Ways our Ancestors Predicted the Weather

Getting a weather forecast today is as simple as turning on the radio or TV, or logging on to the Internet.  In addition to local and network stations, The Weather Channel is available on cable and its own Web site, and with a few keystrokes one can get current weather or forecasts for any area in the world.  There is even a download that allows you to put a Weather Channel icon on your computer desktop to stay current on weather conditions in any area you select.

With the current advances in meteorological science, except for events like tornadoes or earthquakes, it’s possible to get reasonably accurate forecasts of the weather at any time of day or night.  Those who have grown up with this technology might think that somehow people today have a better shot at weather forecasting than in times past – and, they would be wrong.  People decades and centuries ago predicted the weather, and almost as accurately as is possible today, and all without modern scientific weather forecasting methods and devices such as radar and computers.

Just how, you might ask, did our ancestors accurately predict weather without the modern devices and methods we have?  Long before computers or radars, people forecast weather by being in touch with nature and their environment, and being observant; skills that modern populations seem to lost.  During the 2004 Southeast Asia Tsunami, for instance, that devastated much of the Indonesian and Thai coastline, and killed hundreds of thousands, indigenous tribes living on some of the coasts and outlying islands, even though their villages were wiped out, suffered no casualties.

Watching the Behavior of Animals

Animals are well tuned to their environment as a survival trait.  Birds suddenly flying from one location to another can be an indication of atmospheric changes that signal a turbulent storm.  The old story of the groundhog seeing his shadow being a signal of six more weeks of cold weather probably has some validity.  The absence of cloud cover might not be the indicator, but temperature or air pressure that the animal senses causing it to return to its burrow to await warmer weather.  People living on farms have all noted the nervous behavior of livestock just before thunderstorms, which can also be precursors to tornadoes in some regions.  In some Asian countries, such as Japan and China, people use the actions of animals to predict earthquakes, perhaps because the animals, with their keener senses, feel the beginning of the tectonic plate shifts before they’re recorded by seismographs. 

Look to the Sky

“Red Sky at Morning, Sailor take Warning; Red Sky at Night, Sailor’s Delight,” is an old saying that experienced sailors swear by.  There’s a lot of truth in this saying insofar as the red sky at morning is concerned; clouds in the morning that are full of moisture are red in the morning as they approach from the west, and to a sailor this could be a sign of an approaching storm, or at least heavy rain at sea.  The color and shape of clouds was also useful in forecasting weather.  Thick, dark clouds are full of moisture, and will probably bring rain.  Fluffy cumulus clouds that are close to ground level were a good predictor of fair weather.

My Joints Ache, It’s Going to Rain

Many people laugh at the images on old movies of elderly people predicting the weather based on body pains, but there is also some validity to this.  Because of the changes in atmospheric pressure, approaching storms can heighten sensitivity to pain or aggravate arthritis of the joints.  Low atmospheric pressure can cause discomfort to people who suffer from migraines.  Electrical charges in the air, signaling thunder storms, can cause tingling in the extremities or the short hairs on your body to stand up.

While severe weather causes a lot of damage today, in the past, even moderate changes in the weather could seriously disrupt the economic and social life of a community.  It was, therefore, essential that people be able to forecast the weather.  Knowing, for instance, that winter would last longer than usual would determine a farmer’s planting schedule.  Failure to accurately predict could mean crop failure and economic disaster.  Sailors and others who worked outside also had to be able to forecast weather conditions in order to survive.  The foregoing are just some of the more common methods our ancestors used to predict the weather, and they still work today.