Forecast the Weather Like Daniel Boone

by Chris on October 21, 2010 · 26 comments

in Manly Skills, Outdoors

Technology has brought the world a long way, enabling us to consume more information in a few short minutes on Google Mobile than folks decades ago could locate in a week by plowing through books at the local library. And yet, with all this readily available information and the focus on being able to find information, the need to actually know and retain information has been decidedly diminished. There is still something to be said, however, for retaining the knowledge and skills that the men of yesteryear needed to survive, such as navigating by compass or starting up a respectable campfire. With that in mind, and with hunting season just around the corner, let’s look to the skies and sharpen up our skills in forecasting the weather.

Weather forecast for tonight: dark. Continued dark overnight, with widely scattered light by morning. -George Carlin

Now keep in mind that if the national weatherman equipped with Doppler radar and satellite imagery gets it wrong from time to time, you will too. Taking that into consideration, it is probably best to avoid making high dollar wagers with your buddies when you are confident that it will begin storming in the next few minutes. And yet, by utilizing nature’s telltale signs, you can make some fairly safe assumptions regarding what is around the corner weather-wise. Let’s take a look at some of the basics:

Cloud signs

As far as nature’s weather signs go, clouds will provide you with the most accurate indicators of things to come. Clouds are essentially water droplets or ice crystals (depending on altitude) that mass together in the atmosphere. There are many types of clouds, far too many to list, but some of the basic cloud types can indicate what weather patterns to be prepared for.

Cumulus

Cumulus clouds themselves are most often associated with pleasant weather. It is cumulus clouds that often take the shape of various characters in the imagination of creative youngsters as a result of their puffy, continuously changing appearance. While they are a sign of agreeable weather, it is not uncommon for cumulus clouds to form into cumulonimbus clouds, aka thunderheads, which are a sure sign that it is time to batten down the hatches.

Stratus

Stratus clouds are flat and featureless and often completely blanket the sky. As opposed to cumulus clouds, which are flat on the bottom and rise dramatically on the tops, stratus clouds are flat both above and below. While they usually do not indicate extreme weather to come, they do often produce a light drizzle or flurries.

Cirrus

Cirrus clouds are high altitude clouds which resemble wispy brush strokes. When the wisps curl at the end, they are often referred to as mare’s tails. These clouds are regularly associated with approaching storms, but can also come directly after a thunderstorm has passed.

Nimbus

Nimbus clouds can refer to any of the above clouds which have taken on a dark color, thus indicating high moisture levels within the cloud and rain to come. For example, a cumulonimbus cloud is a cumulus cloud that is uncharacteristically dark and foreboding, and is associated with thunderstorms. Cumulonimbus clouds often rise like towers into the sky and sometimes take the shape of an anvil, with the longer end of the anvil head typically pointing in the direction the storm is heading.

Proverbs That Stand the Test of Time

Weather proverbs are likely nearly as old as language itself, with the earliest recorded proverb dating back to the New Testament of the Bible when Jesus noted that “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’’’ (Matthew 16:2). While some proverbs add up to nothing more than old wives’ tales, many are based in scientific fact. Here are some notable examples of the latter:

“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.”

and

Evening red and morning gray, help the traveler on his way. Evening gray and morning red bring down a rain upon his head.”

When looking west in the evening, a visibly red sky can be taken as a clue that dry weather is coming (or staying). The red sky is caused by dust particles in the atmosphere, which only occur in dry weather. Since weather systems typically move west to east as a result of jet streams, you can safely assume that this dry weather is heading your way. A morning red sky in the east, however, denotes that the dry weather has passed you by and that a moisture rich weather system is likely to follow.

“Flowers smell best just before a rain.”

and

When ditch and pond offend the nose, look for rain and stormy blows.”

Everyone is familiar with that smell that occurs after a good summer rain, when the air is rich with the smell of plant life. This is a result of an increase in air moisture or humidity, which drastically increases the strength of smells in the air and the distance they carry. Also, it is believed that the smells of swamps and marshes are held down near the surface when atmospheric pressure is high, but low atmospheric pressure allows these foul odors to rise and carry. Both the increase in humidity and the drop in atmospheric pressure associated with these proverbs are signs of wet weather to come.

Chimney smoke descends, our nice weather ends.”

Keep an eye on the smoke from that roaring campfire you just built. If the smoke rises in a straight stack, you can anticipate fair weather to come. If the smoke rises in a stack as normal, but appears to be buffeted downwards once it reaches a certain height, you can bet that a storm’s a-brewin’.

Beware the bolts from north or west; in south or east the bolts be best.”

As mentioned above, most weather systems travel west to east. This proverb simply infers that visible storms in the west are most likely headed your way, while those in the east have passed you by.

A ring around the sun or moon, means rain or snow coming soon.”

The visible ring sometimes appearing around the sun or the moon is a result of ice crystals in cirrus clouds refracting the light off these celestial bodies. Since cirrus clouds generally indicate foul weather to come, you can assume that it is time to start waterproofing your camp.

When clouds appear like rocks and towers,
The Earth’s refreshed by frequent showers.”

A reference to the cumulonimbus cloud patterns mentioned above, this proverb serves as a simple reminder that such clouds indicate that a storm is likely coming your way.

Tools of the Trade: The Barometer

Some of nature’s signs cannot be understood simply by observing them but require tools to measure. By utilizing a barometer, you can measure the atmospheric pressure which can provide you with a great deal of information on what type of weather is just around the corner. In the most basic sense, a barometer indicating high pressure in the area lets you know that fair weather is likely, while low pressure is a sign that you can anticipate wet weather to come.

Before you can get started you’ll need to be sure you have the proper equipment. Most personal use barometers are known as aneroid barometers and contain no liquid. These barometers contain a spring which is calibrated using a dial or knob located on the back of the unit. In order to calibrate your barometer properly you will need to head over to http://www.weather.gov/ and get a local weather report, which will include the current barometric pressure. Adjust your barometer to match.

While a general understanding that high pressure is good and low pressure is bad is a start, more advanced and accurate information can be gleaned from the barometer as well. The following barometer reference card, taken from Skills for Taming the Wilds by Bradford Angier, will assist you in your short term weather forecasting forays (Keep in mind that these measurements and what they indicate are only representative within the U.S. and Canada).

BAROMETER WIND WEATHER
High, steady SW to NW Fair with little temperature change for one to two days
High, rising rapidly SW to NW Fair with warmer weather and rain within two days
High, falling rapidly E to NE Summer: rain in 12 to 24 hours

Winter: snow or rain with increasing wind

Very high, falling slowly SW to NW Fair, with slowly rising temperatures, for two days
High, falling rapidly S to SE Rain, with increasing wind, in 12 to 24 hours
High, falling slowly S to SE Rain within 24 hours
High, falling slowly E to NE Summer: light winds, fair

Winter: precipitation in 24 hours

High, falling slowly SW to NW Rain within 24 to 36 hours
Low, rising rapidly Shifting to W Colder and clearing
Low, rising slowly S to SW Clearing soon and fair for several days
Low, falling slowly SE to NE Rain for one or two more days
Low, falling rapidly E to N Northeast winds heavy with rain or snow, followed in winter by cold

Source Material/Further Reading:

Skills for Taming the Wilds by Bradford Angier

The Book of Survival by Anthony Greenbank

National Geographic’s Complete Survival Manual by Michael S. Sweeney

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Roy October 22, 2010 at 12:31 am

Those who grew up in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area will recognize a little weather-telling rhyme of their own:

“Weather ball red, warmer weather ahead
Weather ball blue, colder weather in view
Weather ball green, no change foreseen
Colors blinking bright, rain or snow in sight.”

Anyone remember that?

2 Tom October 22, 2010 at 7:59 am

This is a good article. Another neat factoid where weather is concerned:
When the wind is blowing and a storm is either around you or upon you, find a relatively open area where the wind that you feel is not affected by buildings, trees, etc. Face into the wind and hold your right arm out to your side. Your right arm will be pointing to the center of the storm. Given that storms generally move east to west, you can quickly determine if you are in for it or if the storm wil miss you.

3 Joe October 22, 2010 at 8:08 am

There’s a neat infographic on this subject here:

http://www.marisys.com/how-to-forecast-weather_2010-05-26/

4 Bradley Joe October 22, 2010 at 9:25 am

Very good no know. And Roy, I believe you are forgetting a part. Weather ball black, nuclear attack!

5 Cwflatt October 22, 2010 at 11:20 am

In Scouting the trusty weather rock was a good indiction of current weather conditions.

6 Martin October 22, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Tom

Good tip. Just remember to stick out your left arm if you’re in the southern hemisphere – storm systems down there rotate clockwise

7 Tom October 23, 2010 at 8:05 pm

The saying is “pink sky at night, sailors delight; pink sky in the morning sailors take warning.”

8 Tyler October 24, 2010 at 4:41 pm

If you can see the underside of the leaves that generally means that there is a storm coming. Another great article.

9 Jon October 24, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Night before last I was sitting around the fire at deer camp looking up at a full moon with a bright ring around it. Sure enough yesterday around 3:00PM the rain came and lasted all night.

10 Bill Murphy October 24, 2010 at 9:54 pm

First of all I love Daniel Boone. He embodies the spirit of Adventure and the American Spirit. One of the best stories of our top frontier men of the early days of settling the west is “Frontiersmen” by Allen Eckart. It is an incredible story. Bill

11 Wes October 25, 2010 at 3:13 am

I remember walkin through the yard with my dad late at night, if there was a dew on the grass it was likely that it wouldn’t rain the next day, he always knew if it was gonna rain.

12 Chris October 25, 2010 at 10:58 am

And now for some shameless self promotion! http://midwestbushcraft.blogspot.com/2010/08/weather-predictions-through-nature.html I did a blog post recently on this same thing.

13 Hondo October 25, 2010 at 5:13 pm

My weather forecasting abilities are pretty solid on account of my bad back will always let me know when rain or a cold front is coming.

14 Shifty October 27, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Daniel Boone could predict the weather because he spent his life arm in arm with Mother Nature. Neat article, too much stuff to remember. Get off the couch and you’ll be amazed at the knack you develop for “feeling” what the weather will do.

15 P.M.Lawrence October 29, 2010 at 3:52 am

One old farmer’s trick was to knock heavily on a ploughshare on the side of a hill while someone on the opposite hill listened. The duller the sound, the more humidity in the intervening air and the greater the likelihood of rain, given the likelihood from the other indications.

16 Thor Weatherby October 29, 2010 at 11:16 am

The earth in my part of the world spins on its axis from east to west and the ‘weather’ would remain stationary were it not for the erose nature of earth and the solar influence.
Of course this is Alaska and we’re frequently accused of being different. Thor

17 Tom Wright October 29, 2010 at 1:37 pm

I am a meteorologist and there is so much misinformation on here I can hardly believe it.

18 John October 29, 2010 at 2:20 pm

@Tom Wright

If you see misinformation, then correct it rather than simply stating your disbelief. You have contributed nothing of value to this discussion and only succeeded in boosting your own ego and making the rest of us think you’re arrogant.

Just because some of these proverbs aren’t backed by meteorological science doesn’t mean they aren’t necessarily valid. My grandparents used some of these all their lives and from what I saw had a pretty good track record in predicting what was coming (probably better than most self-important meteorologists with worthless slips of paper).

I personally am an aircraft dispatcher and know a bit about weather theory (and most of it IS just theory) and can’t count the number of times I’ve looked at radar, satellite, prognostic charts, etc and then read the TAF/METAR/FA/Area Forecast Discussion and thought, “This meteorologist is an idiot, this system isn’t going to do what he’s predicting, it will do _____” and been right.

There is no absolute science to weather theory and really it comes down to looking at all the factors and using a mix of analytical thinking, past experience and a bit of instinct. These proverbs and this discussion in general hits on the instinct part.

19 Caleb October 29, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Most cirrus clouds are just chemtrails. Contrails that will linger and expand into cirrus clouds. If there are enough of them they start to merge into stratus clouds. Geo-engineers have propose spraying aluminum and barium to create artificial cloud cover and reverse climate change. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the geo-engineering plans are already underway.

20 Mike October 30, 2010 at 1:26 am

Seeding the clouds with barium doesn’t impress me. Carbonates of barium are the active ingredients in rat poison [Encycl. Britannica]. I worked with automatic transmission fluid every day for 29 years. Barium was one of the ingredients in ATF because it is an excellent lubricant for machinery (until the EPA made us take it out in the mid-1990′s). Now somebody wants to inject it into the atmosphere? News to me!

21 Tom Wright October 30, 2010 at 12:12 pm

@John:

Some weather proverbs have a basis in or are supported by science as was pointed out, but many of the ones listed here can be entirely true or false depending on where you are or what the situation is. Red sky at night salior’s delight for example, is only generally true in the mid latitudes and entirely fails in the tropics. And the reverse is true in the southern hemisphere.

To say that “Cumulus clouds themselves are most often associated with pleasant weather.” is not exactly wrong, but is misleading. All supercells ultimately begin in the cumulus stage and may look exactly like the clouds in the photo provided about an hour before the F5 destroys your house. Fair weather cumulus are suggestive of benign weather, but that assumption can only be made in conjunction with other indicators. Even a crystal clear sky doesn’t mean anything in and of itself.

The one about the smoke from the chimney does not necessarily make sense meteorologically. Descending smoke would imply a temperature inversion which may cap any convection (storms). Smoke rising continuously would imply instability which could promote convection. Or neither of these things may be true depending on the situation. For example, descending smoke could imply a cap, which once broken, could lead to explosive convection. It just depends.

I live in the plains and all of the pressure/wind combinations listed in the table can be experienced over the course of a week here with no change in sensible weather. It all depends on the location and situation.

But really what I was laughing at were some of the comments.One guy said amongst other things that “Given that storms generally move east to west…blah blah blah.” It is not a given that storms move from east to west since they generally don’t. I know what he was getting, which would have been correct except that he got the important point wrong and as such would lead a less sophisticated user to reach the exact wrong answer. The correct statement is: Face the wind, extend your right arm, and you are generally pointing toward the low pressure in the northern hemisphere. That is the main (synoptic) storm, but the thunderstorms or precipitation (which may or may not result from that low pressure center) will generally come from somewhere between your arm and where you are facing. In general, not always.

Another commenter: “The earth in my part of the world spins on its axis from east to west…” The world spins the same everywhere and it’s not from east to west.

And another: “Most cirrus clouds are just chem trails.” Absurd.

I agree with your statement that I contributed nothing by stating my disbelief. And for that, I apologize. But I frankly didn’t even know where to start. Weather is one of those things that most people think they know everything about and few really know the first thing about it. I certainly don’t claim to know everything because I am quite aware of how imperfect the science is. But I find that the only thing more prevalent than the misconceptions people have about weather is their willingness to state them as fact.

PS: most college degrees are just worthless pieces of paper. That is not confined to meteorologists! :) It takes a long time after college to actually know anything.

22 conrad November 1, 2010 at 5:37 pm

i heard that you could also “tell” weather by observing animal behaviour?

23 John November 5, 2010 at 6:24 am

@Tom Wright

Thank you for the substantive reply. My grandparents lived in the mid latitudes and used “Red sky at night…”. Coincidentally, I live in the tropics and caught a red sky as the sun rose this morning. We currently have a low pressure system (Hurricane Tomas) due west. We are experiencing some abnormally high winds at altitude (which affects flying) and have some gusting winds and -SHRA (light showering rain) forecast for most of our TAF sites at some point during the day but nothing convective (TS) is predicted. The forecasts are predicting a fairly normal day for the Caribbean, so I guess “red sky at night” doesn’t really work in the tropics as you say. I’m just not usually up early enough to test it.

24 shimrod November 7, 2010 at 1:22 am

There’s another saying that has proven well over the years, especially amongst sailors

Wind before rain – sunshine soon again
Rain before wind – take topsails in

25 Skyler November 19, 2010 at 7:00 am

@Tom Wright

Great followup to a good article. Thank you for pointing out the statements you saw as inaccurate, that was interesting to read.

26 James R Pierce May 18, 2013 at 9:43 am

Growing up in a long line of mariners the weather proverb I most remember is that I heard many times from both father and grand father:

Last night the moon had a golden ring,
tonight no moon we see.
I pray thee, put into yonder port,
for I fear a hurricane.

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