The Myth of Storms and Red Skies

Sky red in the morning, is a sailor’s sure warning; Sky red at night, is the sailor’s delight. (1831 Weather Lore)

When I was little and the sun went down at night I would sometimes see a reddish tinge to the sky. My mother used to tell me that it meant we were going to have lovely weather the next day, and as most myths are learnt from “our mothers’ knee”, in my childish heart, I fully believed what I had been told.

Imagine my surprise to find out that the ancient mariners of our past did in fact know a thing or two about their environment, and that a reliable prediction can indeed be made from observing the colour of the sky in the morning and in the early evening.

In England, the saying is slightly different: Red sky at night shepherd’s delight, Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning/shepherds take warning.

Another nautical proverb:

Evening red and morning gray,

Sends the traveller upon his way,

Evening gray and morning red,

Bring down a rain upon his head.

The earliest reference to predicting storms comes from the bible when Jesus is seen to retort to the affluent Pharisees and Sadducees that they know how to interpret the appearance of the sky:

“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.”

He implies that the knowledge is not only elitist, but accurate, (compared to what their true beliefs really hold). (Matthew 16:2-3)New Testament and Psalms. The Gideons International)

This modern version comes from the original text taken from Matthew XVI in the Wyclif Bible, from as early as 1395.

A German folklore text gives us:

Morning red brings dread,

evening red brings bread.

And French:

Red sky at night

Hope in sight;

Red sky in the morning

Rain is coming.

And an Octiturn proverb:

Red sky at night

Is the master’s delight,

Red sky in the morning

Rain is coming.

These various proverbs from around the world uphold what science has explained to us as fact. This is a fairly accurate prediction of weather in the mid latitudes in the Northern hemisphere, where we find the storm systems generally follow the jet streams from north to west.

A red sky in the morning shows us a sun that is rising in the east and shining upon rain or storm clouds approaching from the west.

The colour that we see is the result of sunlight being split into its spectrum of colours as it moves through the atmosphere and is diverted into clear color depending on the time of the day.

At dusk and dawn, all that is left of the color spectrum by the time it reaches the edge of our atmosphere is the red part, so is it reflected back off the clouds (or the rainwater) much more obviously, than during other parts of the day (blue is more visible during the day, and gives us the color of our sky).

If there is cloud in the morning we can look west and see red light reflecting back from the rainwater in the cloud, and as the clouds are actually approaching us, we know that there is an increased chance of rain.

So in conclusion, when we wake up to the morning light and see a glorious red sky and we confidently tell our children that we know that a storm is approaching, we are passing on age old wisdom that has been passed down from generation to generation as a substantiated myth, that we now know for sure, to trust as simple fact.

Red skies. Accessed 09/11/2008

Red Sky at Night, Sailors’ Delight? Accessed 06/11/2008

Mama Lisa’s World Accessed 05/11/2008