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in: Outdoor/Survival, Podcast, Skills

• Last updated: October 1, 2021

Podcast #713: How to Predict the Weather (No Apps Required)

When you’re deciding what to wear in the morning, or on the viability of some activity for the weekend, you’ll likely turn to a weather app to see what the forecast holds. My guest today would suggest supplementing that habit with another: actually going outside, looking at the sky and feeling the air in order to engage in an ancient and satisfying practice and build a more intimate relationship with the weather and the world around you.

His name is Tristan Gooley and he’s a master outdoorsman, expert natural navigator, and global adventurer, as well as the author of The Secret World of Weather: How to Read Signs in Every Cloud, Breeze, Hill, Street, Plant, Animal, and Dewdrop. Tristan and I begin our conversation with how modern meteorological science is incredibly useful, but has also disconnected us from the weather signs right in front of our faces, as well as the different microclimates that can exist even on two different sides of a tree. We then do a quick review of some of the basic scientific/meteorological principles that underlie understanding the weather, before turning to the concrete, research-backed, field-tested, signs you can observe in your environment to predict the weather, like the shape and height of clouds, and why you should check those clouds from lunchtime onward. We discuss whether there’s truth to the old saying, “red sky at night, sailors’ delight; red sky in morning, sailors take warning,” and what changes in plants and the behavior of animals can tell you about the coming forecast, We end our conversation with how to get started today with predicting the weather using natural signs.

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Show Highlights

  • How and why we’ve become disconnected from our local weather 
  • What is a microclimate?
  • How does heat move and why is it important to know?
  • What is the dew point?
  • What are the signs of an unstable environment?
  • Your guide to clouds 
  • Cheating your way to predicting the weather 
  • The truth behind common weather lore 
  • How cities affect weather 
  • What can plants tell us about forecasting?
  • What are some easy things that listeners can start picking up on today?

Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast

Connect With Tristan

Tristan’s website

Tristan on Twitter

Tristan on Instagram 

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When you’re deciding what to wear in the morning, or on the viability of some activity for the weekend, you’ll likely turn to a weather app, to see what the forecast holds. My guest today would suggest supplementing that habit with another: Actually going outside, looking at the sky and feeling the air in order to engage in an ancient and satisfying practice and build a more intimate relationship with the weather and the world around you.

Brett McKay: His name is Tristan Gooley and he’s a master outdoorsman, expert natural navigator, and global adventurer, as well as the author of the book, The Secret World of Weather: How to Read Signs in Every Cloud, Breeze, Hill, Street, Plant, Animal, and Dewdrop. Tristan and I begin our conversation with how modern meteorological science is incredibly useful, but has also disconnected us from the weather signs right in front of our faces. We also discussed some of the different micro-climates that can exist even on two different sides of a single tree. We then do a quick review of some of the basic scientific principles that underlie understanding the weather, before turning to the concrete, research-backed, field-tested signs you can observe in your environment to predict the weather, like the shape and height of clouds, and why you should check those clouds from lunchtime onward.

Brett McKay: We then discussed whether there’s truth to the old saying, “Red sky at night, sailors delight, red sky in morning, sailors take warning.” And what changes in plants and the behavior of animals can tell us about the coming forecast. We end our conversation with how to get started today with predicting the weather, using natural science. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/weather.

Brett McKay: Alright, Tristan Gooley, welcome back to the show.

Tristan Gooley: Thanks for having me on.

Brett McKay: We’ve had you on last time, to talk about how to navigate in nature, using nature to make our way in the world. You got a new book out, called The Secret World of Weather: How to Read Signs in Every Cloud, Breeze, Hill, Street, Plant, Animal, and Dewdrop. And I really love this book, like all your books. I feel like whenever I read your book, I’m under… It’s like uncovering the secret code that’s been in front of my face this entire time, on how to understand the world around me. And this one’s all about weather. And you start off the books making the claim that modern weather forecasting has really changed the way we view weather and disconnected it from us, even though we’re checking it all the time. What do you mean by that? 

Tristan Gooley: Well, the scientists have done an amazing job of understanding weather, and it was such a tough challenge. There are whole lot of things that we solved before we got any handle on what the weather was doing. In the past 100 years, there were still people saying, “We’re never gonna understand it, it’s beyond science.” But we’ll never achieve perfection, and that’s not really the goal, but they have got to the point, the meteorologists, of being able to say, “This is what the big stuff is doing.” And now we’re at the stage, if you look at any forecast you rely on, whether it’s internet, TV, it can be in a paper, it doesn’t matter, you’ll notice that there are some pretty big patterns there. We’re talking about hundreds, if not thousands of miles.

Tristan Gooley: And that’s what the scientists have had to do, to get any handle on the weather. They’ve had to treat it as a big atmospheric phenomenon. But actually, what we experience is what’s going on in our neck of the woods, sometimes literally. So, this become this disconnect, where the meteorologists are doing an amazing job and they are saving lives everyday, because they can keep an eye on the really big weather systems, and those are the… For the most part, the things that cause serious and dangerous situations, not always, and we’ll probably come on to that. But our personal experience is far more intimate. It’s what’s going on within a few hundred feet of us. And culturally, something quite… There’s become this huge disconnect where the scientists have given us this amazing staff, but it’s slightly taken our eye off of our personal experience of the weather and all the wonderful signs that are all around us.

Brett McKay: And meteorologists, they call this whether, it’s within a 100 feet of us, they call them micro-climates. And again, they can be really small, but so to give us an idea of how small a micro-climate can be, and yet you can see really big divergences in climates in a small space. Any examples from that, that you experienced or seen? 

Tristan Gooley: Yes, there are examples within touching distance for all of us, but there aren’t that many examples where this data, and for me to really make the point early on. In the case I’m making in the book, I used one of the few examples where scientists have actually measured and it’s a place in Europe in the Swiss Jura Mountains, and there’s a mountain ridge there and the ridge itself is like all ridges. By definition, it’s a skinny thing, it’s only two feet from one side to the other, and yet the weather, the micro-climate on each side of this ridge, is so dramatically different, that it’s comparable to traveling 600 miles north or south.

Tristan Gooley: So, we can literally experience, on average, the same change in weather, by taking two steps over a ridge, as we can by traveling 600 miles north or south. And of course, that’s why we travel 600 miles south on holiday sometimes. But that’s… We don’t have to go to these extraordinary places. That’s just me using some science, there isn’t a lot of it, but some science to prove the point. But the exciting thing is that this stuff, this incredible change over small distances is happening all around us, everyday.

Brett McKay: Well, you say there’s… Even a single tree can have a micro-climate.

Tristan Gooley: Yeah, absolutely. And this is exactly what I felt really passionate about and what drove the research, is that if I… In the course of my work, some of my best friends are meteorologists, doesn’t sound quite right, but it’s true, and I have conversations with them, and I say, “The weather on two sides of a tree is different,” and they will say, “Oh, you’re not talking out weather, you’re talking about micro-climate.” And I’m saying, “Well, let’s just pause here. What I’m saying is that the wind, the sun, the rain, the temperature, and quite a lot of other things change when we walk around a tree. And I think those are what we mean by weather.” And they go, “Okay, fair call. You do your thing. We’ll carry on doing our thing.” And that’s really what the book is about, is this world. It’s not that they don’t find it interesting. It’s just, there is no job there, because you can’t have one person talking to another person about their experience as they walk around a tree, but we can, as individuals, take a real interest in that. And that’s where the fun starts.

Brett McKay: Well, give us an example. How does a climate change around a single tree? 

Tristan Gooley: Okay. So when the wind hits a tree, if you imagine a textbook sort of bulbous tree, whatever species pops into your mind, and the species isn’t important. I’m not thinking of a conifer here, I’m thinking of sort of rounded, an oak or whatever comes into your mind. What you’ll have is, the ground, a trunk, and then as I say, this kind of rounded bulbous canopy of the tree. When the wind hits that tree, it’s an obstacle, so there are sudden air pressure changes. The wind basically piles into the canopy. It can’t go anywhere, so the pressure increases. And then whenever that happens, we’ve got a place downwind of the tree, where the pressure, the air pressure drops. We’ve got high pressure on one side, low pressure on the other, that leads to the wind accelerating around the tree. And what that means, in terms of our personal experience, is that there is an acceleration of the breeze underneath the tree.

Tristan Gooley: So, next time you see an isolated tree, like an oak or something like that, on a hot day where you can feel a gentle breeze, you will gravitate towards the tree anyway. It’s a great place to get some shade and cool down for a second. But whilst you’re there, just notice how the breeze accelerates, as you move under the tree. You are experiencing a different wind, to somebody who’s only 30 feet away from you. And that’s there, that’s what it’s all about.

Brett McKay: Alright, so you start off by making the case that in order to see the weather, just by looking at your environment, and you can start seeing what weather is gonna be like or could be like, you have to understand some basic meteorological principles. And the first one is, how heat moves, and there are three ways heat moves in our environment. So what are those ways, and how do we see those different heat movement patterns in nature? 

Tristan Gooley: Yeah, I’ll just sort of preface it by saying, all of my work is based in science, and that is very important. I find things like folklore inspirational and they do sometimes shine a light into areas that are worth me rummaging around and then trying to find some good truths. But in this book and everything I’ve done, I need to understand the scientific principles, I need to know it’s not just an old wives tale. The old wives tale might point to good science, but I need the good science. And so, that’s what I’m doing here, is just explaining. I take it as a compliment, when sometimes people say to me, “I’m getting flashbacks, kind of like being in school.” It’s kind of like, “Well, we have to do a little bit of school to then do the fun stuff outdoors.” Because if you don’t have solid building blocks, then the fun stuff, you don’t have confidence in.

Tristan Gooley: So, heat moves from one place to another in three main ways: We’ve got radiation, so have you… That experience when you’re in a cold place, it might be snowy, if you’ve ever been skiing, and you’re sitting outside having lunch, and actually you feel really quite warm, the heat energy is traveling directly all the way across space and hitting us as radiation. The black part of your jacket feels warmer than the white part. That is radiation. Then we’ve got conduction, which is heat is molecules vibrating, and if you’ve had that experience where you open the kitchen drawer, there’s a wooden spoon in it and a metal knife. The metal knife feels colder than the wooden spoon, even though we know they must both be the same temperature ’cause they’re in the same drawer. All that’s happening there is, the warmth is flowing faster out of our hand into the metal, because metal conducts heat well, and slowly into the wood, because wood doesn’t.

Tristan Gooley: And this is relevant to weather because a lot of the patterns we see on the ground, and I’m thinking of things like dew and snow, and frost, and things like that, have a relationship with conduction. So once we understand it, we can go like, “Ah, I understand why there’s a frost there and there isn’t there.” And then the third way is convection. So if a parcel of air warms up and expands, it becomes less dense than the air around it. It starts to rise up, and that is transferring heat vertically upwards. And that underpins a lot of what we see, in terms of cloud patterns and science there.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. And then another component of weather, I think weather is… You kinda describe it as a soup. There’s heat and then there’s liquid, as another part of it. And you have to understand how the phases of water, what happens with water as it passes through different states of matter, so like solid, liquid and gas. How do we see that happen in nature? 

Tristan Gooley: Well again, I think lots of listeners will get sort of flashbacks, hopefully, sort of happy ones. But yeah, this is quite sort of fundamental stuff. Water, we know as a liquid, we see it everyday, it’s a big part of our lives, we know what it looks like, when it’s a solid, it’s ice. Gas, it’s less well-known. People get a little bit, not confused, but if you think of water as a gas, sometimes people think of steam. But actually, the steam there, it’s in liquid form, that’s why we can see it. So water can exist as water vapor, as a gas, but it’s invisible.

Tristan Gooley: Just understanding that it’s moving between those forms, and temperature is absolutely critical, we know that. On a sunny day, the puddle on the tarmac disappears much more quickly than it does on a cold overcast day. So, temperature is so vital to these changes of state, and understanding the change of state helps understand what clouds are gonna do, and whether certain things are gonna happen. And it’s all part of the kind of prediction toolkit.

Brett McKay: Well, so something you hear a lot in your weather forecast, you’re like, “What does that even mean?” You’ll hear a meteorologist say, “Oh, the dew point is whatever.” What do they mean by dew point? 

Tristan Gooley: Okay, so if we think of a parcel of air, any air, anywhere in the world, will have some water vapor, some water in invisible gas form in it. Even if you’re over the hottest desert on the hottest day, if it’s a world record hot time, there will still be some water vapor in the air. But temperature is critical, so what happens is, take your parcel of air and in a kind of thought experiment, you’ve got to dial in and you just start turning the temperature down. A few degrees, your parcel of air, nothing happens. It will reach a point where the air cannot hold the water vapor in it, in gaseous form anymore, and it condenses down into liquid form, at which point we see it. We might see it in the same way you see steam coming out of a kettle, but another way we see it almost daily, is as a cloud.

Tristan Gooley: That’s a really sort of key thing, is the relationship between invisible water in the air, which is all around us all the time for our whole lives, if the temperature drops to a certain point, that is going to turn to liquid in suspension in the air, and the point it does that is known as the dew point.

Brett McKay: And what does that tell us about the weather? 

Tristan Gooley: Well, the more humid the air is, the closer to the dew point we are likely to be. So basically, you can keep putting more and more water in gas form into the same parcel of air, but there will come a point, where the air… I personify everything, it sometimes sounds a bit ridiculous. But there’ll come a point where the air sorta goes, “No, I’m not having it as gas anymore.” It’s gonna condense down into liquid form.” So, different days… I take a lot of inspiration from indigenous communities as well, for the simple reason that this isn’t just good sport to them, this is life or death to a lot of them. So they don’t… There’s a lot of interesting myth and stories and legends in indigenous communities, but when it comes to nature signs, they mean business. It’s gotta work.

Tristan Gooley: So a good example of this concept in an indigenous community is a community called the Wola, and they use this expression [0:13:49.2] ____, which means rain sun, and that starts to… Initially, that doesn’t mean anything, but the science behind it is what they’re saying is, the day starts sunny, but we know it’s gonna rain by the afternoon, because we can feel that it is a humid day, and it is the sort of day, where the amount of water vapor in the air cannot stay as gas all day. Then they wouldn’t use these terms, they don’t see it that way, but we can all have that experience and we’ve all had it. August is a classic time for it. When you walk outside, and sometimes it just feels like a dry heat and you sort of go… You just get a gut feel, “This weather’s gonna last.” Sometimes you walk out there and it’s that muggy, close, you’re sweating before you’re running, brisk walk, there’s sweat on your forehead, that’s what indigenous people might call a rain sun. That means it’s not gonna take very much for the gas in… The water gas to turn to liquid, and that’s the start of very serious weather changes.

Brett McKay: So I think you make the point in the book that whenever there’s a lot of humidity in the air and it’s warm, that typically creates an unstable environment, and that’s when you can get rain or thunderstorms.

Tristan Gooley: Yeah, so another of the… For me, one of the most fundamental and exciting and little known concepts, is about stability. So I talk about stable and unstable systems. So if you take a bowl in the kitchen, and you put an apple in the bottom of the bowl, and you push it up the side and let go, the apple goes back to the middle of the bowl and you can do that 1000 times in a row and the same thing’s gonna happen. It’s a stable system. If something changes, it goes back to the start, it’s auto-correcting. If you turn the bowl upside down and put the apple on the top and give it a nudge, it rolls off the bowl, off the table, on the floor. It doesn’t go back to its start point. There’s a small amount of mayhem. Now, our weather is either stable, I.e. If something changes, whether it’s heat, water levels or whatever, it’ll just settle back to what it was, and that is literally settled, stable weather.

Tristan Gooley: But sometimes, there’s a small change and the next thing, the sky is full of ominous clouds, and a half an hour later, there’s a thunderstorm, and that’s an unstable system, and the air has… It’s a characteristic of the air, it’s the gradient of temperature change with altitude. Now, we’re getting into the science, but the truth is, once you understand the concepts, it’s not like every time you look at a sign, you have to go like, “Oh right, I’ve gotta start thinking about stability and all that sort of stuff.” It’s just to make you confident in knowing that, “Okay, this is an unstable atmosphere, so if I start to see clouds rising, they’re not gonna stop. It’s all gonna kick off and there is gonna be a thunderstorm.” So it’s a case of sort of being really confident in understanding the science, but then once you’ve got that in the locker, every time you see the signs, you’re not sort of thinking, “This is mysterious,” you’re like, “I know what’s gonna happen next, and I know why it’s gonna happen next.”

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break, for a word from our sponsors. And now, back to the show. So what’s the sign for an unstable environment? So you mentioned I guess, that heat, where you walk out and it’s kind of muggy and you think, “Oh, this isn’t gonna last. It’s gonna get a storm.” Is that one of them or what’s some other ones too? 

Tristan Gooley: Yeah, so the mugginess is the sort of slightly fuzzy sign, and it’s quite hard to get a real measure on, but there is a really concrete, solid one, which is the shape of clouds. So if you look out any day, and it’s one of the first things I do every single day is, you have a look out, and where I live, there will be clouds. In the UK, there are one or two days there aren’t. But most places in the world, you’re gonna see some clouds at some point during the day. Just have a look at their shape. If they are more broad, if they’re broader than they are tall, that’s an indication of a stable atmosphere. So there may be change, but it’s very unlikely, in the next few hours, that all hell is gonna break loose. If you see clouds that are much taller than they are wide, that’s the sign of an unstable atmosphere, and all it will take is one small change in your local environment and you can have heavy rain showers or storms.

Brett McKay: And the clouds that you’re looking at, there’s a certain type of cloud, it’s… What is it? Cumulus? Which one is it that…

Tristan Gooley: Yeah, yeah. So I try and keep the Latin to a minimum, because I don’t think it brings people into the fun side of the subject, but I do break the clouds we need to understand, into three broad families. There’s cumulus, which is the fluffy sheep ones, start of the Simpsons. I think everybody knows them, they’re kind of… They are cartoon clouds. Then we’ve got stratus, which are the blankets, which can cover 1000 miles. They’re pretty dull to look at, they’re just these long, flat blankets. And cirrus are the wispy ones. In the modern lifestyle, people can go a month and not see cirrus. It’s out there most days, but it doesn’t grab our attention, but there are lots of wonderful signs in it.

Tristan Gooley: So the one we are talking about here is cumulus, and cumulus tells us lots of things instantly. It is basically a marker, and it is saying that there is a thermal directly underneath me. There is a column of air rising underneath that cloud. That is the only reason that a cumulus is there, because what’s happened is, there’s been some local heating, so the sun’s radiation hits a darker patch. I talked about the black part of our jackets might be warmer than the white part, on a hot day. It’s exactly the same in a landscape. The sun’s radiation hits a dark coniferous forest or perhaps the dark tarmac of a city, and that heats up much more than the paler colors all around it. That leads to a column of air rising through convection. It reaches a point where the temperature has dropped to the point where the water vapor can’t stay as gas, turns to liquid, voilà, we have a cloud and we have a cumulus cloud.

Tristan Gooley: Now the shape of that cloud, so the cloud itself is telling us that’s where the thermal is, and we understand why it’s there, so it’s making a map of the ground. You can spot islands, woodlands, cities, cliffs, there are lots of things you can do with those clouds, you can… There’s a good tradition of using them to make a map. But they are also mapping what’s going on in the atmosphere, so the shape of them, how tall they are, relative to how wide they are, is mapping the stability. So we’ve got two maps there, a map of what’s going on on the ground and a map of what’s going on in the air, just in one cloud.

Brett McKay: And not only do you… If you look at the heights, if it’s taller than it is wider, good chance you’re gonna see some rain or thunderstorm. But another sign you can look at a cumulus cloud is if it’s lower, that’s another sign that that weather is likely.

Tristan Gooley: Yeah, I talk about the seven golden patterns, which is just my shorthand for after many, many years, decades of me weighing what does and doesn’t work, what is practical out there. There are other small collection of things, and the shape we’ve talked about, in terms of tall or wide, the height is actually the one before that, in terms of length of forecast. So, everybody kinda notices the difference between a sunny day and a day where the clouds feel like they’re almost touching the rooftops and it’s dull or it’s rainy all day and stuff like that. Everybody knows that that scale are different. But what very few people spot, and it’s very easy to spot, is how for two days perhaps, the clouds have been almost coming down steps, they’ve been getting steadily lower.

Tristan Gooley: So if we just get into the habit of… You don’t have to spend… You don’t even have to spend 10 minutes each day. You can do this in a few seconds. You just look out in the morning and you go, “Okay, I’m seeing these sorts of clouds. Are they cumulus? Are they stratus? Are they cirrus? What height are they?” And then you look back, maybe your lunch break, you just look again and it’s only 20 seconds. And one thing I actually encourage, it seems sort of counterintuitive or going against the grain of what I do is, I actually encourage people to cheat, by which I mean when you’re new to this stuff, you want the confidence that you’re gonna learn something that works.

Tristan Gooley: What I say to people is cheat, look at the forecast, and when you see a spell, let’s say you’ve had five days of fair weather, and the forecasters are telling you, the meteorologists are telling you, you’re in for a couple of days of bad weather and rain, that’s a really good time to cheat, because they’re basically saying to you, “The signs are coming, have a look for them.” And then what we do is we notice the clouds getting steadily lower, over those five days, it’s blue skies, then we see cirrus, then we see a blanket of cirrus, and then we see some stratus, and what we notice is, it’s getting steadily lower. And then we just start adding these patterns. And the cheating is good at this stage, because what it means is if you do it a few times, you get to the point where you have confidence in the signs and that’s the moment where it gets exciting because you then see the sign and your brain will say to you, “Bad weather is coming.”

Brett McKay: Another sign that I thought was interesting was… You could start using it immediately, if you just look at the clouds, like those cumulus clouds, usually they look like the Super Mario Brothers World clouds, they’re all kind of fluffy even on the bottom, but if at the bottom, the clouds are looking kind of jagged and not as fluffy and clean, that’s a sign that, yeah, you could probably… Good chance you might have rain.

Tristan Gooley: Yeah, absolutely. The flat bottomed neat cartoon style cloud, is a typical sort of settled sign, because what it’s basically saying is, at this altitude, the temperature is at the dew point and the gaseous water vapor is turning to visible liquid, via cloud at this line. And it is logical, it’s not… We shouldn’t expect the atmosphere to have totally different temperatures as you move along the same altitude. If we see a cloud that’s got a flat bottom, we can say, “Okay, things are steady. Things are stable. Things are not kicking off in any way.” If we start to see it’s ruffled, it’s jagged, it’s got bits looking like they’re almost breaking off underneath, we say to ourselves, “Okay, why is that happening?”

Tristan Gooley: Okay, well, one thing we can be pretty confident of is, there’s some unusual temperature changes going on at the bottom of the cloud, and the most common reason is that rain is falling out of the cloud, cooling the air beneath it, and that’s leading to the dew point being reached beneath the cloud, which is why it looks so uneven. You can actually… Again, a really good kind of hack on this is, if you see a cloud in the distance and you’re pretty sure, you can sometimes actually see the rain falling out of it, just notice the bottom of that cloud is not flat. And then another time you see one that’s perfectly flat, and you can be absolutely certain that it’s not raining underneath.

Brett McKay: Alright, so a few signs to look for, just to recap. Look at if the cloud is taller than it is wider, good chance it could be some rain. Another one, if you notice the cloud is getting lower through progression of days, signs bad whether could be coming, and then also that jagged bottom. And you also make this point that you recommend checking clouds after lunch as opposed in the morning. Why is that? 

Tristan Gooley: Yeah, that’s particularly true on what appears to be a fair weather day. If we take that sort of slightly… That situation we’ve all been in, where you look out of the window in the morning and it’s blue skies, and you maybe kind of message your friends or whatever, and you say, “Let’s meet in the afternoon or the early evening,” what is quite important to do is, by lunch time, you wanna be having a really good look at how the clouds are behaving, because the sun rises in the morning and at the moment the sun rises, the ground is cold. It’s had a whole night time of releasing its energy out to space and it’s cold. Cold for the season certainly, but by the middle of the morning, the sun has started to heat the landscape, and certainly by lunch time, there will be these thermals, so there will be these pockets of air rising.

Tristan Gooley: Now, if the atmosphere is stable, not much happens, they try and go up a bit, but they can’t, because there’s a layer of warm air on top of the warm air that’s trying to rise and that stops them. But if this kind of… This daytime warming meets an unstable atmosphere, then it sets off a slight chain reaction, and that’s when we start to get the taller clouds. So you shouldn’t expect to see massively tall cloud at the very, very start of the day. When you’re practiced, and this is what I’m looking for, you’re looking for really quite subtle things then. But when you’re starting out, look from lunch time onwards, because the land has had time to heat up, the thermals have been created, and that’s when you can start to see whether these towering clouds are building up.

Brett McKay: Sp speaking of looking at the clouds or the sky for some signs about what the weather might do in the next day or so, I’m sure everyone’s heard that saying… I think even Jesus said this in the Bible, “Red skies in morning, sailors take warning. Red skies at night, sailor’s delight.” Is there anything to that saying? 

Tristan Gooley: Yes, and I’ve, over the years, had a fun wrestle with lots of weather lore, and that is one of the best. It’s brilliant on lots of levels. The most important is that it works in a weather forecasting sense, and the reason it works is, there’s one half of it that’s more dependable, and that is the “red sky at night, sailor’s delight,” or over here, we sometimes hear “shepherd’s delight,” same deal. What we’re seeing there is… And so many of nature’s signs that are strong and interesting and popular, are the ones that put two very simple things together to give you a lot more than you thought you might get, and that’s what we’ve got going on here. What we’ve got going on here is, “Red sky at night.” Okay, why is it red? Okay, if it’s red sky at night, that’s telling us that we can see a long way to the west. If the weather’s terrible, you never see a red sky. There are too many clouds in the way. It turns red because the other colors are filtered out by the atmosphere, when the sun is having to pass through so much air. But the only thing we need to know now is, if it’s a red sky at sunset, we can see all the way to the sunset. There is not enough clouds or even water vapor or anything to filter out that light.

Tristan Gooley: The other very simple bit is, because of the way the Earth rotates, most of our weather in the northern temperate zones, which is most of North America and most of Europe and lots of other places that use this sort of weather lore, most of our weather comes from the west. So two simple things, visibility is great in the direction the weather is coming from. That is a very positive sign. “Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning,” we’re just flipping that on its head, but what we’re saying is, we can see a long way to the east, but typically, that weather has gone through. So it’s not a guarantee that bad weather is coming, but quite often, we notice a red sky in the morning when the sun is bouncing off clouds, and those clouds can’t be to the east of us, otherwise we wouldn’t be seeing the sun. So again, we put the two pieces together, and it’s basically saying, “The good weather’s in the past, the bad weather’s probably in the future.”

Brett McKay: And this giving you… So this saying is giving us some insights about cold and warm fronts basically. This is bigger scale weather. It’s not gonna tell you what weather’s gonna be like in the next couple of hours, but you can get an idea of, “Well, there’s a good chance we’re gonna have some unstable weather coming in soon.”

Tristan Gooley: Yeah, absolutely. And all of these things grow in strength, and their ability to predict powerfully, is about building a jigsaw. So that’s… “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight,” is a nice big piece, but it’ll never give you the whole picture. You start tuning into some of the other things we’ve been talking about, and to be honest, there are several hundred in the book, and that’s what it’s all about, is I don’t expect somebody to go out there and look for several hundred, but I would expect someone to go, “Ah, I’ve seen that sign. I’m gonna look for two or three others.” And by the time you’ve got three, you’re going, “Okay, I’m building a picture here,” and your probability of success goes from 60% to 90% quite quickly.

Brett McKay: Another component of weather that we experience very viscerally, we feel it, is wind. Anything that the wind can tell us about the weather, and what it might be like in the next couple of hours or days? 

Tristan Gooley: Yeah, I like to think of it, and the way I describe it in the book is as a needle and gauge. So we are all used to the idea that any gauge that we’re monitoring, if it goes from one side to the other, something big has changed, and it’s exactly the same is true of the main wind patterns. So if you just get into the habit of just taking a rough interest on where the wind is coming from. So if you’re in a city, you just take an interest in which direction the clouds are moving, over the tops of the buildings, or even if it’s a bit more open, you can look at things like flags or feel it and things like that. It doesn’t matter how… You’re just getting some loose idea what the weather is. To start with, bring in forecasts if you want to. If it says, “We’ve got a wind from the west,” great. And if you then notice that change significantly, and by that, I mean not sort of 10 or 20 degrees, I’m talking about 90 degrees here. If suddenly the wind is coming from the south, then that is a very, very strong sign that there is going to be a major weather change.

Tristan Gooley: And the reason is that this is at the large scale. This is overlapping with the traditional metrology. We’re stepping into what I call the known world here, as in this is what forecasts are touching on as well, and there’s no reason why we can’t bring that into our toolkit. If you get those major wind direction changes, it’s shorthand really, for the air mass you are in is about to be kicked out of the way by another air mass. So you might be in a cold, dry bit of air, there might be a warm, wet bit of air just trying to barge in, and the wind direction change is one of the strongest, most dependable warnings that that’s gonna happen. You will have heard the expression, “A front is about to go through.” That’s another bit of shorthand for, the air mass you’re in, is about to be kicked out. And whenever that happens, we see big weather changes.

Brett McKay: Well, the other interesting thing about wind is, not only can it tell about weather changes, but going back to your natural navigation, it can also tell you about your environment and what’s going on around you, ’cause the wind changes as it hits different objects. Like you mentioned earlier, at the very beginning, with the tree, a tree is breezier right underneath it because there’s some wind change going on, some air pressure change. Any other places where people might notice that it might be… If they’re 100 feet, maybe there’s a light breeze, they just walk 100 feet and then it just feel like it’s a super strong… Like they’re in a hurricane almost.

Tristan Gooley: Yeah, absolutely. I like to think of all of these signs as characters because I think we only develop a relationship, and it helps memory and it helps us spot these things. We’re human beings, we like relationships. So that’s what I’m doing quite often is, I’m saying, “I introduce this as a sign because it’s gonna tell you something, but as you grow to know it and you spend time with them, they become characters.” And these micro-climate wind characters are fantastic, because…

Tristan Gooley: What you can do today, any day, listen to the forecast, they’ll say, “The wind will be coming from the southwest at 15 miles an hour,” go for a 10-minute walk, I guarantee you, you will not feel that wind, and if you do, it’ll be after feeling about nine other winds, and the reason for that is that, again, the forecasters, they’re really interested in the weather that’s 100 feet over our head. That’s the closest they can get to us. The second the wind touches the ground, all sorts of other characters are created. A nice simple one is a gap wind. So, we’ve all had that experience, where you’re walking down a city street and there’s a gust of wind and then there is no wind, and then there’s a gust of wind and then there’s no wind. Well, the wind is just being squeezed between the building and that is a gap wind. That character is the gap wind, and winds can be squeezed between mountains, I’ve been thrown all over the place on a small boat when it was squeezed between volcanic islands in the Atlantic, but that same physics works all the way down to two trees.

Tristan Gooley: You can be walking along, suddenly feel a small gust and go, “Well, of course, there are two trees there, the wind is… It’s like putting a thumb over the end of a hose. The wind is accelerating between the two trees. But that’s just one of a dozen of these local wind characters, and as you get to know them, it is actually an important part of the forecasting experience, because it’s fun just to notice them and go, “Oh, I know you. Hello, old friend”. That adds a layer to our experience. But in practical, telling what’s going on, it is important, because a sudden cold gust of wind can be a sign of a thunderstorm very near you. But, if you know some of the other characters, you go, “No, no, no, no. That’s not a thunderstorm, the wind I’m feeling there. That’s cold air coming down off the side of a hill. That’s a different thing. That’s a katabatic wind”. So once we know all these little characters, we walk out there and every single day, you can meet a few of them.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I thought some of those energy sections of the book, all of it was interesting, but I thought what’s really interesting is how cities affect weather. And you talk about the wind, the ways… Clearly, in the United States, how cities are designed on a grid, it creates those tunnels, where you can get that… It gets really gusty. Any other ways cities influence the weather? 

Tristan Gooley: Yeah, definitely. I’ve mentioned how they soak up the sun’s radiation really, really well. So there’s an urban heat island effect, and I think we’ve all had some experience of that, if you’ve traveled from a rural area into a big city. Instinctively, it’s not just the hecticness, it is genuinely a few degrees warmer all around the year, but particularly when it’s sunny, and that leads to all sorts of secondary effects. So where… Anywhere that heats up more than the surrounding areas, it’s gonna create thermals. So towns create their own clouds. Sometimes, it’s just a few puffy friendly ones and it’s just fun to notice them, but cities can actually create their own rain showers. They’ll typically be at the downwind end of the town or possibly even just downwind of the whole town or city. The other thing they do is, this thermal they create, it’s invisible to us unless it creates clouds and then we see them sitting on the top, like markers.

Tristan Gooley: But it’s actually quite a solid, in terms of the fluid of air. So when weather is trying to pass over a city and it’s got this column of warm air rising up the top of it, it splits the weather. So, there’ll be a few times, if you’re in a high building in a city where you get the kind of view, where you can see a little weather system. A few clouds approaching the city, and it literally splits and goes around it, like a stream splitting around a rock in the middle of it. But yeah, it’s best to assume every single… Not just a city is different to the country, but every building, it has its own thing. So when a wind hits a building, it creates six different winds. So yeah, whichever scale we look at in a town, there are characters to find there.

Brett McKay: Anything about… Let’s talk about some other things, looking at just plants. Can plants tell us anything about the weather in our area? 

Tristan Gooley: Yeah, absolutely. The plants are an interesting area. It’s quite romantic, and I think, if I’m honest, I love the idea of plants whispering to us and telling us things. But I’m rooted in science, so I’m not just gonna stick with the folklore that says, “Oh, that pretty little pink plant there, when it closes, rain is coming.” I wanna know, “Is that true? And if it’s true, why? What’s going on?” So, what I’ve done over the years, is research what works and what doesn’t and why and can we use it. And what we’ve got is two broad areas here. The first is that flowers, for example, are trying to attract insects, as pollinators, but it’s quite a fragile system. So, a fair few of them… There are some daisies I can see where I’m sitting at the moment, will react dynamically to light levels, because if there’s a sudden drop in light levels, that’s a sign that it’s about to rain.

Tristan Gooley: But this is where I have to be honest. I’m very honest in the book. They are reacting, they don’t have some sort of… They’re not tapped into some amazing kind of secret computer that knows what’s going on. And that, if they are, that’s a conversation for another time. But what I mean is, they are reacting. So they’re actually reacting to things that we can sense, and by the time somebody’s spend even a few hours thinking about these sorts of signs, they can actually pick up stuff even before the flower has done. But that’s not to say it isn’t fun to notice it. It’s all part of the rich tapestry. But there’s another whole area which I don’t think has been tackled before I wrote this book, in any sort of popular science way. Certainly not that I’ve come across, which is the idea that every plant is telling us something about its climate and its micro-climate. And by definition, that is telling us what the future weather conditions are likely to be.

Tristan Gooley: So in practical terms, what I encourage people to do, in the most basic practical sense is, if you’re under a rain shower, have a look at the plants around you, because by definition, a rain shower isn’t happening everywhere, it’s happening on your patch for a reason. Rain showers happen more in certain places than others. Even a couple of miles away, there’ll be a big difference, in terms… We get more rain showers on the windward side of hills, we’ve mentioned cities, that sort of thing. But the plants are picking up on that, and evolution dictates that only certain plants are gonna survive in certain habitats. So that’s what I encourage people to do is, if you notice, you’ll start to notice… If you take an interest in these signs, you’ll start to notice that rain showers are much more likely in certain places. Then you start to spot the plants there, and you go, “Oh, I’m seeing certain of these sort of wildflowers there, but I don’t see them everywhere.” Then the next time you see a patch of those wildflowers, our brain is just perfectly kind of engineered to put two and two together and go, “This is a quite likely place for there to be a rain shower if there’s one coming in.”

Brett McKay: Although one interesting plant sign was, leaves are typically pointer if it rains a lot in that area.

Tristan Gooley: Yes. And that’s a lovely evolutionary sign there, where we see all these fantastic shapes around us and our brain is overloaded with data and information all day, everyday, so there’s a temptation to kinda filter that out and go, “Well, they’re just kind of pretty patterns. They’re kind of… ” But every single shape, every color, everything we sense, has meaning. And in that case, the pointy leaves have just evolved to be very good at channeling rainwater off the leaf. Water is really heavy on the scale of a leaf. More than a few rain drops, that’s the equivalent of us probably carrying kilograms. They don’t wanna be doing it. So an evolutionary design makes the leaf pointier, if it’s having to cope with a lot of rain.

Brett McKay: What about the sayings, I think everyone’s heard about, animals being able to predict the weather. So if a storm’s coming, cows start laying down, or roosters start spinning around in circles. Anything to that, those things? 

Tristan Gooley: Yes, and one of my, sort of, guiding philosophies is, nothing is random, and when it comes to the animals, they… Anyone who’s spent more than a couple of hours outdoors, knows that for every minute you’re outdoors, the more sensitive you have to be to various things. You can get away with being too cold for quarter an hour, dressed inappropriately and everything else, you’ll be absolutely fine. You can’t do that for three days. And yet, a lot of the animals we’re talking about, are doing it for years, certainly months at a time. So they are always adjusting their behavior, to make the micro-climate better for them. So, if they’re too hot, they’ll go on the shade, things like that, we all know.

Tristan Gooley: But there is some untruths. Cows don’t generally lie down before rain. I think what’s happened there, although I certainly haven’t… Either through my own observations or talking to farmers or looking at the science, I can’t find anything solid to back that up. But I think it’s a case of there’s a difference between correlation and causation there. So what’s happening is, we’ve talked about how the clouds grow taller in the afternoon as the thermal set up, showers are more likely in the afternoon, cows are often chewing the cud in the afternoon, they like to lie down when they choose the cud. We get showers and cud chewing at the same time, and they happen to be lying down. That’s the best kind of summary of that.

Tristan Gooley: But on a more sort of fun level, all herd animals behave noticeably differently if there’s bad weather coming in. Basically, if animals feel threatened by anything, we’ll just stick with herd animals for a moment, they will congregate together into a tighter bunch and they will tend to move closer to home, in inverted commas, wherever they feel secure. Where I live here, there are lots of sheep farms around me. If the weather is set fair, they’re spread out, there’s a big gap between each individual sheep and they’re all over the tops of the hills. For hours before bad weather hits, the gaps between the animals get smaller and they’re coming down the hill, closer to the farmstead.

Tristan Gooley: But if we take birds, for example. Birds are even more sensitive. If a sheep or a cow gets caught in a shower, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s not life-threatening. But for the smaller the animal you are, all the way down to butterflies, it can become life-threatening. So we tend to find their behavior as much, much more sensitive. Birds change from song to either silence or alarm calls before bad weather hits. And one of my favorites is… You would have picked up. I love when you can put two simple things together and come up with something a bit more exciting. Birds, you will notice whether it’s on rooftops or trees, birds face into wind generally. It’s good practice. It’s more comfortable for them, their feathers aren’t ruffled, but also, it’s much easier for them to take off into wind. So on average, birds is face into wind when they’re perching. Now, we know that a big change in wind direction is gonna forecast a major change in weather, so a really fun thing is, if you see the birds facing one way in the morning and a different direction in the afternoon, within 24 hours, it’s probably gonna rain.

Brett McKay: There’s a lot, like you said… You’ve talked about… There’s hundreds of signs you talk about in the book. We’ve talked about quite a few. And this science of… This reading the weather, it’s a science, but it’s also, it’s more of an art. You kinda have to start putting things together, layer upon layer. For someone who wants to get started with this today, after listening to this podcast, what are some things that are easy to pick up on quickly, to start deciphering the secret world of weather? 

Tristan Gooley: Yeah, I think you wanna look for the big stuff, so shape of clouds and wind direction, if you’re interested in noticing big change go through, and then pair that with the micro-climate stuff as well. Just take a real interest when you notice a temperature change or a slight sort of gust of wind or something like that and just say to yourself, “Why has that happened?” And don’t be frustrated if you can’t answer it straight away. The answer is there, nothing’s happened, none of this stuff is random. Nature doesn’t really do random. So the act of just sort of asking, “Why have I just felt a gust there?” And then maybe the first two or three times, the answer won’t be obvious, but then you will be like, “Ah, that is a gap wind.”

Tristan Gooley: And then our brain likes that. Our brain really likes it when we solve small puzzles, it gives us… I’m not a brain scientist, but I’m guessing it’s like something like dopamine or something like that, we just get a little reward. So that will nudge you on to to send the next thing. So have a look at the big stuff, the major sort of wind direction and the cloud shapes, and then ask yourself every single time over a five-minute period when you notice the temperature change. Really fun thing is, just notice how, if you’re in direct sunlight, how the temperature changes when you have something over your head.

Tristan Gooley: If you can get yourself under a tree but still in sunlight, so if it’s the middle of the day, you’re likely to be on the south side of the tree and not right up against the trunk, you’ll notice how hot you suddenly feel. And there, you’re putting some pieces together, “Okay, the radiation of the sun is warming me up, but it can’t escape anywhere through convection. That’s why it’s a few degrees warmer here.” On cold days, that means you can sit out. I sat out in -2 a couple of months ago, and in what I call these kind of sun pockets, and you’re perfectly comfortable ’cause you’re just using these little tools and having fun with it.

Brett McKay: Well, Tristan, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work? 

Tristan Gooley: Thanks a lot, Brett. My website naturalnavigator.com has loads of information about the book and my work generally. And I’m on all the usual social media channels as well. I’m on the Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, that sort of thing. Thanks so much for having me. I really enjoyed the chat.

Brett McKay: Yeah, Tristan. It’s always a pleasure. My guest here was Tristan Gooley. He’s the author of the book, The Secret World of Weather. It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, naturalnavigator.com. Also check in our show notes at aom.is/weather, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Brett McKay: Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM Podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years, about pretty much anything you could think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes at the at the AoM Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up. Use code “manliness” at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AoM Podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot, and if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continuous support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AoM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard, into action.

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