Weather lore has a logic rooted in experience


Charles Darwin, scribbling in his diary aboard the stormbound Beagle in 1831, noted: "The sailors declare that there is somebody on the shore keeping a black cat beneath a tub, which it stands to reason must keep us long in harbour". He was alluding to the old maritime superstition that a sure way to encourage a storm is to imprison a cat.

The seafaring community had a wealth of other weather "dos" and "don'ts". Hares or rabbits on a ship invariably brought a storm. So, too, did eggs. Clergymen boded ill, since although the clergy have the better of the devil on land, the devil has the upper hand at sea and does not hesitate to take advantage. On the brighter side, the antidote to all these difficulties is to tie a billy-goat to the mast, a precaution which virtually guarantees favourable winds.

Landlubbers have their superstitions, too. Did you know, for example, that a rainbow arched above a house foretells a death therein within a week? And if there is sudden clap of thunder in mid-winter, the most important person for 20 miles around will die. If, on the other hand, it rains at his funeral, he may well be glad of his timely end; rain at a burial is "a presage of the happiness of the deceased in the other world".

There is a world of difference between mere superstitions such as these and "weather lore". Weather lore provides simple rules to forecast future weather, formulae that have evolved over the years, handed down through countless generations by those whose livelihood depended on the elements. The rules were based on observation, and through many of them runs a thread of logic well rooted in experience.

Sayings, for example, that predict the short-term prospects based on the appearance of the sky often have a subtle logic. "Rain before seven, dry by eleven" may well turn out to be the case, since most bands of frontal rain have a duration of only a few hours. And Richard III was not just talking through his hat when he announced that

The weary sun hath made a golden set,

And by the bright track of his fiery car

Gives token of a goodly day tomorrow.

A red sky at night suggests that the atmosphere over the horizon to the west is clear and dry and free of cloud, usually a fair indication that rain is unlikely in the next 12 hours or so. So lore has a foundation. But superstitions are beliefs that are believed, well, simply because they are believed! The trick is to be able to recognise the difference.