Weather predictions from the clouds – sheep in the sky means rain coming!

Sunrise and sunset can be spectacularly beautiful on the island. I love to get up early and enjoy the pretty dawn colours, streaks of delicate yellows, pinks and oranges. I sometimes attempt to capture the subtle lighting with my camera, but there’s only a fleeting window of opportunity to do it in, before the sun drenches everything in bolder hues.

A fine morning

A fine morning

And of course that dawn sky is telling me so much more than just the time (get up lazybones, it’s sunrise!). It’s also giving me the weather forecast, setting the scene for the day. That well-known rhyme that I grew up with in Edinburgh still applies in the Adriatic:

Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight;
Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning.

Your local version may vary slightly, but in essence it works for the entire northern hemisphere, where typical weather systems come at us from the west, with low pressure, rotating anti-clockwise. That’s to say, as the swirling system arrives from the west, it’s pulling air from the south (jugo), and having passed through, it finishes with a flourish of north/northeast wind (bura). So the onset of a low will bring clouds and rain from the south, and before it arrives you should be able to see clouds on the western horizon moving northwards, ie from left to right.

Western sky at sunrise

Subtle pinks in the west at sunrise

Looking to the western horizon in the morning we can tell what’s coming at us for the day. At dawn, if the western horizon is overcast, we’ll likely stay that way for most of the day. Now that’s not generally the direction I watch at sunrise, though the colours can be just as pretty! And what about those colours? The definition of a red sky is distinctly different from pink and orange, it’s a much heavier and altogether denser and more threatening look.

Shepherd's warning!

Shepherd’s warning!

While a soothing yellow/violet sunrise over the harbour with a touch of shell-pink advertises a fine sunny day ahead! Or does it? I trust those are not sheep in the sky?

Morning clouds, Vrboska

Morning clouds, Vrboska harbour

Now even I understand that individual little puffy cumulus clouds are a sign of good weather in summer. They form above warmer areas (for example islands are warmer than the surrounding sea) and although each cloud only has a lifespan of around 10 minutes, there’s always another one forming behind.

Line of clouds over Brač

Line of clouds over the neighbouring island of Brač

And I can spot a building cumulonimbus cloud from several miles off! We see them fairly often over the mainland on a sultry summer afternoon and it’s a clear sign of an impending thunderstorm. The end of the summer heat in August is usually accompanied by a serious sound and light show! The rain doesn’t always reach us on the island, but the view from our terrace can be spectacular!

Summer thundercloud

Summer thundercloud

Getting a little more advanced, there’s also information to be gleaned from the wind direction at the surface as opposed to higher up. If clouds are coming from the west or south, and moving in a different direction from that of the surface wind, we can usually expect a deterioration in weather.

Clouds from the south

Clouds from the south

And what do sheep and mackerel have in common? Nebo na ovčice, kiša na kablove (Sheep in the heavens, rain on the cables). The same wisdom in English goes like this: Mare’s tails and mackerel scales, make tall ships carry low sails, and similarly: Mackerel sky, mackerel sky, never long wet, never long dry. The reference is to Altocumulus clouds which look like speckled fish scales or a field of sheep, depending on your background. As I didn’t know to look out for sheep in the sky before, here is an example courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Altocumulus sheep/mackerel, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Altocumulus sheep/mackerel, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Folklore can be fascinating, carrying as it does the reading of nature’s signals over many generations, passed down by farmers, fishermen, shepherds and other country people who need to understand weather patterns in some detail. It becomes intuitive for them, though sadly it’s a lost art for many townsfolk, and I usually rely on the radio, TV, or more recently the internet for my weather forecast. However, the islanders haven’t lost their ability to foretell incoming weather with a fine degree of accuracy that beats the more general countrywide forecast.

Clouds over Svirče

Buildup of clouds behind Svirče

Aside from the clouds, there are many other indications of what’s to come, weather-wise.

When swallows fly low, expect rain. The increase in humidity brings the insects lower, and the swallows come with them if they want to eat!

Seagulls swimming is a sign of good, stable weather. If they fly inland or to more sheltered locations, there’s a storm coming.

Sike plivaju (Rocks swim) is a local fishermens’ expression for the illusion that headlands and islands are raised above the surface of the sea so they appear to float. It’s a mirage caused by refraction in a layer of cold air on the surface of a warmer sea, and may be an early indication of a bura.

When the wind is unstable, the weather is stable. In a normal, fine weather pattern, any breezes are caused by local heating and cooling at the surface, which has no overall direction. Deteriorating conditions will be announced by a gradually strengthening wind, which at night increases speed. In the Adriatic, that’s most commonly from the southeast.

Red sunset

Red sunset, looking south

Increasing humidity is the first sign of wetter weather, and we have a very similar set of these homely indicators from the UK and Croatia, mostly, it seems from the days of rising at the crack of dawn to set the fire in the hearth. Do we all remember that? I have to say I do, from the days when we had a solid-fuel boiler. Ah, the joys of country living! Here’s a selection you may have noticed in your own home:

  • Salt becomes moist or the wooden bowl containing salted meat becomes damp
  • Oil lamp wicks start to sputter or flame out
  • Fires are difficult to light, will go out without apparent cause, or smoke does not draw as usual. Embers in the hearth smoulder, crackle, and splutter ash.
  • Catchy drawer and sticky door
  • Wooden furniture cracks
  • Water droplets form on the butter
  • On musical instruments, strings break without apparent cause
  • Straps and cables get shorter and covers become tight
  • Old wounds and injuries start to ache
  • The cat sneezes
  • Cows lie down in the field
  • Bees don’t fly far from the hive
  • Flies buzz around and mosquitoes, flies and fleas bite a lot
  • Various flowers: thistles, buttercups and dandelions close their flowers, while clover closes its leaves.
  • The earth smells damp
Sunset rays over the Pakleni islands

Sunset rays over the Pakleni islands

Sunset photos seem to be easier to take. Maybe it’s because the light starts brighter and fades, it’s more predictable so easier to have the camera at the ready. At any rate, a beautiful day is usually followed by a beautiful sunset. When we visited Dubrovnik, we had cocktails in a small bar outside the city walls as the sun went down. The soft colours were just wonderful!

Sunset from Dubrovnik walls

Sunset colours from Dubrovnik walls

According to our rhyme, red sky at night promises good weather for the following day. That also applies to light pink and clear skies, although I do seem to remember that the next day was not brilliant after that pretty sunset! Now, I wonder what it means when there are pink fluffy turtles in the sky at sunset?

Single cloud at sunset

Single cloud at sunset

Read more

Meteorologija by Damir Vrdoljak Mandeta

Meteoin website

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6 thoughts on “Weather predictions from the clouds – sheep in the sky means rain coming!

  1. Very nice and accurate article. The third photo down, isn’t sheep, it’s called Mammatus cloud. Another regular cloud I photograph on Hvar is Mountain Waves when a strong Bura is approaching and/or blowing. My weather station doesn’t have a cloud height monitor, but there is a web cam looking WNW from Dol –

    • Thank you, I appreciate the clarification on the mammatus clouds. I’m still trying to work out the variations and how they relate to the weather. Fascinating stuff! Would be very interested to see your weather station sometime.

  2. LOVE this article!!! Photos so illustrative of text. Had never heard of half of the list at the end. Realize why an island is even more lovely – more visible sky! Envious!

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