Red Sky at Night


We’ve probably all heard the saying…

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight
Red sky in morning, sailor’s take warning

But what the heck does it mean? And by that, I’m asking what the difference is between a red sky in the evening or the morning that causes a sailor to sleep easily or prepare for a hideous day.

There are two places where the story seems to begin… where the weather takes place and where people live. And by that, we are looking at two things.

First, use the equator and begin spanning north and south. The majority of the world’s population lives in a band essentially based on the equator. That’s not saying most people live on the equator. Instead, think of the north and south poles. Fewer people are calling those inhospitable locations home.

Second, go figure, those same bands of areas turn out to be where changing weather patterns exist. North pole… bitterly cold… every day. The Carolinas… New England… Europe… we can consider them mostly rainy, or find locations that are tropical. Essentially though, the forecast for Wednesday does not necessarily follow for every Wednesday. Snow on Monday does not always mean snow on Friday. (Unless of course you live in San Diego… slightly cloudy and 82… every day.)

Effectively though, we can see that there are some things common to where people live, and those places normally involve a variety of changing weather patterns. Yes, sure, winter and spring and summer and fall are different in Sydney, Australia, than they are in Boston, Massachusetts, United States. And they are different far beyond simply being on a different cycle caused by the tilt and rotation of Earth. But if you live in Sydney, there is an annual cycle. Same in Boston.

Next we need to get into clichés a bit.

The thing that makes a cliché matter is a bit of truth. A bird in the hand is better than no bird at all, hence a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush. It’s also just about certainly better than three, four, five or more in the bush.

That explanation of clichés becomes important, because as we explore the Red Sky saying, we need to venture into very early and rudimentary meteorology. There was no Doppler 57,000 in the year 1829. Hard to believe, but there was no Ghiorse Factor back then either. (Little inside joke there. Legendary Rhode Island weatherman, John Ghiorse. Back to our story…) So even if our weather-related sayings were going to have an opportunity to be accurate, they also tended to be a bit simplistic.

The red sky poem doesn’t just exist for sailors. It has been used in other areas, one being shepherds.

Back when the Bible was being written, specifically in the chapter of Matthew, there is reference to red skies. Shakespeare mentions sailors and shepherds in Venus and Adonis while discussing wind direction.

And, as you might guess if you think about it, there truly is a long, scientific background involved. It’s the way the sun hits the clouds, and on what angle, and the presence of moisture. In the evening, the sun setting in the west and creating red would involve clearer, dry skies moving from west to east, and look at that… better weather for the next day. Red skies in the morning would be the sun rising and hitting more moisture in the air, indicating the potential for storms.

Now, obviously, we know that these sayings don’t always hold true, and that Sydney may need to compensate a bit on the saying because of weather patterns and jet streams and ocean currents and on and on. But that’s in part because we have Doppler 63,000 working for us.

I suppose we can arrive at the conclusion that as long as people need to travel or plant crops or do anything outside, there was a need to be able to predict the weather. And, so what if there was no Doppler 84,500 two thousand years ago.

Dogs do amazing things. They can pick up on your slightest habits or patterns. Travis, our chocolate lab, used to head straight for the cabinet with the treats when he came in from outside. In fact, a few times I even caught him faking that he peed, turning and running back into the house and right over to that cabinet. He understood the game. If I pee, I get a snack. When Bob goes to this cabinet, I get a snack. He didn’t have a fancy poem for it… that I know of… but he understood the pattern.

With or without satellites and fancy tracking systems and weather stations, there has basically always been a need to be able to predict the weather for one reason or another. And, while it may seem silly to us as we look back on them, little sayings and observations helped. And, frankly, were stunning in their accuracy. Take the seagull.

One research and idea concerning the seagull is that if you see one on the ground, that’s bad news for the weather. And, duh, of course it is. A seagull isn’t going to rest on the rough and choppy water caused by an incredibly windy day and rough seas. A seagull isn’t going to be happy soaring and gliding over the water, looking for food or threats down below, on a windy day.

When I was a kid we used to notice the cows. A cow lying down meant rain.

If you search deeply enough you can find all sorts of ways of tracking the weather, traced to the appearance of the moon, the color of the leaves, and just about any changing event, especially the cyclical ones.

Ever had trouble opening a door or window? That darn humidity, right?

Oh, those aching knees and backs. (Storm’s coming!)

You can’t take these things as perfectly true. For instance – The calm before a storm? Many people will tell you about the calm after the storm being more likely. A hurricane comes traipsing through, leaving behind dryer air and warm weather. But calm before it? Not always. Unless you’re willing to go twenty-four, forty-eight, seventy-two or more hours in advance of the storm. In fact, head down to the beach and watch the surf ahead of a hurricane. It’s hardly calm.

And what about the eye of the hurricane. That pause in between the swirling winds. Again, perhaps a calm, but misleading. And yet… in ancient times, with no ways of telling this was a short break in the action, perhaps there’s some truth to it.

However, if you look it up, you’ll find that there aren’t that many weather related comments on a calm before a storm.

And so we end where we began. There’s usually a bit of truth in every cliché, even if the Doppler 92,000 doesn’t agree.

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight
Red sky in morning, sailor’s take warning


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