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Mare's Tails and Mackerel Scales

Is the Folklore True?


Mare's Tails and Mackerel Scales

Clumpy Altocumulus clouds

NWS Historic Collection/NOAA Photolibrary

Mackerel scales and mare’s tails, make lofty ships carry low sails.

If you have no idea what this means, you are not alone. Weather proverbs and folklore are being technologically ousted from our everyday vocabulary. In the past, people looked towards nature for clues to ever-changing weather patterns.

The Meaning of the Weather Proverb

In the past, people looked at weather and related it to something in their lives. For instance, cloud types are often described by their shapes in the sky. The mare’s tails are wispy cirrus clouds while the mackerel scales are small clumpy altocumulus clouds resembling fish scales in the sky. In the days of large sailing ships, this meant a storm would be approaching soon and the sails should be lowered to protect from the accompanying high winds.

How has Technology Changed Weather Folklore?

Today, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has the Dial-A-Buoy program. Part of the National Data Buoy Center (NDBC) the program is designed to give sailors advanced meteorological and oceanographic data. A sailor can literally call for data from a series of buoys all around the world.

Dial-A-Buoy will give anyone wind speed and direction, wave height, dew point, visibility, and temperature are updated hourly and available for analysis. With access by phone or the Internet, the relay center at the NASA Stennis Space Center in Mississippi generates a computer voice which will report the current information. With over a million hits a month and countless calls to the center, the NDBC is changing how we use weather information.

Need to know the weather? Forget mackerel scales! Todays folklore is all about innovation.

But are Mackerel Scales and Mare's Tails Good Predictors of Approaching Storms?
In short, yes. The cloud systems that develop prior to a storm will often appear clumpy and wispy like a fish scale or horse tail!

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