Most people today live blissfully in a totally climate-controlled existence. We love to chat sociably about the weather with friends and strangers, but alas; we usually have a fairly limited understanding of these patterns, at least in comparison to our ancestors. Thanks to the ubiquitous (and rather welcome, actually) technologically-controlled comfort in our lives, we’ve almost completely lost the hard-earned tribal weather wisdom that had previously been passed from oldsters to youngsters for millennia.
I’m going to assume that most of the “Grow Your Own” gang has increasingly embraced the necessity of getting outside our comfort zones; getting ourselves outdoors, and building for ourselves a more natural, healthy, self-sufficient, enjoyable and sustainable lifestyle. That lifestyle will inevitably bring some very pleasant and some decidedly unpleasant exposure to the elements.
So where might we find some of this great old weather wisdom? For most of history, farmers, shepherds and sailors have depended on their ability to ‘read’ the weather. In this column we’ll be deconstructing the weather proverbs and poetic sayings that those folks have developed to help learn and recognize the classic recurrent patterns of nature.
The first ancient expression we’re going to investigate is “Red sky in morning, sailor take warning, red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” To understand this one, we need to establish 4 things:
1) This adage tends to work best in the mid-latitudes, from about 30 degrees north of the equator, to about 60 degrees north. That happens to be where most of the people live in the US and in Europe, etc., and where most of the ships used to ply the Atlantic waters between the various countries and colonies.
2) Most of the weather systems in these regions tend to move from west to east. We’ll talk lots more about why this is so in future columns. As a very, very approximate rule of thumb; we’ll call this speed about 15 mph.
3) In a nutshell, when the sun is lower in the sky, a clean atmosphere will give you a blue sky, and a dirty atmosphere will tend to be reddish. The red color is an optical effect that comes from sunlight being scattered and refracted (bent) by particulate matter suspended in the air. For now, just memorize you’ll usually see such “dirty” air in a High pressure area. That dirty air can be illustrated by the smog over Los Angeles, or the sea salt over the Atlantic.
4) Weather is generally cloudy, rainy, stormy, windy, etc. in Low pressure areas (bad for sailors), and generally dry and clear in High pressure areas (good for sailors). Here’s a good website to keep handy as we talk about the big picture weather map:
Thus the highs and lows spin like dance partners, from left to right across the continental dance floor if you will. That’s actually not a bad metaphor, as Lows do indeed spin counter-clockwise, and Highs spin clockwise. We’ll explore why that is in later columns.
Now, having introduced all the players, let’s say you’re a sailing captain in the middle of the Altantic 300 years ago. (Or perhaps a tomato gardener in Des Moines today). If you see a red sky in the morning (of course you are looking east) it means that the sun’s rays have been refracted to red by lots of dust and salt particulates in your current high pressure air. This often means that the next weather you can anticipate is a Low pressure area coming at you (“sailor take warning”) from your west. If you see the barometer falling (the pressure is lowering) that will be the confirmation that a low is indeed coming and you might want to rig for bad weather.
If you’re that same sailor or gardener, and you see a blood-red sunset, it likely means that you are looking west into a high pressure area that’s probably going to bring you pleasant, stable, non-stormy (“sailor’s delight”) weather for your evening.
This is Capt’n Dave signing off till next week. I welcome comments, criticism, suggestions and questions of all sorts. If you’ve heard one of those old timey phrases you would like explained, please put that in the comments box and I’ll get to it.
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