February 25, 2008

#01-076: Weather Lore - Part I: Clouds

panoramic view of clouds in blue sky over green landscape
Clouds feature heavily in weather lore.

Note: Before satellites and radar, people relied on traditional wisdom and folklore to predict the weather. In this lesson and Lessons #01-077 and #01-078, we'll try to separate good sayings from bad ones, and see what makes some better than others.

Get Ready: How do you think weather is predicted these days? Is it important to be able to know when storms or other problems are going to happen?

We all know expressions about the weather, such as, "It's raining cats and dogs!" or perhaps, "April showers bring May flowers."

But did you know that there are many expressions that are supposed to predict the weather?

Long ago, people didn't have science and the weatherman to tell them what was coming. So they used a combination of observation, common sense, and folklore.

Sometimes they were right; often they were wrong. In this lesson, let's begin looking at some expressions--some of them very old-fashioned--that (more or less) accurately predicted the weather.

Here's one old expression:

"When clouds look like rocks and towers,
"The earth will be refreshed by showers."

The usual kind of white, fluffy cloud is called a cumulus (kyoo - myoo - luss). When they climb up high, they are called "towering cumulus" (or cumulus castellanus - like a castle of cumulus). The ancients were right: these towering cumulus clouds typically turn into local thunderstorms.

Here's another expression about clouds:

"Mares' tails; storms and gales.
"Mackerel sky; not 24 hours dry."

A mare is a female horse; "mares' tails" are the wispy cirrus clouds that look like a horse's tail. They often float in ahead of a storm. The "mackerel sky" is the altocumulus (high cumulus) or sometimes called cirrocumulus (a cross of cirrus and cumulus) that also indicates the approach of bad weather.

Let's pause for a moment to talk a little about how weather happens.

I live in the tropics--the region either side of the equator. There isn't really much happening on the weather scene; it's just hot here most of the time. Likewise, the far north and south are cold year-round. It's in the temperate zone, 30-60 degrees north or south, where weather is the most changeable.

These expressions, then, are more useful in the "middle latitudes." There, weather tends to move from west to east, and to alternate between high pressure areas, which give us warmer, sunny days, and low pressure areas, which bring storms.

So when a person in England a century ago saw "rocks and towers" in the sky, a storm was brewing locally. But "mares' tails" and "mackerel skies" indicated that a low-pressure system was coming from the west.

Another version of the saying, by the way, was: "Mackerel sky and mares' tails make lofty ships carry low sails." As you can imagine, weather information was very important to sailors, and the captain of a tall ship would want to bring his sails down if a storm was coming.

We will continue talking about weather lore in Lesson #01-077 and Lesson #01-078.


Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. accurately
  2. ancients
  3. equator
  4. fluffy
  5. gales
  6. latitudes
  7. lore
  8. mackerel
  9. predict
  10. wispy

  1. a kind of fish; some clouds might look like its scales
  2. a body of knowledge on a particular subject
  3. tell the future; say what's going to happen
  4. people who lived long ago
  5. zero degrees latitude, the division between the earth's north and south halves
  6. light or airy, like cotton
  7. correctly
  8. regions north or south of the equator
  9. made of long thin streaks
  10. storms

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for February 25, 2008

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. g; 2. d; 3. e; 4. f; 5. j; 6. h; 7. b; 8. a; 9. c; 10. i