Old wives tales

Many thanks to the Library of Congress for the extensive information it offers. Thanks again for making this article possible.

Old wives tales

As a child, my Mom was always coming up with cute little sayings.
“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning” was one of her favorites.

Has any of you ever heard this proverb used?

Shakespeare did.
He said something similar in his play “Venus and Adonis.”
“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 herdsmen and to herds.”

In the Bible, (Matthew XVI: 2-3,) Jesus said,
“When in evening, ye say, it will be fair weather: For the sky is red.
And in the morning, it will be foul weather today;
for the sky is red and lowering.”

Weather lore has been around since people needed to predict the weather and plan their activities. Sailors and farmers relied on it to navigate ships and plant crops.
Those were fun facts, now for the (GULP) scientific principles.*

Weather lore concerning the appearance of the sky, the conditions of the atmosphere, the type or movement of the clouds, and the direction of the winds may have a scientific basis and likely can predict the weather.
In order to understand why “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning” can predict the weather, we must understand more about weather and the colors in the sky.
Usually, weather moves from west to east. In the mid-latitudes, the prevailing winds are westerlies. This means storm systems generally move in from the West.

The colors we see in the sky are due to the rays of sunlight being split into colors of the spectrum as they pass through the atmosphere and ricochet off the water vapor and particles in the atmosphere. The amounts of water vapor and dust particles in the atmosphere are good indicators of weather conditions. They also determine which colors we will see in the sky.

During sunrise and sunset the sun is low in the sky, and it transmits light through the thickest part of the atmosphere. A red sky suggests an atmosphere loaded with dust and moisture particles. We see the red, because red wavelengths (the longest in the color spectrum) are breaking through the atmosphere. The shorter wavelengths, such as blue, are scattered and broken up.
Red sky at night, sailors delight.
When we see a red sky at night, this means that the setting sun is sending its light through a high concentration of dust particles. This usually indicates high pressure and stable air coming in from the west. Basically good weather will follow.

Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning.
A red sunrise can mean that a high pressure system (good weather) has already passed, thus indicating that a storm system (low pressure) may be moving to the east. A morning sky that is a deep, fiery red can indicate that there is high water content in the atmosphere. So, rain could be on its way.
Library of Congress - Everyday Mysteries
Related Websites
*Weather Forecasting Through the Ages (Earth Observatory at NASA) - This article, by Steve Graham, Claire Parkinson, and Mous Chahine discusses the history of predicting weather.
*(Nick Walker, the Weather Dude) - This website discusses weather proverbs that, under the right circumstances, hold up to science.
*Curiosities (University of Wisconsin, Madison) - What determines the colors of the sky at sunrise and sunset?
*Red Sky in Morning (NOAA Earth Systems Research Laboratory) - Looks at the science behind the saying.
*Scientific Validity (Scientific American) - Joe Sienkiewicz, chief of the Ocean Applications Branch and a science and operations officer with the NOAA/NWS Ocean Prediction Center, explains the scientific validity of the saying.

Thanks for reading


Wow. I always heard that phrase and found it to be true most of the time, but now I know why! Thanks for sharing!


Very cool information! Thanks again to @Garnet for always the educational and make you think posts. I love this one, I have always heard that saying and just like @Amethyst now I know why. :grinning:


Yes! Although the version I heard was just slightly different:

I wrote a bit about this phrase in an old post on Weather Magic. Always a fun thing to discuss- and this is first time I’ve seen Shakesphere linked to the phrase, so thanks for that bit!

Always insightful, @Garnet- thanks for sharing :smiling_face_with_three_hearts: