The Myth of Storms and Red Skies

Though we know much more about weather now than we did in times past such as how it forms, what drives it, and what the science behind it is, weather prediction is still a long way from being an exact science. Today, comparisons are made between a weather patterns and those that occurred in the past, in order to conclude what kind of weather we can expect. Even as little as a century ago, this wasn’t possible, so man looked to nature to give him clues about what to prepare for.

This information has always been important and often vital for people. Farmers, putting in a field early and not knowing that a major frost was about to happen could lose entire crops, for instance.

For sailors and those making their living from the sea, it was even more important because an unexpected gale could sink ships, killing everyone onboard. Even myths based on what we now know to be largely faulty information, were better than no prediction at all.

The familiar ‘Red sky at morning, sailor take warning, red sky at night, sailor’s delight’ is one of those myths designed for weather prediction. Is there any truth to the myth? The fact is that most myths are based in observable fact. More ocean storms occur if there is a lot of red in the colors of the sunrise, but fewer happen when the sunset is red. This isn’t the whole picture, though.

For one thing, water vapor, ice crystals, or even dust can cause red skies. After the eruption of Krakatoa in the 1800s, sailors around the world reported spectacular sunrises and sunsets, for many months.

However, the morning the air tends to be cooler and denser. A sailor seeing a red sunset, then, could be seeing the approaching moisture that signals a monsoon or gale winds. At night, when the temperature is warmer, the moisture is likely to be more diffuse, so if a particularly red sunset is seen, ice crystals likely cause it. This usually means there is a cold front and the ice is high in the atmosphere, which is a portent of a calm night and probably a nice next day as well.

There are other weather myths with varying degrees of accuracy. For instance, ‘A large number of bees in the late summer signal a severe or early winter.’

The fact is that bees can’t predict the weather at all. Like most animals, their numbers are controlled by the amount of food and the growing conditions. So is this just pure myth? Not necessarily. The optimum conditions for both food and population for bees happen when there are mild temperatures and plenty of moisture. Mild temperatures and moisture often, but not always, signal an early winter or one with a large amount of snow.

How about birds migrating earlier than normal foreshadowing an early winter? This one is more firmly based on fact. Some birds do tend to migrate in advance of heavy weather. However, this really doesn’t give a clue to just how heavy that weather will be.

We can’t really discount the weather myths without having some understanding of why they are or have been believed. On thing that needs to be considered, too, is that almost 80% of all current weather forecasts are inaccurate, using scientific methods. So the question may not really be about the validity of myths about storms and red skies, but rather if we’ve replaced one set of myths for another set.

The red skies saying served sailors when there were no other means of predicting the weather. Current methods aren’t a great deal better at predicting storms. Are myths based on observable facts all that much worse than facts based on science? You can decide. Right now, I must go out and get the animals in. We had a very red sky this morning, and it is late in the year here on the coast. A check of the weather from NOAA shows we have a severe storm moving in, and weather alerts are in effect. Maybe nature really does give us warnings. What is myth, and what isn’t?