I thought my grandmother was psychic. One day in the mid ’90s, in Richmond, Va., where I grew up, the temperature had climbed above 100 degrees as it often did during the height of summer. Everything seemed to be melting under the oppressive heat that day. My grandmother looked down and began to vigorously massage her knees, like a soothsayer rubs a crystal ball. Staring at me, she said, “It’s gon’ storm.”
She was right.
I later learned that my grandmother was not psychic. She was instead using the pain in her joints to predict rain, a phenomenon that has been widely studied, with inconclusive results. Before humans became reliant on technology, we used our senses — including observing animal behavior and shapes of clouds — to help predict the weather.
Over time, those observations were stitched together, forming a history, said Mark Wysocki, a state climatologist for New York and professor of meteorology at Cornell University. “People started to either pass these on verbally or, as civilization started to evolve more, people would start writing these things down,” he said.
Sandi Duncan, the managing editor of Farmers’ Almanac, where weather lore is still regularly discussed, likened passing down weather lore over time to a game of telephone, adding that some of it may have been changed in order to rhyme.
Human survival, particularly that of sailors and fishermen, has historically depended in large part on the weather. One of the most recognizable anecdotes, “Mackerel clouds in the sky, expect more wet than dry,” can be traced back at least a couple hundred of years to mariners.
“At sea, there was no communication back then, there’s no cellphone,” Mr. Wysocki said. “So the sailors had to rely upon the sky conditions, the wind direction, the waves.” Ship captains would write down their observations in logs, which would be shared.
The science behind the phrase holds up. Clouds that resemble the scales on a mackerel are called altocumulus clouds and form in advance of an approaching, large storm, Mr. Wysocki said. “If you would see something like this coming, then that’s kind of a warning sign that we have an unstable atmosphere,” he said.
Weather lore related to sky color and cloud shapes can be explained by science, Mr. Wysocki said. “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning,” is generally true. When a red sky is observed at sunset, the sun’s light is traveling through a high concentration of dust particles, typically a sign of high pressure and stable air arriving from the west, according to the Library of Congress. When a sunrise is red in color, it means that good weather has already passed, signaling a potential storm could be moving in.
Anecdotes based on birds, insects and other kinds of animals are often less scientific and can be misleading.
In the Midwest and Northeast, the woolly bear caterpillar is sometimes used to predict the severity of an upcoming winter. According to weather lore, the longer the caterpillar’s black bands, the harsher the winter will be; the opposite is predicted if the middle, brown band is wider. The National Weather Service debunked this myth. The colors on a woolly bear caterpillar are directly related to how long it has been feeding, its age and species. Similarly, efforts to use groundhogs in early February to predict six more weeks of winter or an early spring have been debunked.
“Squirrels gathering nuts in a flurry will cause snow to gather in a hurry” is another popular weather proverb, but Mr. Wyscoki said it is false: Conditions may simply have been optimal for oak trees to produce more acorns, giving the appearance that squirrels are gathering more. “People see it once, and they don’t go back to check 20, 40 times,” he said of the seemingly related phenomena. “You have to have multiple experiments, multiple observations in order to get this thing to work out.”
Farmers also once relied upon these sayings, some of which were printed in almanacs. “When we started the Farmers’ Almanac in 1818, we offered weather forecasts but they were much more general than they are now,” Ms. Duncan said.
The change from winter to spring regularly brings severe weather to large portions of the United States. In early March, a string of powerful storms killed at least 12 across Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee.
“I think we’re in for a fairly active severe weather season,” said John Sirlin, a storm chaser for more than 30 years.
Mr. Sirlin, 47, lives in Arizona and prefers chasing storms in the Northern High Plains. He is familiar with weather lore and regularly uses basic observations, along with technology, to predict weather behavior.
“There’s so many different things you can learn about the weather just by using your senses,” he said, including paying attention to wind direction and noticing the changing shapes of clouds, which can reveal the stability of the atmosphere.
But that information must be read correctly to assess potential dangers like hail and tornadoes, or, in the case of my grandmother and her aching joints, thunderstorms.
“What is really cool about the atmosphere is that it gives you clues and signals about all of these different things if you learn to pick up on them and interpret them correctly,” he said.
This spring, he and storm chasers fanned out across the United States in anticipation of severe weather. Mr. Sirlin has “a lifelong passion and obsession with weather” and notes that he’s always learning.
“Thirty-something years in, every time I go out, I’m always learning something new and picking up on something different.”