I'm really trying hard to avoid the phrase "nature hacks"
February 22, 2010 9:07 AM   Subscribe

Help me decode the signals of the natural world!

I'll try to keep this brief, even though it's fairly open-ended. The earth has a lot of ways of forecasting itself that the astute observer can read and interpret. I'm not such an astute observer though; I'm a nerd who would usually prefer to stay indoors. What are some basic rules of thumb I can learn to find meaning in things like weather, animal behavior, astronomy, and other common phenomena that I'm completely oblivious to?

Things like the "sailor's delight" poem are great if you can explain what they mean (I don't really understand that one). I'd like tips for predicting whether tomorrow's weather will be wet or dry based on a casual look around. I'm vaguely aware of these things called "solstices" that a lot of people consider important, but I don't know what they are or how they affect anything. The more reliable your tips are, the better. What other easy, friend-impressing, life-improving nature tricks can I learn without years of study or expensive astrolabes? I live in New Mexico, so anything particular to desert ecosystems/sandstorms/this longitude is especially cool. I'm not camping out in the middle of nowhere, though... I'm really looking for stuff that can be applied in my front yard or around town.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis to Science & Nature (16 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Okay, you want my super secret weather predicting algorithm? The one I have used to impress people with my weather acumen for years? Well alright, but only because I value AskMe so highly.

The secret is: give tomorrow's forecast by telling people what it's doing right now. Sounds dumb but I swear to gawd, you will be 95% accurate. And it will genuinely impress people!

If they insist on a longer range for the forecast, introduce a possibility of whatever other kind of weather is most likely for your part of the world, at this season.

e.g. I live in the Pacific Northwest. It's clear and sunny today. I predict that it will be clear and sunny tomorrow.

My 5-day forecast is that it will continue to be clear and sunny, but that clouds and the possibility of showers will creep in. It is very likely to be overcast and possibly rainy this coming weekend.

This is part "stupid party trick" and part "actually the way weather works."
posted by ErikaB at 9:21 AM on February 22, 2010

YMMV but my nose runs whenever a) it is not raining and it is going to rain today (even if it doesn't look like it now) or b) it is raining now but is going to clear up today (even if it doesn't look like it now). approaching hurricanes are two weeks of sinus headache to me (although once they're on, I feel great). so obviously some of us are sensitive to barometric pressure.

on a less sensitive note, you can generally smell rain in the air, even if it's hours away, or is going to blow right by you. the air smells sweeter and softer, whereas a sharper, crisper note in the air tells you, nope, not gonna rain for a while. to smell the former, take a houseplant and water it heavily. then put your face down within about an inch of the soil and smell the moisture in the air. for the latter, well, you're in New Mexico. go outside.

I used to live in Denver and also in Santa Fe, and the difference in the way the air smells before rain is quite striking there, especially compared to back east where the air's almost always a little soft. also in the mountain west you can see rain from a long way off. it looks like a big dark column that reaches from the sky to the ground.
posted by toodleydoodley at 9:21 AM on February 22, 2010

Best answer: "Mare's tails and mackerel scales make tall ships carry low sails"

That is, these easily-recognizable cloud patterns can predict upcoming stormy weather (usually snow in winter and thunderstorms in summer).
posted by bubukaba at 9:25 AM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

oh yeah - frequently one day's weather can tell you what the next several days will do. for example, in the winter and spring here, after a chilly series of days, a warming trend of several days will lead to two days of heavy rain, then a day or two of heavy, dry wind, followed by a freeze. goddammit.

on the other hand, in the summer and fall, slightly cooler temperatures precede heavy rain, which is then followed by venusian heat and humidity. lather, rinse, repeat. (how long, oh lord, how long until it's summer again?)
posted by toodleydoodley at 9:27 AM on February 22, 2010

Oh, and this might be obvious, but ocean tides rise higher and fall lower during the full and new moons.
posted by bubukaba at 9:30 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Any time the prevailing winds shift strong and it is cloudy something stormy is going to happen. It might come together upwind of you or downwind of you or right on top of you, but it will happen.

I once worked in an office with 95% women of reproductive age and they were locked into concurrently menstruating four days after every new moon.

My downstairs neighbors of two years have noisy sex every Sunday morning at 5:00 a.m. and I have never heard them going at it at any other day or hour.
posted by bukvich at 9:43 AM on February 22, 2010

Where I live, clear skies mean either it's going to be really hot (in the summer) or really cold (in the winter), and very dry.

When it's really hot and humid during a summer day, we're sure to have a good thunderstorm that evening.
posted by lizbunny at 9:57 AM on February 22, 2010

I'm vaguely aware of these things called "solstices" that a lot of people consider important, but I don't know what they are or how they affect anything.

The solstices are vitally important in predicting the weather! If you are within 3 months of the winter solstice, the forecast is "cold". If you are within 3 months of the summer solstice the forecast is "hot". Reverse these forecasts for the southern hemisphere.
posted by DU at 10:20 AM on February 22, 2010

Best answer: Animal behavior is fairly easy if you pay attention to your brain. Seriously. If anything stands out to you, that's something to go on, whether it's ears, the tail, mouth, etc. Ears back is almost universal for fear, barred teeth for anger, tail underneath for shame, etc. Bright colors either indicate extreme danger, or someone pretending.

A large predator nearby will cause almost everything to freeze except birds (lucky bastards). If you speak chickadee you'll even know how big of a threat it is (from their perspective). Cats behind glass get 3 or 4 dees, humans 5 or 6, and a human sprinting towards them > 10... 22 if you're me. :-)

If you're in a meadow or field of hay you'll see spots where everything is trampled down with narrow paths in and out. Those are made by things like deer. They have to rest and sleep someplace.

You can always tell a storm is incoming when the cows gather together. If the sea is somewhat close you'll see seabirds fly inland too. Pay close attention to how cows and deer stand around. The odds are good they're in a North-South direction. Since the sun rises from the East you'll know which is which.

Water always leads to more water, and people tend to need water so usually you'll find people sooner or later. Unfortunately we're not the only ones that need water so be aware.

You can calibrate a watch by shoving a stick in the ground and tracking it's shadow throughout the day. When the shadow is closest it's noon. Stupid simple, but that's how ships used to have to do things.

I've never given much weight to the stuff about seeing the silvery underside of leaves or color of the horizon at dawn and dusk. I have about 7 spots on my body where bones were once broken. If 4 or more hurt at once I know to find cover.

Funny how timeless some of this stuff is... See the Instructions of Shuruppak.
posted by jwells at 10:30 AM on February 22, 2010 [5 favorites]

While it is never technically too cold to snow, it can be practically too cold to snow. I impressed my husband with this one for years before he got acclimatized to the Midwest and figured it out. When it's very cold the air doesn't hold moisture well and it's unlikely to snow. You can tell by the "feel" of the air.

A lot of these kinds of things would be very regionally-specific -- I can tell you exactly what the sky looks like before a tornado in the Midwest, but that wouldn't be very useful if you aren't in the Midwest!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:35 AM on February 22, 2010

I've noticed that 24 hours before snow our bird feeder gets exceptionally busy. Likewise one of my dogs that really dislikes thunderstorms seems to know about 30 minutes before I can hear it that thunder that it is coming.
posted by COD at 11:10 AM on February 22, 2010

Knowing and recognizing types of clouds is really useful for predicting the weather.

Cumulonimbus is the easiest to spot, and it usually means thunderstorms.

If it's a fairly cool day, and then suddenly turns very hot, and you live in tornado alley, you might want to head into the basement for awhile.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:13 AM on February 22, 2010

Best answer: If you see birds roosting in the daytime - all facing in one direction - it's going to storm, and the storm will come from the direction the birds are facing. When the leaves on some of the trees turn upside down (especially noticeable on poplar type trees) it will rain soon.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:59 AM on February 22, 2010

The speed of crickets' chirps can give the temperature.
posted by buzzv at 1:17 PM on February 22, 2010

Your weather mostly comes from the west. Checking the western sky around sunset will generally give you a pretty good idea of what tomorrow's weather will be.

Stunningly more useful & impressive: If the moon is waxing, it fits in the cup of your right hand; if waning, if fits in the cup of your left hand (reverse if you lived in the Southern Hemisphere). Now you can casually & reliably note when the good star-watching nights are (or, when the next full moon is), without becoming an obsessive astronomy/calendar-following gleef.

Also -- and this is a super-cool "easy friend-impressing, life-improving nature trick" -- invent your own constellations. Pick a couple of the major, easy-to-identify constellations that just about everyone knows for orientation, and then find a collection of stars that is a good-enough outline for a story you like (eg. Wilt Chamberlain blocking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's hook shot).

Here's the super-cool part: Encourage your friends to do the same. Now you've transformed casual stargazing (which New Mexico is just about perfect for) from a sort of trivial pursuit activity in which a lot of people aren't going to be able to meaningfully participate into a creative activity that just about everyone can participate in. Now imagine doing this on a date (men & women seeking an extra panache to impress your date: this is so cool; I wish I could collect royalties..)
posted by Tuesday After Lunch at 1:46 PM on February 22, 2010

Best answer: Seeing an ice ring around the moon it means there is frozen moisture content in the atmosphere and it will likely snow soon. Snow is also more likely when the altitude of moisture-laden clouds is lower rather than higher, even more so if you can observe the cloud level drop as the clouds organize themselves together into one large mass. Larger snowflakes, again if you can observe them becoming larger and larger, often indicate that a snowfall is about to end.
posted by Oireachtac at 3:22 PM on February 22, 2010

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