With a little guidance, you too can predict the weather by studying the clouds
Living in the Gulf Coast area, we are intimately connected to the weather. The clouds here are spectacular, putting on a show each evening at sunset as they boil up in fantastic shapes and reflect the multiple colors of the setting sun. But can you forecast the weather from watching the sky? Veteran sailors, Shakespeare and even the bible say yes.
“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight, red sky at morning, sailor take warning” is the best- known weather saying that relates to the sky. That maxim goes back to the time of Christ. In the Bible ( Matthew 16: 2- 3), Jesus said, “When in evening, ye say, it will be fair weather: For the sky is red. And in the morning, it will be foul weather today; for the sky is red and lowering.” Shakespeare repeated the same adage in his play
Venus and Adonis. From the beginning of written history, we have been looking to the sky to try to predict the weather.
Ask anyone who makes their living on the water about the saying and you might be surprised. Wes Skinner of Fish Skinner’s Charters out of Fort Myers has been on the Gulf waters since he was a child. He’s had his own charter business for the past seven years. “In my experience, it seems to hold true,” says Skinner, who agrees with the rhyme, “red sky at night, sailor’s delight, red sky in morning, sailor take warning.”
Science backs him up. “Red sky in the morning . . .” refers to the rising sun reflecting off of western clouds that are bringing rain. The “red sky at night . . . ” refers to the setting sun being visible and reflecting off of eastern clouds that have already passed. “When clouds appear like towers, the earth is refreshed by frequent showers” and “If clouds are taller than they are wider, watch out for thunderstorms” are two other old weather warnings. Skinner says, “When I see clouds piling up in the afternoon, getting higher and higher, I know we are going to have a rainstorm.” Weathermen explain the towering castles-in- the- sky formations as the result of strong updrafts of moist air condensing into clouds. If the updrafts are sustained long enough, the clouds will get too full and rain will fall. Rain- free clouds look like wide, billowy cotton with no “towers.”
There is another old saw that refers to the “halo” effect around the moon at night. “Ring around the moon, rain real soon” is frequently true as light rain and fog seem to follow this occurrence. Scientists say the halo that appears around the moon is actually a thin layer of cirrus clouds made of ice crystals reflecting the moon’s light. These thin cirrus clouds are the first to move in ahead of an approaching storm system. It does not always rain, but the halo increases that possibility and the more vivid the halo, the higher the chance of rain.
While these sayings turn out to have basis in fact, local sea captains have a few observations of their own about the
CAN YOU FORECAST THE WEATHER FROM WATCHING THE SKY? VETERAN SAILORS, SHAKESPEARE AND EVEN THE BIBLE SAY YES.
sky and weather predictions. Capt. Noah Stewart grew up on Sanibel and operates a charter- boat service out of Fort Myers. He uses a smartphone to get the most current information, but he adds: “Weather forecasts can be inaccurate. To schedule my trips I must constantly be calculating the weather. In the winter when you see a great black bank of clouds that comes rolling in like a wall, that is a cold front coming through. It sucks the warm air in and that means bad weather.” Stewart’s observations are backed by weathermen who agree that cold fronts tend to appear like “a seething black wall of very low clouds.”
Scott McPhee of Sanibel, who spent five years sailing his Cal- Ketch 2- 46 around the world, says the clouds are a help in forecasting weather. “If you see light, wispy cirrocumulus moving very fast and all over the sky this could mean a weather front, possibly a tropical depression, will be coming in 12 to 18 hours. Your barometer will help you determine what’s happening,” says McPhee. Eric Sloane’s famous
Weather Book agrees: “Hurricanes are often preceded by a sky filled with cirrus clouds. By watching the movement and the direction in which the streaks are pointed, you can get a sense of which direction the weather front is moving.”
So, wherever you are going, whatever you are doing, keep an eye to the sky. Weather forecasts are only so reliable, and the Florida Gulf sky has a mind of its own.
A red sky with mixed clouds at sunset means fair weather for Sanibel beachgoers.
From left: Low- lying stratus clouds, with cirrus and cumulus in the background, hover over the Gulf of Mexico; a cold front moving in over the Sanibel Causeway.