August 01, 2014

Weather sticks are a traditional means of predicting the weather by use of a natural material. Made from a balsam fir tree, the dried sticks turn up in sunny weather and turn down as foul weather approaches. It seems no one knows just when or where they originated, but they are said to have originated in the Northeast United States or in Southeastern Canada. Some say they were “invented” by the Abenaki Indians centuries ago. Many people believe they can predict tomorrow’s weather by the movement of the weather sticks.

The weather sticks “smile” in an upward curve on a nice, sunny day.

Weather sticks are available for sale from many sources. In eastern states, farm supplies, gift shops, pet stores, even grocery stores are well stocked with their own variation of weather sticks. They can even be purchased on-line as Old Time, Balsam, Farmer’s, or Woodsman’s weather sticks. I was surprised at the price of $10 to $20 for such a simple stick, when you can easily make you own.

Since there seems to be a market for them, it occurs to me that an entrepreneur could buy a $50 balsam fir Christmas tree, then, after Christmas, cut off all the branches and sell them for $10 each as weather sticks. But, I digress.

To make your own weather stick, look for a small balsam fir tree about an inch in diameter. Cut out a 4 inch section of the trunk above and below the spot where two small branches, about 24 inches long, reach in opposite directions. Then, strip off all of the bark and needles, leaving only the trunk section and the two small bare branches. Without bark, the branches will dry quickly. After drying, the weather sticks can be nailed under the eaves of a barn or cabin. Be sure to mount the branches upside down from the way they grew on the tree. Then, just watch them as they move in relation to the weather. The sticks will turn up into a nice “smile” when the weather is good and down into a “frown” when the weather is bad.

There are variations to this approach. A single small branch, ΒΌ inch in diameter, attached to a section of trunk will work just as well. Even a single balsam fir branch cut from the tree and stuck into a hole drilled into a base plate will work. One account says that a small sapling, cut off at ground level and stripped of all branches and needles will respond as a weather stick as well as any other method. Weather sticks will last for many years. Some have been in use for as many as 20 years and are still working.

I made my own weather sticks last summer and have been mystified by them ever since. Yes, they do work. But how do they work? This has been studied many times and there is a lot of confusing and conflicting information, ideas, and opinions available on how and why they work.

First, there is the “reaction wood” theory. As a branch grows out from the tree there is a difference in the tiny wood cells on the top of the branch when compared to the cells on the bottom of the branch. The bottom cells are said to be under compression from holding the branch up. Thus, some stimulus in weather patterns causes the branch to bend up or down because of the difference in the wood cells. However, a weather stick made from a small sapling, cut off at ground level, disproves this theory. It still works, even though it has no “reaction wood” because it grew straight upward.

Next is the “relative humidity” theory. This theory suggests that balsam fir trees naturally hang their branches downward in dry (low humidity) weather to conserve moisture. The branches are then spread upward in wet (high humidity) weather to absorb moisture. One study, found on the internet, used an enclosed box fitted with a humidity controlling system to scientifically prove that the branches moved in response to changes in humidity. Weather sticks are traditionally mounted upside down, but I did mount one set of weather sticks in their natural position, as they were on the tree, and guess what, they worked in reverse, down in good weather, up in bad, just as the branches on the tree. This theory could be true, but is the phenomena really that simple?

There is also the “barometric pressure” theory of why weather sticks work. Barometric pressure is the weight, or pressure, on the earth created by the atmosphere. The pressure rises and falls in relation to weather patterns. A school teacher once had her class make weather sticks and record, and graph, the daily changes in barometric pressure and movement of the sticks. However, I couldn’t see any correlation in her records and my own records didn’t prove this theory either.

Watching my weather sticks has been very interesting. The changes can be drastic. I’ve seen them wrapped into such a tight upward curve that the sticks seemed in danger of breaking. The very next day the sticks were curved down, with rain water dripping from the tips. I tried keeping weather records to solve the mystery and I ended up just where many others have ended up. I don’t know how they work!

My best guess is the “dew point” theory. From my records I noticed that the higher the temperature is above the dew point, the higher the sticks raise up into a “smile” As the temperature drops and nears the dew point, the sticks move down. Temperatures at or below dew point cause the sticks to “frown”. The movement of the sticks is not instant, but they do seem to follow this theory. Of course, dew point is closely related to relative humidity.

Some people claim that they can predict the weather by the movement of the sticks. Others argue that weather sticks don’t actually predict the weather, they only react to weather changes. One guy said he was going to send a weather stick to his TV weatherman, “Because I think the stick works better than he does.”

Weather sticks are fun to make, interesting to watch and are a great conversation piece. For a great outdoor learning experience, I suggest helping some youngsters make a weather stick. Then sit back and watch the fun.