all it meant was that I had dusty skies.
Seven/eleven - "Rain before seven, quit by eleven." This saying did not work at all in Pennsylvania. It has been pretty reliable in California. If it starts to rain after dark, more likely than not, it will be done by mid morning. My suspicion is that the strong sun dries up the rainclouds of all but the most powerful storms.
Nothing fishy - There is a saying about "mares' tails and mackerel skies" signifying rain. Mares' tails are cirrus clouds and mackerel skies are altocumulus clouds. This has been one of the most reliable weather sayings for me and it is backed up by science. The mixture of the two, especially in the presence of extensive altocumulus clouds, indicates an unstable atmosphere, which often brings rain.
Foggy August - A college roommate from Virginia related a saying to me, "the number of fogs in August equals the number of snows in December," - or maybe it was January. I don't know if she believed it but I didn't put any stock in it. Fog can be a very localized thing. Snow usually is not. If you live by a river, you might get more fogs in August than you get snows in December. If you live a few miles away on the other side of the ridge, you might the same amount of snowy days as the riverbank dweller, but you won't get as much fog.
Dew - or don't - On a camping trip in Pennsylvania, someone told me that the lack of dew that morning indicated that it would rain later in the day. Sure enough, it did. This should be a fairly reliable rule of thumb in a relatively humid climate. In order for there to be dew at a time when normally there is dew, the temperature has to stay above the dew point. If it is cloudy at night, the temperature will stay warmer than if it was clear, and you can't have rain if you don't have clouds. This will not work in a dry climate, however. Where I live, the humidity can get so low that the dew point is below any temperature ever recorded here. Thus, a cool, dew-less night can easily be followed by a dry, sunny day.
Jet set - If jet contrails are longer and wider than normal, it will rain. I recently learned this one so I haven't had the chance to test it, but it makes sense. Contrails are partly composed of water vapor, and the more moisture there is in the air, the longer and wider the contrails will be.
Holidays - "White Christmas, green Easter - green Christmas, white Easter" I learned this one after I moved from Pennsylvania so I never got the chance to try it but I do remember that we had snow on Easter more often than we did for Christmas. The one Christmas where I remember that it snowed, it also snowed the following Easter. Scientists say that the weather on one specific day cannot be used to forecast the weather months or weeks ahead of time. Along these same lines is Groundhog Day. I always found it to be the most bogus tradition imaginable. Where and when I grew up, February 2 was the middle of winter and there was no way around it. All of the groundhogs in the world could miss seeing their shadows on February 2 and we would still have six more weeks of winter. The wishful thinking might get our hopes up, but deep down inside, did you really think that there was any way that sayings like these could possibly be true?
I would like to know the weather sayings and rules of thumb that earlier inhabitants of this area had. I have never come across any, though sure there must have been some. The Chumash Indians would have wanted to know if the weather was favorable for taking their boats on the day-long trip to the Channel Islands. Ranchers would want to know if they should enter that box canyon or if those clouds were a sign of a possible flash flood. Growers would want to know if they should fire up the smudge pots. In the absence of any local heritage, I have made up some sayings of my own.
"Fiery sky, fiery weather" Sometimes in the summer, there will be small clouds that are illuminated by the sun in such a way that they look white hot. When this happens, it will be very hot for three more days. I have not found any information to support or deny this observation. I suspect it has something to do with when the high and low pressure regions are in certain places, we get hot weather and it also produces the appropriate kind of clouds.
"Milky sky, it will be dry" Sometimes in the fall, the sky will be covered with a very thin layer of featureless clouds. I call this a milky sky. It may look like it could rain, but it doesn't. According to what I've read, this should be an indicator of rain. Maybe in some places it is, but here it is not. Rain doesn't come easy here.
"If you can hear the train, it isn't going to rain" This is my favorite. It works and it rhymes. I live a few miles southwest of the train tracks. I'm far enough away that I can only hear the train when the air is coming from the northeast. When the air is coming from the northeast, it is coming out of the desert. We don't get rain from that direction. On the other hand, not hearing the train does not mean that it will rain, but hearing the train consistently means that it will not rain. Obviously, this saying only works in a very localized area. I have heard of people in other places also using train noise to forecast the weather. You might see for yourself if regular sounds like trains, trucks on the highway, church bells, or the factory whistle sound different or cannot be heard at all under different weather conditions.
How do my observations compare to yours? They don't have to agree and we would both still be correct. With all of the climates and microclimates there are, it is unlikely that any one saying would work for them all. Test the sayings you know. Create sayings of your own. Perhaps you won't find any science to support your observations, but if you do, it is extra satisfying.
Photos from top to bottom:
Sunset, Pismo Beach, CA;
Rain in my backyard;
Stormy clouds in Pennsylvania;
Snow on Oat Mountain, Chatsworth, CA;
Milky sky, Petrified Forest National Park.
Photos property of Kelli Kallenborn
About Kelli Kallenborn
I have lived in California for 20 years and really enjoy the climate and all of the varied natural ecosystems.