Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Red Skies At Night, Sailors Delight

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 27, 2011

Weather folklore has been around for centuries and sometimes what works in one part of the world, doesn’t work nearly as well in other parts.  Regardless, all sorts of interesting rhymes have come into existence due to weather folklore and “red skies at night, sailors delight” is just one of those rhymes.

In North America, we know the entire rhyme as being:

Red sky at night, sailors delight,
Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.

But in the United Kingdom, it’s not sailors who pay attention to the skies.  It’s shepherd’s that keep an eye on the colour of the sky.

Red sky at night, shepherds delight,
Red sky in morning, shepherds warning.

William Shakespeare — who appears often in Idiomation entries — wrote the poem Venus and Adonis in 1592 with the following weather folklore included:

Like a red morn that ever yet betokened,
Wreck to the seaman, tempest to the field,
Sorrow to the shepherds, woe unto the birds,
Gusts and foul flaws to herdmen and to herds.

Going back to the Bible, the following passage is found in Matthew 16:1-3:

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.  He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.

In 650 BC, the Babylonians predicted the weather from cloud patterns and in 340 BC, Aristotle described weather patterns in Meteorologica. But as to when the rhyme “red skies at night” came into existence during that time is anyone’s guess.

Now, the question whether weather folklore has any basis in science is an interesting question to ask.  The fact of the matter is that when we see a red sky at night, this means that light from the setting sun has a high concentration of dust particles which usually indicates high pressure and stable air coming in from the west. So yes, a red sky at night means one can expect that good weather will follow

Likewise, if you experience a red sun at morning, take heed.  A red sunrise is reflecting the dust particles of a system that has just passed from the west. What this means is that a storm system may be moving to the east. If the morning sky is a deep fiery red, it means a high water content can be found in the atmosphere and it’s reasonable to believe that rain is on its way.

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