Reading the clouds, predicting the weather

Most of us at one time or another have enjoyed gazing into the sky and watching the drifting clouds changing their shapes and capturing our imagination, and in some ways connecting us with nature. It is more than just a nice picture show. The clouds are a wonderful, age-old gift from mother nature, signs to the wilderness traveler for predicting weather.

Before the advent of TV weathermen and weather apps, our forefathers looked to the sky for their weather reports. And, while most of us can recognize a towering storm cloud when it’s about to unleash on us, we can also learn how to predict the storm in advance — without a smart phone.

Specific cloud formations, their altitude, direction of the winds and even color of the sky can signal what’s coming. Clouds are categorized by altitude and type. They occur in the “stratus” below 6,500 feet, the middle altitude or “alto” between 6,500 and 20,000 feet, or up above 20,000 feet at the “cirrus” level. The two most common types are puffy looking “cumulus” clouds and layered clouds, also called “stratus.”

On a recent visit to Canaan Valley, an area visited each year by thousands of hikers, backpackers, hunters and campers, I observed and recorded an approaching storm. Here’s the sequence of the weather that occurred over four days in July.

The first morning was clear until about four o’clock in the afternoon when wispy, transparent streaks of cirrus clouds appear high above. Called “mares’ tails,” these distinctive clouds are carried by high-altitude winds from the top of a cumulonimbus storm clouds developing well beyond the horizon. For the next two days I saw scattered puffy clouds at low altitude, while high overhead the cirrus drifted slowly against the bright blue sky.

By the third morning the sky had begun to change as a spreading formation of alto-cumulus cloud moved in, called “mackerel sky” because of the resemblance to fish scales or rows of small patches of cloud.

Later that morning the gray, flat-bottomed cumulus floated in fairly low on a strong west wind while above them the mackerel sky was becoming even more dense. Whenever cumulus clouds follow mares tails and mackerel sky it’s usually a reliable signal a storm is only 12 to 24 hours away. The cumulus overhead became heavier and darker as the day went on, while distant formations could be seen swelling up into large columns.

By late afternoon on the third day a thin gray veil of alto-stratus filled in the middle altitude above the scattered cumulus. The sun was visible through the veil as if looking through frosted glass, and soon a light rain began to fall.

The next morning the sky filled with more low-altitude stratocumulus than before and by mid-afternoon even more of the same was blowing in from the Southwest. The low ceiling developed as long, dark-gray rolls stretching across the sky, running at right angles to the west wind. The rolls were darker and thicker than anything before and soon turned into a heavy, wet blanket that descended over the valley and shrouded the surrounding mountain tops. Thunder echoed across the valley as cumulonimbus formations grew into turbulent storms.

Later in the afternoon on day four the low and middle altitude sky filled with heavy, dark, nimbostratus clouds. I kept an eye out for the dark, bubbly looking clouds that might reveal an embedded cumulonimbus which can quickly become a thunder storm. Over the nearby mountains lightning and thunder again erupted and from the nimbostratus above came a steady, vertical rain that quickly filled the hollows and streams pouring into the valley. For four days mother nature had been sending signs to anyone paying attention.

Much weather lore, handed down over generations provides additional keys to predicting the weather ahead. The old saying “Red sky in morning, sailor take warning” refers to a dull red sky in the morning to the East. That indicates the high-pressure, fair weather has passed so maybe there’s a chance of low-pressure and rainy weather moving in from the West in a day or so. But, in the western sky a rosy red sunset indicates dry, dusty air is moving our way bringing fair weather. That’s how we got “Red sky at night, sailors delight.” For more information about learning primitive skills, wilderness living, and survival training, check out