What strange superstitions can tell us about the weather

Gaby Leslie

This week saw groundhog Punxsutawney Phil taking centre stage among weather watchers in North America as he stirred from hibernation and saw his shadow - leaving superstitious Americans convinced winter will last another six weeks.

However, the Pennsylvanian groundhog is far from the only celebrated forecaster without a degree in meteorology. Here's a round-up of some other well-known traditional weather tales.

Animal behaviour

Animals are believed to be able to predict the weather through some innate understanding of their surroundings. During the Boxing Day tsunami, it was said that animals could be seen running for higher ground well before the giant waves struck and caused havoc around the Indian Ocean.

There are a number of animals that are said to react to weather changes within a few seconds. See some of them below.

  • When cats clean behind their ears it’s said to be a sign of rain to come.
  • Cows lying down means wet weather to come.
  • Fat rabbits in October and November is a sign of a long and cold winter to come.
  • Birds flying low to the ground means a storm is coming.

Old sayings

Closer to home, there are a number sayings which have evolved around the theme.

“Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight”

“Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning”

According to meteorologists, dry particles in the air cause this slight redness in the sky. If this redness is in the west in the evening then dry weather is coming your way but if that same red sky is in the east in the morning, then this can be a sign of wet weather to come.

“Ring around the moon, it’s meant to rain soon”

A halo around the moon is caused by the refraction of light through ice crystals at high altitudes and is a good indicator of moisture or precipitation at lower levels - meaning wet conditions lie ahead.

“Rainbow in the morning: Take this as a warning”

The saying means stormy weather to come. A rainbow in the west apparently indicates moisture in the air as most storms move from west to east.

                                                                Check your local weather forecast

Aching knees or toes means rain

It’s not just animals that are said to predict the weather. Ever felt an ache before a rainstorm? Internet medical forums are filled with people complaining that their joints start trembling before it rains.

But are these claims fact or fiction? Paul Knight, a climatologist and an instructor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, said: "There have been no credible studies done to show that there's any relationship at all.

“While a person's joints may be sensitive to a drop in barometric pressure or increased humidity, a direct cause-and-effect relationship has never been proven.”

St Swithin’s Day

Looking at the weather now for indications for the weeks ahead is also woven into our folklore.

Like the groundhog in the US, we have our own long-term predictor of the weather in the UK - St Swithin's Day. In the UK, weather-obsessed Brits observe the conditions on St Swithin’s Day - which falls on  15 July - to see if will be a good summer. The rule is that whatever the weather is like on St Swithin’s Day, it will last another 40 days –

'St Swithin's day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithin's day if thou be fair
For forty days 'twill rain nae mair.'

The old saying suggests that if it rains on St Swithin’s Day, then it will be wet for the next 40 days. The reverse is true on a fine St Swithin’s Day.

In the summer of 1976, a hot and sunny 15 July saw stunning weather before a storm broke out at midnight. In the 40 days following, there were only two days when rain fell. Remember the summer of 2008 where Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ stayed in the charts for weeks? Well it poured down on St Swithin’s Day that year, ahead of one of the wettest summers ever.

More about Groundhog Day

Celebrated in the US and Canada, Candlemas Day 2012 is be the 126th year that Punxsutawney Phil has predicted the weather.  Superstition has it, if it is sunny and Punxsutawney Phil does see his shadow, that means there will be six more weeks of winter.  If it’s cloudy and the groundhog does not see his shadow, then spring will come early.

           [Related story: Groundhogs clash over weather prognosis]

In total, Phil has cast a shadow 99 times indicating six more weeks of winter. On 16 times there was no shadow, indicating an early spring.  Unfortunately, The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club is missing nine years' worth of records.

So is Phil as reliable as meteorologists? According to StormFax Weather Almanac and records dating back to1887, Phil's predictions have been correct 39% of the time

Do you know any more crazy weather fables? Tell us below.