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For centuries farmers and gardeners have been looking to the heavens for accurate indications of upcoming weather patterns. Storms are fluid and apparently chaotic phenomena. To predict them requires a strong memory of past events linked to a clear weather eye for present conditions. Traditional weather prophets also relied upon weather sayings passed on from generation to generation. These sayings often were just a gleaning of local and regional observations. Others were very astute insights into larger patterns and climatic sequences. Still others such as the rhyme, When the hen crows it will rain, are sheer nonsense.
Behind the best and most reliable rhymes is a keen observation of what could be called the rotation of the elements or , as the alchemists would say it, the fire under the earth. This alchemical term refers to an unstable relationship between the four elements of earth, water, air and fire.
In a stable condition the earth and the water are connected to each other under the force of gravity. Water moves down to meet the earth. The air and fire are connected to each other under the influence of levity, that is, warm air rises. Earth and water go down and air and fire go up. In this stable form there is a universal relationship. Water sitting in a puddle or in a pond is an image of this pattern. The earth is found below the water. It is the element most influenced by gravity. The water sits on the earth. This is the condition of the atmosphere in the night. It is stable.
Sitting on the Earth, water has a relationship to gravity, but it can also escape from gravity. This occurs at the surface of the water where there is a splitting of the elements. Under the influence of warmth water leaves the earth condition and joins the air and fire and it move upwards. This is the condition of the atmosphere during the night. In the morning the dew is present as a gift from the heavens.
To the alchemists the formation of dew was a miraculous and potent event. The image shows the gathering of dew in order to make alchemical medicines. But the dew is also a weather indicator. There is an old rhyme that states "Morning dew means weather fair, when dew is gone a change beware". This accurate weather vane describes the stable conditions around the nighttime. In the evening the warmth of the day departs from the earth and rises to a higher level in the atmosphere carrying moisture upwards with it. As the evening progresses the Earth cools the air above it and the cool air settles down onto earth. The water vapor that was carried aloft the previous day settles out in the coolest part of the night, the time just before sunrise as the earth breathes in. The dew falls onto the earth and the cycle starts once more. The settling out of the earth and water below with the warmth above is the most stable pattern in the atmosphere. When this stable pattern dominates the evening the weather tends to be calm and stable. As a result the old rhyme about morning dew and fair weather is a clear and accurate predictor of fair weather.
When the elements are arranged with the earth below and the water above that and the air above that with the warmth on top the fire is above the earth and the pattern is stable. With the approach of a storm the air pressure lowers as warmth rises from the Earth and the Earth breathes out. This is disturbing to the the stable pattern. Water is pushed up into the higher levels of the atmosphere. This allows the vapor in the air to remain in a levity state during the night instead of settling through a calm atmosphere. In this state the water vapor is rising up to form clouds as a storm approaches. As a result when the dew stays up and does not fall it is often a sign that there is bad weather approaching.
When the water vapor stays up in the atmosphere this is the opposite of the stable condition. When the atmosphere is unstable this condition is known alchemically as the fire under the earth. This is depicted in the third diagram. In this pattern the fire, that is usually highest, is down below the earth and all of the elements are driven upwards. Alchemically this condition normally arises in the day usually about 4PM when the sun has wamed up the earth and the water sufficiently enough that thunder storms begin. The stable relationship between the elements is disrupted and the water in the earth begins to rise up into the air as water vapor. The water vapor begins to evaporate into gasses as the gasses seek the periphery. Each element is driven upwards by the activity of the fire below the earth. This unstable motion is the central phenomenon of storm activity. It is a result of a displacement of the archetypal condition of the elements.
An old weather rhyme that describes this pattern is "Thunder in the morning , all day storming. This describes a condition in which the Earth in the morning is already warm and there is already an upward motion to the atmosphere. The Earth usually starts to breathe out in the morning at about 4 AM and reaches a peak about 2pm just in time to give rise to the standard thunder storm at 4 PM.
Sometimes storm conditions develop overnight usually by the influx of a cold air mass into an area in which the ground or water is already warm. This places the fire under the earth much earlier in the day making the morning outbreathing more extreme. At such times the thunderheads are already in place by 10 AM and thunder in the morning signals unstable upward motion in the atmosphere all day.These two polarities of stable atmosphere and unstable atmosphere are the basis of all meteorological phenomena.
The various cloud types which arise at different times in the sky are really combinations of these two polarities. The stable pattern of the elements produces the stratus type of cloud and the unstable pattern produces the cumulus cloud. In the stratus formation a warm air mass glides over a cool surface. In this pattern the warmth is above and the cold is below. The resulting cloud is flat and moves horizontally across the cold earth or water. The warm air in the cloud is cooled by its passage across the colder layers below. As a result earth and water remain below and air and fire remain above. Precipitation from a stratus cloud is drizzly and these types of conditions most often are accompanied by fog. This condition is exemplified by the old rhyme"When clouds descend, good weather ends". The stratus cloud is coming down to earth from above. In fact fog is a cloud on the ground.
The opposite condition is when heaps of clouds pile up one on top of the other. This is an image that the warmth below is driving the elements up into each other. The rapid upward motion gives rise to extreme winds and rain within the thunderhead. Hailstones driven upwards by the rising warm air melt on the surface and collect rain. The hailstone is then driven up into the very cold air at the top of the cloud where it freezes. It then becomes heavy and falls back down through the rain bands where the drops freeze to its surface until it is in the lower regions of the thunderhead once again. This may happen many times until the hailstone is the size of a baseball. The rains which fall from these dynamic clouds are most often ice crystals which have melted in the warm updrafts and then fallen out of the leading edge of the large cloud. This is why they are so large as raindrops. This is also why flash flooding is a concern when the fire is under the earth.
The polarities of stable and unstable elements in the atmosphere are played out in other ways besides the two archetypal cloud forms. In the middle layers of the atmosphere similar elemental relationships exist as a daily drama even when the weather is settled. Early in the morning it is often the case that the dominant cloud pattern in the sunrise is composed of stratus clouds. This is because the dew has fallen and even though the earth is breathing out the outbreath at dawn is only rarely capable of building cumulus clouds. At sunrise the predominant cloud pattern has warm upper air descending down to a cool earth and water. If the ground is very cool then the cloud may actually be on the ground accompanied by light drizzle. In this case the old rhyme to follow is "Rain before seven, dry by eleven".
By ten, the stratus clouds usually show signs of losing their smooth outlines and they begin to appear rough and fluffy on the edges. This is a sign that the fire is under the earth within the cloud itself. The cloud starts to absorb warmth and vertical unstable currents begin to alter the shape. Usually by noon there is a distinct form of cloud in which the flat stratus shape grows upward. This cloud, known as stratocumulus is showing that the sun is warming the water in the stratus cloud and that vertical forces of levity are taking over from the gravity forces which dominated the stratus cloud at sunrise.
In warm climates near the ocean, the stratocumulus clouds can be seen all night since the water below is so warm. In warm climates regular thundershowers in the afternoon are a standard feature. The warm updrafts carry water vapor from below to great heights. The cumulus clouds build on each other and a tremendous rush of warm air pushes an anvil shaped towering cloud into the upper atmosphere where the vapor turns into ice. The cool air above then sinks and pressurizes. As it pressurizes it warms and starts to rise again feeding the thunderhead with more warmth. The picture shows a remarkable uprush of air and the spreading of the ice anvil at the top of the cloud. Hail and severe winds may accompany such a cloud. All of these modifications happen in the middle layer of the atmosphere. There are, however, modifications of clouds in the highest layer of the atmosphere that also follow these patterns.
The highest type of cloud occurs in the upper reaches of the atmosphere where the cold and arid environment puts a lid on the weather. This area is known to meteorologists as the tropopause, the place where the weather pauses. The most typical cloud to form in this layer is the cirrostratus. It is a stratus layer at the very top of the atmosphere. It resembles a find blanket or veil of ice crystals. In this layer any water vapor is transformed into ice crystals. The ice crystals which are in the form of fine needles are electrically charged with one end positive and one end negative. In alchemy the negative charge giver is salt or in the old language "glass", the positive which receives the charge is sulfur or in the old language "resin". The opposite charges attract each other and the similar charges repel. In the high ice cloud this means that the sky is covered with untold numbers of minute ice crystals each one locked in a push/ pull relationship with the one next to it.
The entire sky may be filled with such a charged veil of ice needles, all lined up parallel to each other because of their charges. Picture an area hundreds of square miles filled with minute prismatic crystals all facing in one direction. Now place the Sun or Moon behind this ice fog and the whole sky becomes like a fresnel lens . This is the source of many rhymes regarding the ring around the moon. "A Moon with a circle brings water in her beak". Or "A ringed Moon means rain in a day or two". This saying becomes very accurate when we add, " when the wind is shifting and the barometer is falling".
These high ice clouds are known as cirrus clouds which in latin means "feather". The tendency in the cirrus cloud is for the needles to repel each other the stronger the charge in the cloud becomes. As the cloud grows from one end and spreads out in space the needles repel each other more and the cloud separates into fine streams or feathers. The streams of ice crystals are sensitive to upper winds moving in front of storms. As a result, the cirrus clouds are prophets of weather that is far off. They are usually formed along the leading edge of an incoming storm like the whitecap on the tip of a wind tossed wave . They are runic clouds often appearing like hen scratches or mares tails or ancient glyphs in the sky. These clouds tell of strong winds high up . If the ice clouds form a ring around the moon or look like spilled buttermilk then that shows that the winds aloft are not violent.
Concerning rings around the Moon the old sayings are"When the ring is far the storm is near" or "The bigger the ring the farther the wet". These sayings refer to the height of the cirrus layer. If the layer is very high up then the circle of the ring will be smaller ,the cloud bank being nearer to the source of light. If the layer is lower in what is known as a lowering sky then the ring will be larger and thus the storm will be nearer. If later in the day the high ice stratus veils begin to evolve into streaks or ripples then these cirrostratus clouds are saying that a storm front is approaching the observer.
The lowering sky is the old term used to describe the approach of a storm seen as an evolving sequence of ice clouds. It usually begins with a cirrostratus ring around the moon and then the flat veil of the cirrostratus evolves into a buttermilk sky. The soft clouds of the buttermilk sky are saying that there is a warm front approaching and that the sky will most likely begin to lower. They are created when large masses of warm air floats gently upwards to a great height causing the cirrostratus veil to form cauliflower masses of gently rising air in a cellular form. In the buttermilk sky the cirrostratus veils are influenced by rising warm air to create cells of curdled clouds. The soft clouds are actually very high ice clouds that are undisturbed by horizontal winds. They are a very early harbinger cloud of a change in the weather. The next clouds in the sequence from the buttermilk sky are usually the formation known as mackrel sky. The old rhyme is "Mackrel sky, mackrel sky, dry turns wet and wet turns dry".
The mackerel sky reveals that there is a high altitude wind rippling the high ice layers. The mackerel sky looks like the stripes on a mackerel. They are parallel bands of clouds that resemble ripples in the sky and they foretell the closer approach of a storm system. In the cirrocumulus clouds the earlier high ice sheets have become organized by a strong horizontal wind sourc aloft. This type of wind most often is being moved upwards in the circulation around an approaching storm. When the old sailors and fishermen saw these clouds they began to keep a careful eye on the direction of the wind. Mackerel sky is a lowering cloud formation that tells of a change in the prevailing weather patterns.
When the ice crystals in the mackrel sky encounter a warm upsurge from a distant low pressure area, the crystals that make up the cloud turn back into water vapor. As a result the clouds begin to get heavier and they form lower to the ground. The lower clouds are composed of water vapor instead of being composed completely of ice crystals like the cirrostratus. You can tell the difference because the ice clouds area always accompanied by optical or prismatic effects and the lower types being composed of water do not produce optical effects. This generally means the watery clouds are lower than the ice clouds. As the clouds lower, the next layer in this evolution from cirrocumulus or mackerel sky, is the "mouton" or sheep clouds. They are called this because they resemble a flock of sheep grazing in the heavenly pastures of the middle atmosphere. In these clouds the ice has now turned to vapor and the sky is lowering into rain.
The ultimate low cloud is the rain or nimbus cloud. In this evolution the nimbus most often is found in the form of a nimbostratus or rainy stratus cloud. These clouds bring drizzle and warm temperatures for the next few days. They are part of what is known as a warm front sequence. . In order to sharpen your weather eye further, wind phenomena will be the subject of other articles, because if the wind is shifting to the south and this sequence of clouds can be observed make a note to get your outdoor chores done because it most often will soon be raining. Cloud watching is infinitely more interesting when these simple features are known.
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