We’ve all heard Old-Timers with their cliche notions, touting tales of nature’s signs, and how their foreshadowing indicates the degree of difficulty for the winter months that will follow. These tall tales though are plated with a note of science that keeps the winter lover savoring each year for a new bite. Of the many stories or “weatherlore” that exists though, which ones hold the most scientific significance? Below I will detail out the top 10 weatherlore that people in the South rely on, and then give some perspective into the scientific reasoning of why that notion is believed by some to be a valid predictor of winter.
10. Thick Deer Coat
Many people in the South believe that animals are an excellent predictor of weather to come, and they are not wrong in thinking so. Animals are known to take nature’s signs and apply them to their daily life. They can foretell of impeding natural disasters, and they use their heightened senses to prepare. Many animals have been documented in retreat from the coastline several minutes before a Tsunami arrives. So what does this have to do with winter in the South?
Deer are a prevalent species in the Southeast, and the hunting of them is also very popular. Therefore, deer hunters are in contact with deer each year on a frequent basis. From an online poll at Ashevillewx, I found that some people observe the thickness of the deers winter fur coat and how early it arrives to determine how severe winter will be.
Deer, just like any other species, will prepare for winter in whatever way necessary. They do not hibernate during the winter, but simply just move less. Their metabolism actually slows to a crawl because food is scarce, and a thick coat is necessary to keep them warm. If their coat is not thick enough for a harsh winter, they will likely die due to natural selection. Therefore, thickness of a deers coat does have so scientific significance. The problem though is that it is difficult to measure from year to year. You can’t count the hairs, so one relies on the senses to measure this notion. Therefore on a scale of 1-10, I give deer coats a 3 on the accuracy scale.
9. If It Thunders During Winter, It Will Snow In 7-10 Days
During the winter months, some southerns believe that a crack of thunder indicates that it will snow in 7 days. Every time it thunders, comments flood in on Ashevillewx indicating the presences of thunder, and many locals begin a countdown. Why? Because of course their parents or grandparents taught them to do so. But why then did our grandparents believe these signs were significant? Because before weather models and the accumulation of data, they were!! Amy Graham-Silvers, an avid Ashevillewx reader states that her dad called them “old wives tales” and that he said “thunder in the winter means snow within the next 7-10 days”.
Many times during winter, a strong high pressure will develop off the Southeast Atlantic Coast. This pushes warm air into the area, and most of the time eliminates the threat for snow. Precipitation that falls when this high pressure is strong, typically falls in the form of rain. In order to move this high away, it takes a strong front. A strong front would likely bring with it the chance for thunderstorm development. So the front pushes the high pressure out of the way, and cold air floods in behind after the thunder has occurred. So basically what I have just described is known as a pattern change. Strong fronts in the winter push away high pressures that are situated on the Southeast Atlantic Coast. Without a source of warm air, cooler air can dominate, and a Gulf Low with adequate positioning can create snowfall across the southeast. Therefore on a scale of 1/10, I give this Weatherlore a 5/10 regarding the accuracy of its predictions.
8. Cows Lying On The Ground Means It Will Snow
As a winter storm approaches, many Ashevillewx followers have observed cows laying on the ground around WNC. Do cows have a 6th sense that helps them prepare for the weather? Watson Geoffrey, an Ashevillewx reader said this.. “Some folks say when we get into the winter months, and one drives around the area (Burnsville, NC) or other. When one sees the cows all laying down, it going to snow that day or next day.” I delved into this a bit further to see if there was any science behind this theory.
A study conducted by The University of Arizona found that cows like to stand up in warm weather, presumably so that they can disperse heat, and cool down quicker. Likewise, the University also concluded that when a front is approaches and weather is cooling down.. that cows will lie down. Another theory from the Farmers Almanac though says that cow lie down simple to chew their cud. So as far as reliability, I give this weatherlore a 2/10 regarding its usefulness in predicting snowfall.
7. Wasps Building Nests High
I had never heard this weatherlore before I proposed the question to my followers about what they look for, but a Johnathan Ray, a weather nerd like me from WNC states that “Wasps build their nests high and in protected areas avoiding low areas that may be overtook by snowy weather.” I ventured into this topic a bit more to analyze the scientific aspects and here what I found..
During heavy snowfall from winter storms, many areas will create drifts due to the direction of the wind. Most wasps die off during the winter months due to starvation (except for a few hearty queens). These queens will try and hibernate near the nest, and then reemerge when the temperatures reach around 50 degrees. So, one could infer that if a queen bee feels that winter will be extra cold, she will conduct her colony to build a nest higher, in order for her to stay safe. She must survive the winter in order for the offsprings to survive, so there could be some truth to this weatherlore, but I am skeptical. Regarding accuracy, I give it a 2/10.
6. Halo Around The Moon
Many Ashevillewx readers indicated that they looked for a halo around the moon as a weatherlore when a storm is approaching. This occurs many times throughout the year, so it doesn’t just refer to snow, but I will dive into the scientific details anyways to see if there is any truth to this tale.
Cirrus clouds made of microscopic ice crystals high up in the upper atmosphere are what cause these halo’s around the moon to appear. Cirrus clouds can act independently, but many times they are associated with an approaching front. During the winter months, cooler temperatures are more prevalent in the atmosphere, so the existence of cirrus clouds increases. Propagated forward in extreme temperatures, these ice crystals foreshadow an abundance of moisture to follow. Thus, one can draw a vague association between halos around the moon, and approaching snowstorms. I give this method a 5/10.
5. Tight Corn Husks
As Fall approaches, farmers begin to gather their share of corn. Many old timers would look to how tight the corn husks were to determine how severe winter would be that year. Ashevillewx followers reminded me of this method and elaborated on it. Kim Crumpler states that “If corn shucks are very tight it’s a bad winter.” Johnathan Ray added that “Winter will be cold and snow if corn husks are thick and tight”. So lets enter into the science of why this theory might hold true.
Corn husks will be high and tight in my experience to protect from rain in a very wet year. An extremely wet year would more then likely be preceded by a somewhat wet winter, that in many cases would produce snow. Thats about the only association that I can make between corn husks and winter weather, but I do know that many farmer used to use this weatherlore each year. As far as reliability, I would give this method a 3/10.
4. Persimmon Seeds
Farmers have been cutting Persimmon seeds open for countless years to find out how severe winter that year would be. The old weatherlore says that if you find a spoon inside when cutting open the seed, expect plenty of snow to shovel, but if you find a fork shape, winter will be mild. Johnathan Ray, the area guru say “When persimmon seeds are split in half, they reveal either a spoon, knife, or fork shape. A knife indicates a winter that will be very cold, a spoon (which looks like a shovel!) predicts lots of snow, and a fork says winter will be mild.” So, lets see if there is actually some science behind this predictor.
These depictions shown on the inside of the seed are actually roots. So do the roots grow more in an exceptionally wet year? I cannot find any studies to confirm anything on these, so my science really ends here unfortunately. The only thing I can really find is that if its a spoon you will be shoveling snow lol. So this weatherlore is very unknown as far as science.
3. Abundance Of Acorns
Around Western North Carolina we have many oak trees, and folks around the area over the years have become accustom to equating the acorn crop to how severe winter will be. A friend tells me that “Old timers used to believe that if the shell on the acorns extended lower on the nut itself then it would be a harsh winter. (BlueRidgeFolklore).” So, a large crop or acorns with shells that extended lower on the nut itself would indicate that a harsh winter was on the way. Is the tree anticipating that the squirrels will need to hibernate longer, therefore they will need more nuts? Or is it simply a wet year and the Oak tree is capable of producing more nuts. Lets look into the Science.
Oak trees will produce a larger crop of acorns during wet years. Like many of the other weatherlore, a wet year sometime precedes a harsh winter. So a likely correlation could be made.. but I have no science to back that up. Squirrels gathering nuts furiously could indicate that the squirrels sense a pressure drop, and are preparing for a storm. There is limited science to be found on this topic, but it seems to be one of the favorites.
2. Wooly Bear Caterpillar
Many Ashevillewx readers chimed in about the use of the Wooly Bear Caterpillar, and the burnt orange band thats present on its coat. There is actually a festival held every year in Vermilion, Ohio where a local weatherman come and reads the wooly worms. How awesome is that? They also celebrate the Woolly Worm in Banner Elk, NC! So, if you believe this weatherlore, you are not alone! The story goes, that apparently however long the burnt orange stripe is, indicates how long winter will last. The dark bands in the stripe can also be used to signify when snows will occur. I love the concept, but it seems a little farfetched.. so lets see if there is any science behind the method.
Heres an except taken from weather.gov
“The woolly bear caterpillar's coloring is based on how long caterpillar has been feeding, its age, and species. The better the growing season is the bigger it will grow. This results in narrower red-orange bands in its middle. Thus, the width of the banding is an indicator of the current or past season's growth rather than an indicator of the severity of the upcoming winter. Also, the coloring indicates the age of the woolly bear caterpillar.”
As far as the story about the woolly caterpillar's coat, this is how Mother Nature helps it survive winter. The fur is called setae and it isn't there to protect them from the cold weather. Instead it actually helps them to freeze more controllably. Here is something truly remarkable. Once settled in, the caterpillars hibernate, creating a natural organic antifreeze called glycerol. They freeze bit by bit, until everything but the interior of their cells are frozen. These interior cells are protected by the hemolymph. Woollybears can - and do - survive to temperatures as low as -90oF. This ability to adapt to cold shows up particularly in the Arctic, where the woolly worms live in a strange state of slow motion. Most caterpillars live for two to four weeks before becoming moths. The Arctic woolly worms, however, spend at least 14 years in the process! The woolly bear caterpillar has even been known to survive an entire winter completely frozen in an ice cube.
Interesting right? So, wooly worms are a better predictor of how the past season was, compared to how the future season will be. But, its still really fascinating to learn that they can live in temps as low as -90 degrees!
1. Count The Number Of Foggy Mornings In August
This was the most popular topic brought up when I did an informal poll of the Ashevillewx following. Many exclaim that the number of foggy mornings in August, would equate to the number of snows that winter. Locals from all across WNC chimed in with their totals, and it will be interesting to see what comes to fruition. It will be hard to make a scientific connection with this one because August is so far away from winter, so I will just give you totals from counters across WNC. Check back soon for the official dog count from the WNC Fog Lady!