Weather Folklore: Fact or Fiction

Those popular old weather sayings could be clouding the truth about the forecast.

  • red sky indicates high pressure systems
    In mid-latitudes, a red sky in the evening indicates high-pressure systems and fair weather moving in.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/wajan
  • mother and daughter walking through leaves and wind, waiting on a storm
    The soft-stemmed leaves of deciduous trees are easily flipped by strong winds, indicating a storm.
    Photo by Getty Images/Georgijevic
  • groundhog
    Whether or not a groundhog sees his shadow has no bearing on future weather conditions.
    Photo by Getty Images/txking
  • birds flying low through low pressure system
    Birds fly lower in air with little density, which is caused by low pressure and moisture—both precursors of a storm.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/olexandra
  • Woolly bear caterpillar
    Contrary to lore, the coloration of a woolly bear caterpillar has to do with the weather of the recent past, not the future.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Edwin
  • Cirrostratus clouds
    Cirrostratus clouds reflect the light from the moon, making a halo visible in the sky and indicating precipitation is on its way.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/aheflin

  • red sky indicates high pressure systems
  • mother and daughter walking through leaves and wind, waiting on a storm
  • groundhog
  • birds flying low through low pressure system
  • Woolly bear caterpillar
  • Cirrostratus clouds

Long before meteorologists existed, people forecasted the weather based on observations of daily conditions and the subsequent weather. Many of these forecasting methods became ingrained in our culture as “weather lore.” Today, we can examine these sayings and explain why they work — or don't work — based on scientific study.

A few caveats: Just because a weather saying has a scientific basis doesn't mean it's accurate. Forecasts based on lore might prove correct only by chance or geography. For instance, if you say it's going to be a cold winter, there's a 50-50 chance you'll be right!

“Red sky at night, sailor's delight. Red sky at morning, sailor's warning.”

This famous saying originates from the days of sailing and shepherding. A “red sky at night” would be to the west — a clearly visible sunset. This red sky might indicate dry air and clear skies. Such conditions typically accompany high pressure, and — with weather systems in mid latitudes tending to move from west to east — a continuation of fair weather. A “red sky at morning,” however, could imply that a protective high was moving away, allowing deteriorating weather to move in. There is some truth to this piece of lore, but it only works where weather moves from west to east.

“If the groundhog sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter.”

Probably the most famous weather lore in the United States centers around Groundhog Day, which always falls on February 2. Legend has it that if Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow (in other words, if it's sunny), winter cold will continue into March; if he doesn't (it's cloudy), there will be an early spring. Our government has extensively studied this possibility. (To view their latest results, visit The National Centers for Environmental Information. My meteorologist wife maintains this page, by the way.) The conclusion is that you'd get just as accurate a long-range forecast from Bill Murray, star of the movie Groundhog Day.

“When leaves show their undersides, be very sure rain betides.”

Deciduous trees have leaves that curl or turn upward under conditions that precede a storm. When humidity is high, their soft stems grow limp, allowing strong winds to flip them easily. While this only works with deciduous trees, such as oak or poplar, it's generally accurate.

“Clear moon, frost soon.”

Clear skies at night allow maximum radiational cooling, meaning heat absorbed during the day escapes from the Earth's surface. With no clouds to trap the heat, this cooling is more rapid under skies so cloudless that the moon is clearly visible. During the spring or fall when temperatures drop at night, this can mean frost the next morning.

10/19/2018 10:29:55 AM

Love this newsletter

10/18/2018 7:16:19 PM

Enjoyed the article. Just ordered a weather station to monitor local weather. FK Marion NC

10/8/2018 11:22:58 AM

I have heard that when there are a lot of dead skunks on the road, it will be a bad winter.

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