Red Sky At Morning – Forecasting The Weather With Weathervanes And Old Weather Wisdom
By: Mike Milliman


Red sky at morning, sailor take warning.
Red sky at night, sailor’s delight

Old proverbs such as this were the earliest weather forecasts. Passed down from generation to generation, these rhymes helped our ancestors recognize when a storm was brewing or a cold snap was on the way.

Long before Doppler radar, farmers and sailors in Colonial America knew how to predict the weather by reading the wind and watching the skies. Their approach to reading the weather is just as useful in today’s world.

Watching the Clouds

Red sky at morning, sailor take warning.
Red sky at night, sailor’s delight

This is perhaps the best-known weather proverb, but what does it mean, exactly?

The type and color of clouds in the sky can be an excellent weather predictor. When the sun rises or sets, its light takes on a reddish tint as it is filtered through the atmosphere.

To have a red sky in the morning, the eastern sky needs to be clear of clouds and the western sky must be cloudy. Since the prevailing wind direction in the northern hemisphere is west to east, a red sky at morning means that storm clouds are headed your way.

Likewise, a red sky at night means that the clouds are to the east and clear skies to the west, all of which meant that you can expect a calm night.

Halo around the sun or moon,
Means rain or snow soon

This old rhyme can forecast precipitation within the next 24 hours. There are several different types of clouds, and the appearance of some is a pretty good sign that rain or snow are on their way.

A halo around either the sun or the moon is caused by ice crystal floating inside cirrostratus clouds. The ice crystals refract light, which will cause the halo mentioned in this proverb.

Cirrostratus clouds are very thin, high altitude clouds that give the sky a milky white appearance. If you see cirrostratus clouds, you can indeed expect rain or snow within 24 hours.

Written in the Wind

“He doesn’t know which way the wind is blowing.”

This old saying means that a person is a fool who can’t see an obvious trend.

Knowing the wind direction was vital to the lives of farmers and anyone working outdoors. That’s why every early American farmhouse featured a weathervane. The direction your weathervane pointed could warn a coming storm or tell if it was a good day to work the fields.

Colonial Americans loved weathervanes and adapted them into beautiful, ornate designs, including flying eagles, angels and leaping fish. In part these designs were aesthetic; in part they were functional, since they made the weathervane easier to read from across the fields.

So what does wind direction tell us? This proverb gives an idea.

When the wind is blowing in the North
No fisherman should set forth.

When the wind is blowing in the East,
'Tis not fit for man nor beast.

When the wind is blowing in the South
It brings the food over the fish's mouth.

When the wind is blowing in the West,
That is when the fishing's best!

In the eastern half of the United States the prevailing winds blow from the west. A shift in wind direction toward the east or north means bad news. It could even mean that a dreaded “Nor’easter” was approaching.

Keep that in mind next time you see a weathervane. It might tell you whether you need your umbrella soon.


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