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Red Skies at Night

by Saundra McBrearty, Outreach and Volunteer Specialist

Did you check the weather today? People have attempted to predict weather throughout time. Writings from India dating back to 3,000 BC discuss cloud formation, rain, and the seasonal cycles caused by the movement of earth around the sun. Gabriel Fahrenheit created a mercury-type thermometer in 1724. Today, with all our supercomputers and technological advances, we still get surprised by weather events.

Some of our weather wisdom has been passed down through generations in the form of proverbs.  Let’s look at a few of these proverbs.

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

The daytime sky appears blue because dust and particles in the atmosphere mostly scatter the blue portion of sunlight. When the Sun is low on the horizon, however, the sunlight passes through more air than when it’s higher in the sky. This means that by the time the light reaches us, most of the blue light has been scattered away from our line of sight – leaving the oranges and reds.

A particularly red sky results from high atmospheric pressure, where particles are more highly concentrated and more blue light is scattered. A red sunset therefore usually means that there’s an area of high pressure (which is associated with clear skies) approaching from the west.

On the other hand, you observe a red sunrise, it suggests that a high-pressure area has already passed overhead and is moving away. Lower pressure air will soon take its place, bringing rain or even storms – hence the phrase’s companion, “red sky at morning, sailor’s warning”.

 “A ring around the sun or moon, means that rain will come real soon.”

A ring around the sun or moon is caused by light reflected or emitted from those bodies and passing through ice crystals in the upper atmosphere. These ice crystals have either been blown over the tops of high approaching cloud storm clouds or cirrus clouds and can indicate low pressure in the atmosphere. Prepare for precipitation.

“If the spiders are many and spinning their webs, the spell will soon be very dry.”

Spiders are sensitive to moisture in the air and so are their webs. When spiders sense dry air, a sign of good weather, they’ll come out and spin webs freely, knowing they have a few days of happy hunting ahead. When humidity in the air is high, spiders will stay in their hiding places.

“If the goose honks high, fair weather. If the goose honks low, foul weather.”

This proverb refers to the flight altitude rather than the pitch of a goose honk. If the goose “honks high”, or is flying at high altitude, it indicates high barometric pressure and good weather ahead. If a goose flies low in the sky, barometric pressure is low indicating cold weather is coming. Geese are adept at flying with optimum air density, so if geese are flying in V formation high in the sky, be ready to enjoy nice weather.

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