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Weather Lore That’s A Bit Fishy

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Weather Lore That’s A Bit Fishy

Weather lore is one of our favorite subjects here at Farmers’ Almanac. Each fall, we share the signs of a hard winter, and it is always a popular topic with our readers.

There are many sayings passed down from our ancestors who relied on nature to forecast what was to come. While it’s not how we forecast weather today, many of the sayings often times ring true.

If you enjoy weather lore, you may be familiar with a certain fish that makes an appearance in various old sayings — the mackerel.

Mackerel scales and mare’s tails
Make lofty ships carry low sails. 

While it’s a lovely rhyme, but what does it mean?

Mares’ tails describe thin and wispy cirrus clouds, which are indicative of strong high-level winds. The mackerel scales refer to cirrocumulus or altocumulus clouds, which are middle-level, heap-like clouds that often appear in rows, like sand ripples in a tidal pool, or more accurately, like scales on a mackerel– a fish.

These types of clouds are influenced by shifting wind directions and high speeds, typical of an advancing low pressure system.

Mariners knew that the combination of “mare’s tail” cirrus clouds above “mackerel scales” altocumulus clouds meant deteriorating weather conditions — high winds and precipitation was coming, so the sails should be lowered to keep them protected.

The scaly fish makes an appearance in another old weather lore saying:

Mackerel sky,
mackerel sky,
Never long wet,
never long dry.

What is a mackerel sky? It’s a name given to a sky covered with those same puffy cirrocumulus and altocumulus clouds arranged in a pattern of waves, with blue sky peeking through, so that it resembles the scales on the back of a mackerel.

If mariners spotted altocumulus clouds and air pressure began to fall, they could expect rain. But it would mean rain only for a short period, because as the warm front moves quickly along, so will the precipitation.

Today, we use weather apps on our smartphones and rely on our local meteorologists (and our Farmers’ Almanacs, of course) to get weather predictions. Even sailors use advanced technology in the form of weather buoys in the oceans to help guide them. But while these saying are not in popular circulation anymore, we can see they still hold water.

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2 comments

1 Allison { 01.14.17 at 6:09 am }

I so enjoy your articles like this!!! Thank you for sharing this history of creative human adaptation, evolution and navigation through symbols and stories… The connection here is poetic and undeniable, beautifully developed by closely experiencing and connecting with nature as it is presented to us… What a beautiful reminder to awareness and tuning in to our surroundings.

2 Terry { 01.11.17 at 6:21 am }

Well, FA Staff, you’ve done it again! Thank you. Once again you’ve so clearly illustrated how practical, reliable and nature-backed many of our forefathers’/mothers’ quaint old sayings actually were; whole generations of us who learned to depend on such wisdom have more safely and effectively pursued livelihoods on land and at sea, providing the means to support our families and loved ones – often making the difference in whether or not we got to grow old enough to see our children raised.
I trapped and fished on the Labrador Coast as a young man raising a family. Some of your readers may be familiar with another “old sayin'” I learned to rely on. Each winter morning was met with some time trying to determine what sort of weather was in store and preparing accordingly. If it began to snow, it was said that if the falling snow flakes were big and heavy then there was merely a short-lived flurry or squall on the way, not amounting to much to worry about. However, with smaller flakes falling one could expect a significant amount of snow to accumulate before day’s end.
Again, thank you and keep up the fine work you do.

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