Reading nature's weather report; Meteorology: The age-old folklore of prognostication is fading fast in the age of computer models and the Weather Channel.


ST. CROIX RIVER, Maine -- Stephen Cobb has one eye on the sky as he leans forward in his canoe and dips his paddle into the warm currents that twist deep into this state's vast wilderness.

As a bald eagle glides by and loons call in the distance, this 50-year-old river guide is worrying about the onset of a summer storm.

"That's called a sun dog," he says, pointing to the ring of haze around the late afternoon sun. "That means there's moisture in the upper atmosphere, and we can expect some rain tomorrow."

On Maine's remote rivers, where contact with the modern world can be days away, predicting the weather is something of an art.

While the rest of the nation can wire up to or tune in a 24-hour cable channel, Cobb and his fellow river tenders sense storms in the pallor of the sky and in the direction birds fly.

Being able to analyze the wind as it whips through the needles of a white pine may be as valuable as watching the barometer. But it is a skill that Cobb believes is fading away.

"These are things I learned from my father," he says with a Maine accent, his red face drenched in sunlight. They were skills he honed during years spent piloting sailing charters and tugboats and, more recently, leading canoe expeditions up Maine's Allagash and St. Croix rivers.

"Nowadays, when I go out to speak with young river guides about monitoring the weather, all they know is the Weather Channel."

Weather folklore, as Cobb's art is probably best described, used to be passed along through generations of farmers, sailors and others whose livelihoods banked on predicting patterns of rainfall. But over the past three decades, technology has taken over forecasting.

"We used to have four or five hundred observers go out and look at the state of the sky hourly and write remarks on what they saw," says Joe Schafer, director of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., where the nation's tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings originate.

Today, Schafer says, the center relies on a sophisticated array of satellites and computer models to analyze changing conditions.

"Rather than having a guy eyeballing the sky once an hour and trying to guess whether the clouds are 30,000 feet up or 31,000 feet up, we have a laser that measures exactly how high the clouds are, and it gives us a reading every minute."

Susan Peery, the managing editor of the Old Farmer's Almanac, says she recognizes the shift on farms in Nelson, N.H., where she lives and works.

"People here have gotten very accustomed to turning on the TV and forget completely that they could just step outside and look at the sky," she says. "The sky gives plenty of hints about what weather is just over the horizon."

There is more than just the old sailor's adage about a red sky at dusk being a harbinger of pleasant weather -- though that one is often mentioned because it can be a strong predictor, Peery says.

Cobb teaches other river guides how to read subtle shifts and changes in the direction of the wind. If it dies at night, he says, good weather is due the next day. If it blows in from the south to the east, a storm is brewing.

Peery suggests keeping an eye on animals and plants. She has a list compiled by librarians at the Old Farmer's Almanac that uses age-old wisdom to explain what behavior has portent. Some examples: When the rooster goes crowing to bed, he will rise with a watery head.

Hawks flying high means a clear sky. When they fly low, prepare for a blow.

Onion skins very thin, mild winter coming in. Onion skins thick and tough, coming winter cold and rough.

Peery says that such predictors as, "When cats sneeze, it's a sign of rain," sound far-fetched and probably shouldn't replace satellite imagery.

"But some of these do have a lot of truth in them, and scientists have used these old adages to make all kinds of discoveries about how weather systems work," she says.

Before anyone gets too misty about how machines have overtaken soothsayers as the reliable source for predicting dangerous storms, some scientists have called for a moment of calm reflection.

"This issue bears resemblance to many others," Penn State University physicist Craig Bohren explains.

"We could say blacksmithing is mostly a lost art, primarily because cars have replaced horses. And very few, if any, Inuit know how to build igloos or kayaks anymore. The Inuit prefer to live in houses much like the rest of us, and they prefer an outboard motor to paddling.

"All kinds of skills are lost to technology," Bohren says, "which is another way of saying that when a superior method comes along for doing anything, most people will eagerly adapt [to] it."

Computer models are used extensively by forecasters, he says, because as a rule they provide more reliable forecasts.

"Whether this is something to wring one's hands over depends on one's point of view. When human lives are at stake, we should use the best methods available."

At the Naval Academy in Annapolis -- where professors weathered a gale of protest when they stopped teaching celestial navigation -- no one tells sailors to navigate billion-dollar ships based on weather forecasts gleaned from the flight paths of sea gulls.

"I'm not going to be apologetic when I tell you I wouldn't advise judging the winter by how much wool is on the woolly worm," says David Smith, a meteorology professor at the Naval Academy.

"Then again," he points out, "there is often an element of truth to the lore, so it can be important in informing what science you pursue."

Cobb agrees that the science of meteorology and the technology that has helped make prognostication more accurate are important.

And these days, he admits, a red morning sky might have more to do with nearby pollution than with oncoming storm systems.

But when he's leading paddlers on days-long journeys through Maine's majestic waterways, he prefers to count on the drifting cormorants to clue him in to what's beyond the horizon.

"It's part of the experience of being in nature," he says. "It may be OK for most people to let these things slip away. But I feel better knowing that some folks care enough to pass the knowledge along before it's gone entirely."

Pub Date: 9/13/99

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