Saturday, 18 February 2012

Can you foretell the weather? Do you really want to?

Agricultural calendar, mosaic,
IV Cent., Zaragoza Museum
(WEEKEND SPECIAL) A very ancient practice in Spain, other parts of the Mediterranean and in South America, is called cabañuelas in Andalucía. The name, it is believed, comes from the Jewish festivities surrounding the Tabernacle. A Toledo document of 1450 mentions that the Jews hung forty cabañuelas in their section of the city in memory of the forty years the nation spent wandering the desert. As the festivity includes rites referring to weather prediction, the word could well have come into Castilian Spanish to mean just that. This, of course, is not necessarily true but the need to forecast the weather is as ancient as man: what would the weather be like when we all went off to kill a dinosaur? (You laugh, but you should have seen local hunters checking the weather a few days before they went out last Sunday - on the Internet, of course.)>>>
Another word for cabañuelas, used in the North of Spain, is témporas, which has the same Latin root as tiempo (weather, also time), and is also a term used for 'season' in places, as well as for 12 month weather forecasting.

Humanity has always needed to know what the weather is likely to do. Keeping a close eye on the sky has always been the start of predictions, myths and fears. In cabañuelas, experience and tradition play a vital role.

The first references to these predictions (we use the word not only as a sinonym of 'weather forecast' but also in its wider sense) come from references to the Babylonian New Year, called Zamuk, a sort of 'festival of predictions'. This included a ceremony called Akitu, during which the weather was predicted for the next twelve months. The first scientific treatise on weather forecasting was written by Aristotle, who describes as valid a number of long term methods.

Calendario Zaragozano, 1865
Understandably, the arrival of scientific meteorology (notice the word 'meteor' in there) put cabañuelas on a low heat back burner. Nevertheless, they were used quite extensively in Spain until the 1940s. The Calendario Zaragozano (a Spanish version of, say, Moore's Almanac) is published annually since 1840 and includes the results of cabañuelas.

Present day meteorology accepts that short term forecasting using popular methods but calls long term predictions a mere pseudo-science.

There are very similar methods used in India and Malasia, as well as in Africa, but predictions do not begin on the same day. For instance, in South America they start in January, or midsummer, while in India they begin in the winter.

Each culture has its own method but as far as can be ascertained, the area of influence of any one method does not extend beyond 80 kms. Further away, and the methods are similar but not exactly the same.

These methods will use a large number of indicators that include the shape of clouds, wind direction, the aspects of the sun and the moon, the stars, fog, morning dew, rainbows and hail, among many more.

The behaviour of animals is often used to forecast rain. The appearance of flying ants, for instance, or the way the mules twitch their ears, whether pigeons take a full bath, the way a cat might wash its face, whether a cockerel sings during daylight (possible change in the weather), cats running and jumping (wind is coming - poor cats!). Then there's Groundhog Day in the US.

Human beings were also part of the prediction. If an old scar itched, a change in weather was near, for example. If furniture creaked, soot came down the chimney, drains smelled and other such 'human' things, were also used.

In Spain, forecasting via cabañuelas is almost exclusively carried out by country people, who usually rely on their observations of the first 2 days of August each year to predict the weather for the remaining 12 months.

There is no scientific basis on which to base cabañuelas, among other reasons because correct forecasts for a much wider area cannot be obtained from observations from only one particular spot. Weather does not develop independently from one place to another: for instance, a storm that devloped thousands of miles away can reach us and change a sunny day into a hail storm in short order. The atmosphere is a chaotic system in which little changes in remote places can have a large influence somewhere else.

There are plenty of other criticisms about cabañuelas and their international cousin methods, not least one that says that by the time the forecasts are made, and dates come about, the predictions have been forgotten anyway.

In Spain, the so-called experts cabañuelistas are organized in the Asociación Cultural Española de Cabañuelas y Astrometereología (ACECA) and every year they report the weather for the coming twelve months.

The cabañuelistas in Spain claim that cabañuelas is "an empirical science" and that its origin is thousands of years old, when the "only reference of the wether was the Moon"; even the Egyptians used to measure the levels of the Nile waters, the Sirius star, among others.

As far as we're concerned, we either have a brolly handy or not. And then, of course, there's our Weather Widget on the sidebar.

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