Predicting the weather using omens

Predicting the weather using omens


Each of us is a bit of a meteorologist, sometimes predicting the weather. For example, a black cloud comes towards you, thunder rumbles—you realize that soon there will be a downpour. That’s a forecast! Or if a groundhog crawls out of its burrow on February 2nd—it’s obvious that spring is coming soon. Or is it?
Today, we will tell you about weather omens: when and where they appear, and what they are. And most importantly, whether or not you can believe them.

What are these omens, and where do they come from?

Any weather forecast, made by someone based on their own observations here and now, is a forecast based on signs around you. The logic of these omens is simple: what we see may turn out to be a harbinger of change. You can observe anything: weather, plants, or animals. The main thing is to understand what weather processes are behind each sign.

In the past, omens were vital; now, they are mostly entertainment. The more interesting thing is that many of them actually work. The main rules are as follows:

  • Use only omens that are physically justified
  • Give preference to local omens. They take into account the peculiarities of the weather in a particular region, and are also a great opportunity to delve into the popular culture of a place
  • The more different signs you use, the more confident you will be in the results. It’s like comparing forecasts from different models in!

The main problem with omens is that you draw conclusions about the weather from one thing, without seeing the bigger picture. But when used correctly, omens can still produce good results.

These omens work!

The best omens predict the weather by observing...the weather! For example, clouds. Here are a few examples.

"If the sun sets in the clouds, tomorrow will be a cloudy day." In temperate latitudes, westerly air movement prevails. If there are clouds in the west in the evening, it means they will be over you by tonight or tomorrow.

Photo: Storiès / Unsplash

"Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning." Actually, it’s good weather either way. A red sky is a sign that there’s a lot of dust in the atmosphere. A lot of dust is usually in anticyclones: because of the lowering of the air, the dust does not disperse, and does not fall to the ground with precipitation. It’s sunny in an anticyclone, so the "dusty" air is too. And since the weather can get worse, you need to determine the possible outcomes using other signs.

"Ring around the moon means rain soon." (also true for the sun.)
A rainbow halo is an atmospheric phenomenon that usually occurs in highly layered clouds. And these clouds often pass in front of a warm front, and within a few hours, it starts to rain. But along a cold front, highly layered clouds can be observed after rain, and in winter, halos can occur in severe cold weather.

Photo: Miha Rekar / Unsplash

"If the clouds move against the wind, rain will follow." The wind direction at the ground and in the clouds always differs by 20-40°, but if the difference is close to 90°, it means that a front is near. To see if the weather will get worse, stand with your back to the wind. If clouds are floating to the right in the northern hemisphere, the front has passed, and the worst is over. If on the left, the front is still ahead and the weather could get worse. The opposite is true for the southern hemisphere.

There are many similar sayings about these signs. You can find or remember others, and try to find the physical meaning in them. Use our texts as a starting point!

The most unreliable omens

One of the most famous weather harbingers is Groundhog Day in the United States and Canada, which is celebrated on February 2nd. It’s primarily a holiday, but let’s break it down from a scientific point of view. The essence is as follows: it derives from the Pennsylvania Dutch superstition that if a groundhog emerges from its burrow on this day and sees its shadow (because there is sun), it will retreat to its den and winter will go on for six more weeks; if it does not see its shadow (because it is cloudy), spring will arrive early. In 2024, an early spring was predicted. Many nations have similar omens and holidays.

Photo: Steve Wrzeszczynski / Unsplash

As one might guess,using one day’s weather to predict the next month/season/year works very poorly. A seasonal or yearly forecast makes no physical sense at all. And forecasts for a few weeks usually say the following: "Today’s weather will continue for the next few days/weeks".

Take Groundhog Day. Sunny weather in the U.S. and Canada in February most often means an anticyclone with Arctic air, which means it is cold. And clouds mean a cyclone and warm weather. But to assume without reason that atmospheric circulation will not change in the near future is not forecasting, but guessing—although it cannot be denied that the weather more often remains stable than changeable.

Animals and plants predict rain

But there are more reliable omens based on living things. The rule is: trust plants and insects, but do not trust mammals and birds.

The more complex the psyche of a living creature, the harder it is to understand its motives. Popular weather myths say, "If cats (or dogs) eat grass (or are constantly sleeping), it will rain." There are many other reasons to eat grass and sleep!

While it’s no secret that pet owners and parents of young children notice weather patterns in their behavior. Many people also complain of joint pain before it rains, or when the barometric pressure changes. Do you have someone in your neighborhood who senses changes in the weather? Try recording the forecasts and calculating their accuracy!

Trees and insects react very noticeably to changes in humidity. As the humidity rises:

  • Pine cones close (when humidity is low, they open)
  • Conifer branches droop down (in dry weather, they perk upwards)
  • Wooden doors and windows do not fit properly into their frames/tracks (they swell due to the moisture)
  • Insects get «pushed» to the ground (their wings become wet and heavy). So there are more insects around you. And swallows and other birds that feed on them fly lower than usual
  • Trees get covered with frost in winter

High humidity always increases the risk of rain, but this does not mean that it will definitely happen. It is important to be aware that there are other signs of approaching precipitation, such as clouds and changes in wind direction.

Not a forecast at all

Some omens do not forecast, but state facts. For example, farmers have many sayings about what and when to sow crops: «Sow oats when the birch trees are blossoming». All plants have their own temperature preferences, and for each domestic crop, you can find a wild parallel. This is very useful, but it does not mean that, in the future, there will be no frost that will damage both wild and domestic plants.

There are many other examples. Gulls sleep on water in good weather and on land in bad weather. And the speed of some crickets depends on the air temperature! The higher the temperature is, the faster they chirp. These are interesting observations, but they are useless for forecasting.

In this article, we can’t cover all omens, because they are different in every country. But we hope that we have given you a good basis to decide which omens to believe, and which not to believe. We wish you only forecasts that come true!

Text: Eugenio Monti, a meteorologist and a climatologist

Cover photo: Benjamin Davies / Unsplash


Read more:

What does Edward Munch have to do with Polar stratospheric clouds

Rare snow phenomena

Colored Rains

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