Beki Grinter

Indigenous Weather Forecasting in the United Kingdom

In discipline, ICT4D on July 25, 2012 at 12:34 pm

At ICTD 2012 I saw a paper about a system for Kenyan farmers that combines weather forecasts provided by a meterological office with other types of indigenous knowledge that the locals use. One of the arguments being made in the paper was that the weather forecasts that came from the office were too broad in scope, they covered too much terrain to be useful for the farmers and were therefore less useful. But, because those forecasts were scientific the other ways of knowing were sometimes characterized as primitive. The paper attempted to integrate both ways of knowing into a single system for helping the farmers.

Setting aside the paper’s system, I wanted to return to the idea of indigenous weather forecasting. Someone in the audience stood up and made a comment about how this system might be interesting to try in Yorkshire, a county in the UK. People laughed a bit, perhaps uneasily. And I could only think of the rhyme I learned as a child: Red skies at night, shepherd’s delight. Red Skies at morning, shepherd’s warning (which with some experience doesn’t appear to work in Georgia). I wondered what sorts of knowledge Yorkshire men and women used in the Dales and on the moors to make sense of their weather.

Last night I was watching a program about St Kilda, its an abandoned island off the coast (by about 100 miles) of Scotland. On the program the historian described at length some of the indigenous weather forecasting practices that islanders used to use. The weather is extremely changeable, so the locals would watch what shore the waves were breaking on (to one side of the bay, good weather, to the other side, a storm coming it). They would watch where the birds settled on the islands, using their landing points as knowledge about what was to come. And then they showed us the waves and the birds doing things that signaled poor weather and it came in (of course it could have been a bit of video trickery, I hope not though). The historian also explained the point of reference for doing it: big Atlantic storms, some bringing winds as strong as 100 miles per hour, dangerous to be on an island which has some of the highest cliffs to coastline in the UK.

I think it’s easy to see indigenous knowledge as something other people have, a foreign concept, perhaps especially while I write from my desk in an Institute of higher learning that is entirely devoted to the production of scientific knowledge (if I had a dollar for every time the word science was used…). But, unless its just the Kenyans and the British, and I don’t think it is, I suspect indigenous knowledge is all around us.

And now I’m really curious what sorts of indigenous weather forecasting methods Georgians use, and what their point of reference is/are when they use it.

  1. I think this is really interesting, Beki. Here in Saskatchewan, we look to the West and we can see weather coming long ways away. I have an anecdote that shows how these signs differ between local areas.

    My parents moved to Saskatchewan from Ontario in 1980, when I was six. The first year we were here, I started playing soccer on the school team and my parents came to each game. One afternoon, we were playing under a threatening sky: large thunderheads were coming in from the West and we had been hearing distant thunder for quite some time. My parents, familiar with slow-moving Ontario weather, assumed that we would have plenty of warning before the weather arrived. Midway through the game, however, the parents of the other children very suddenly grabbed their kids and ran for the cars. My confused parents started packing up and realised they were the very last ones on the field just as a huge prairie thunderstorm drenched us all.

    The locals had felt the wind change: just prior to our big storms, the temperature drops a few degrees and a sudden, steady wind starts blowing from the direction of the storm. The storm usually hits within a few minutes of this effect, and prairie thunderstorms are incredibly powerful (we’ve had more tornados in Saskatchewan this year than in any U.S. state). My parents were unfamiliar with this prairie phenomena, and so were caught in the storm.

    What’s interesting about this is that all of the locals responded to the weather without talking to each other. The game was just suddenly over. Had they discussed it, they would have been too late to get out of the weather.

    • That’s wonderful, thank you for sharing. The same thing happens here right before the thunder sets in, the temperatures drop and the wind increases, and it is noticeably cooler. We have some tornadoes here, as well as thunderstorms in the summer (due to the day time heating and humidity levels here).

  2. Hi, this is a really fascinating set of observations.

    There is another very interesting project attempting to preserve local knowledge in the Arctic by the National Snow and Ice Data Center called Eloka:

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