Weather Myths: True or False?

2017-07-10 14:39:52.000 – Margaret Jividen, Summit Intern


Here at the Observatory, we enjoy not only educating others on meteorology, but also learning! No matter your age, I’m sure you’ve heard (and maybe even believed!) some of these weather myths:

Myth #1: Toilets flush the opposite way in the Southern Hemisphere because of the Coriolis Effect.

Verdict: FALSE!

The truth: The way a toilet spins when it flushes has nothing more to it than the way the plumbing and toilet itself is built. The Coriolis Effect does exist: it is the deflection of an object due to the rotation of the Earth. However, the Coriolis force does not affect an object’s trajectory unless it is traveling quite a long distance, such as hundreds of miles. Hurricanes and other low pressure systems are large enough and travel far enough to be affected: hurricanes of the Northern Hemisphere rotate counter clockwise, whereas they rotate clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. This leads to an idea called the Buys-Ballots Law: if an observer’s back is to the wind, the low pressure system will to be the left, and the high pressure to the right (in the Northern Hemisphere). Unfortunately, the reason that some drains may spin the opposite direction in Australia is just a matter of plumbing.


Figure 1: A schematic of how the Coriolis force affects a parcel’s path (Image from the University of Illinois WW2010 Project)

Myth #2: A clear day with blue skies and high temperatures can be the most dangerous: watch out for heat lightning!

Verdict: Mostly false.

The truth: When most people think about the term “heat lightning”, they think that high temperatures and dry air can lead to spontaneous lightning. While heat alone cannot cause this, lightning can travel over 5 miles from the storm it originated from. This means that while there may be blue skies overhead, there is still a very, very slight chance that lightning may jump from a nearby storm cell to an area barren of clouds, but you would most likely have already seen this storm somewhere on the horizon, and heard the thunder.

Myth #3: If there is less than a foot of water across a road, you can safely cross by speeding quickly through it.

Verdict: FALSE, and very dangerous!

The truth: Flash flooding is one of the most dangerous consequences of severe storms. It only takes 6 inches of water to reach the bottom of most passenger vehicles, and this causes a loss of control and possible stalling. More importantly, it is nearly impossible to accurately estimate how deep water is, especially by sight alone. It may look like only a few inches, but drivers often end up stranded, or worse, when they underestimate water depth. When water depths reach 12 inches, cars and small SUVs will float, surrendering all control to the danger of the waters. Adding speed only decreases control you have over the car. Two out of three flash flooding deaths occur in vehicles. When you encounter water on a roadway, whether it’s standing or moving, remember: turn around, don’t drown!

Myth #4: Tornadoes never occur in New England.

Verdict: FALSE!

The truth: While it is certainly true that tornadoes occur more often in the area of the United States known as “Tornado Alley”, tornadoes have occurred in all 50 states. A line of severe thunderstorms on July 1st of this year caused 5 confirmed tornadoes in eastern Maine—certainly not located in the Midwest! Any region of the country can see tornadoes, so always have a preparedness plan in place, no matter where you live.

Figure 2: Historical paths of tornadoes in New England (Wikipedia:

Myth #5: Meteorologists only work on television and the radio.

Verdict: FALSE!

The truth: Meteorologists come from many different backgrounds and places. While some are the friendly faces you are accustomed to seeing on the nightly news, others are rarely seen on any screen. Many meteorologists work as forecasters for the National Weather Service, cruise lines, airlines, sports teams, and beyond. Some prefer to crunch numbers and do analyses, working on research with the government, private companies, or universities. Others like to do a bit of research, but also work as professors, helping to make the meteorologists of tomorrow. Forensic meteorologists work with historical data, satellite imagery, and eyewitness accounts in order to piece together a past weather event, often for court cases or insurance claims. Many meteorologists work for the US Air Force, as knowing and being able to predict conditions in the upper atmosphere is crucial to our armed forces. Here at MWO, our work has a little bit of everything: working with the media, educating people of all ages, working on our ongoing research, and forecasting for the White Mountains region.

Figure 3: It isn’t all work at MWO: on June 11th, I had a chance to enjoy hurricane force gusts while the summit was in the clear.

Have you heard of any strange weather myths you’d like to know a little bit more about? Let us know!


Margaret Jividen, Summit Intern

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