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8 Common Weather Myths, Explained

The meteorological conditions we refer to as the weather can be the source of some pretty serious myths and misconceptions. Some are simply funny superstitions (like using onions to predict the severity of the coming winter). Others thought to be hoaxes or hallucinations (like ball lightning) are now proven to be actual phenomena. Here are eight common myths about the weather — including some that actually have a grain of truth to them.

Lightning Never Strikes the Same Place Twice

While everyone wishes it were true, this weather “fact” is false. Unfortunately, lightning can strike in the same location repeatedly — even during the same thunderstorm. This is especially true when it comes to tall objects, like TV antennas. For example, the Empire State Building is struck by lightning about 25 times per year.

Other common lightning myths include the idea that trees can provide safe shelter (your best bet is always to go indoors) and that touching a lightning victim might get you electrocuted. Fortunately, the human bodydoes not store electricity — which means you can perform first aid on someone struck by lightning without that particular fear.

Waterspouts Turn Into Tornadoes on Land

This one is both true and false. That’s because there are actually two types of waterspouts — those thin, rapidly swirling columns of air above water, sometimes seen in the Gulf of Mexico, Gulf Stream, and elsewhere.

The first is a “fair weather waterspout.” These form from the water up, move very little, and are typically almost complete by the time they’re visible. If they do move to land, they generally dissipate very quickly. The type known as “tornadic waterspouts,” on the other hand, are exactly what their name suggests: tornadoes that form over water, or move from land to water. Associated with severe thunderstorms, tornadic waterspouts can produce large hail and dangerous lightning. If they move to dry land, the funnel will pick up dirt and debris, just as a land-formed tornado would.

It’s Not Safe to Use Your Cellphone During a Thunderstorm

It’s not safe to use a landline when thunder and lightning are making the skies dramatic, just like it’s not safe to use any other appliances that are plugged in. But an (unplugged) cellphone should be fine, so long as you’re safely indoors. This myth may have arisen from situations in which people were struck by lightning and their cellphones melted, but it’s not because their cellphone “attracted” the lightning in any way. Of course, plugging in your cellphone (or laptop) to charge may present a danger.

Groundhogs Can Predict the Weather

The Groundhog Day tradition continues every February 2, when the members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club trek to Gobbler’s Knob, seeking weather wisdom from a series of woodchucks, all named “Punxsutawney Phil.” If Phil emerges from his burrow and sees his shadow (in bright sunshine), supposedly winter will hang around for six more weeks. If the day is overcast: Yay, early spring! The whole event is based on old Celtic superstitions, though, and Phil’s “predictions” are only correct about 40% of the time — but at least he’s no longer eaten after making the call.

A Green Sky Means a Tornado Is Coming

It’s a pretty rare event, but deep storm clouds filled with raindrops later in the day may scatter light in a way that makes the sky look green. Such storm clouds likely mean severe weather — thunder, lightning, hail, or even a tornado — is on its way, but it’s no guarantee of a twister per se. One thing’s for sure: It’s definitely not a sign that frogs or grasshoppers have been sucked into the sky by the storm, as people used to think.

Car Tires Protect Us From Lightning

It isn’t the rubber tires that can keep a person inside a car safe from a direct lightning strike; it’s the metal cage of the vehicle that conducts 300 million volts of electricity into the ground. If you can’t get to shelter during a thunderstorm and must be in your (hard-topped) car, keep the windows rolled up and your hands off the car’s exterior frame.

Spiders Spin Webs, Dry Weather Ahead

This saying has some truth to it. Spider webs are sensitive to humidity, absorbing moisture that can eventually cause their delicate strands to break. For this reason, most spiders will remain in place when rain is imminent. So it stands to reason (at least according to folklore) that if spiders are busily spinning their webs, they may know something that we don’t. In other words: Prepare for a beautiful day! (It’s also true that most spiders seek out damp places, so if you don’t want them taking up residence in your house, a dry home is less hospitable.)

Doors Are the Best Place to Be in an EarthquakeM

It’s not “weather” in the sense of atmospheric conditions, but earthquakes can be a pretty dramatic show of the Earth’s forces. Many of us learned this “tip” in school. However, the reality is that it was more true of older, unreinforced structures. Today, doorways generally aren’t stronger than other parts of the house, and the door itself may hit you in an earthquake. You’re far safer underneath a table or desk, particularly if it’s away from a window. (The CDC has more earthquake safety tips here.)

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