When it Rains, it Pours: The Story of Weird Rain

Have you ever wondered where the term “it’s raining cats and dogs” comes from?  We live in a world where all manner of things is known to fall from the sky.  Most commonly, of course, we’re talking about water, in its various forms.  Mist, fog, drizzle, showers, rain, torrents, hail, sleet, snow, fish, frogs, worms, spiders and unidentified chunks of meat.

It may not be as exotic as the rain of diamonds and glass as has been suggested might fall on certain exo-planets identified by NASA, but our little blue ball sends some fairly weird stuff hurling from the heavens.

In answer to the opening question, no one really has any good idea where it came from, but there are some theories.  The leading explanation stems from the thatched roofs of merry old England, where small animals, such as cats and dogs, would borough into to the insulating material of the roof for shelter and would fall out during heavy rains.  This has never been confirmed, and there are other theories that compete for the ‘most plausible’ position.

As mentioned above though, there is a history of some pretty strange stuff raining down on our streets and heads, besides the usual Dihydrogen Monoxide.  There are more than 17 documented cases of small animals (and other things) falling from the sky since 1861, and no doubt many more prior to that time.  In fact there are depictions of fish rain from as far back as 1555 and earlier.

Pluie de poissons, gravure d’O. Magnus, 1555

One of the strangest cases of non-rain rain, is that of the Cosmic Meat from Olympia Springs, Bath County, Kentucky (USA) on March 3, 1876.

As reported in the New York Times on March 10, 1876, a woman named Mrs. Crouch was in her yard, making soap when what appeared to be small chunks of meat started falling from the sky.[1]  She described them as resembling large snowflakes, but some of the pieces were said to be as large as four inches cubed.  Eyewitnesses claimed that the meat looked like beef, though two men who either bravely or foolishly tasted it, said it was either venison or mutton.

The weird thing, as though meat rain isn’t weird enough, is that according to Mrs. Crouch, the sky was perfectly clear.  Several theories were passed about, and through analysis of the meat by a number of doctors, it was said that the most likely culprit was vultures or buzzards.  The doctors found that the meat was a combination of lung tissue, muscle tissue and connective tissues with cartilage, most likely being of equine origin.[2]  Officials believed that buzzards had feasted on a freshly dead horse nearby, and while flying overhead, one of the birds disgorged itself (threw up), and as they are apparently known to do, the rest of the flock followed suit, ultimately casting their dinner down on the head of Mrs. Crouch.

Photomicrograph of particles from red rain sample

The meat rain covered an area of approximately 5000 square yards, which raises the question; just how many buzzards would be required to achieve such coverage?  And would a large number of birds be able to fly high enough so as to be invisible to the naked eye from the ground?

The buzzard theory was the most plausible explanation of the time, though there was really only one competing idea, so calling it the most plausible doesn’t say much.  That other theory was forwarded by American journalist, humourist and author William L. Alden, wherein he claimed that cosmic meat floated about in outer-space with some abundance, and would, occasionally, fall to Earth in the manner of meteorites.[3]

Fresh meat isn’t the only weird thing to fall from the skies though, according to Wikipedia, as recently as September 12, 2013, fish were reported to have rained down in Chennai, which is the capitol city of Tamil Nadu, India.  Frogs too, are known to fall from the heavens.  Theories as to how this happens range from the suction of waterspouts which then fuel storms over land, bring small fish and other animals from lakes and other bodies of water, eventually depositing them far from their homes as the storm loses its momentum.  Others have suggested that fish eggs are taken up by these waterspouts, wherein the eggs hatch in the clouds, resulting in baby fish raining down.  Though it seems unlikely the eggs could stay airborne for a sufficient period of time for this to be true.

A single spore viewed with a transmission electron microscope, purportedly showing a detached inner capsule.

Recent headlines told the story of another strange weather phenomenon occurring in India.  This time it wasn’t an animal per se, but red rain.  As a part of an ongoing phenomenon, the last event occurring as recently as December 2012, residents of Sri Lanka and other parts of the Indian subcontinent found themselves in the midst of a strange series of rain storms that would turn their clothes pink.  In contrast to the above, this was rain, in that it consisted of water, but…it was red.  Other colours have been reported over the years, from yellow to brown to green, and there has been a good deal of debate as to what exactly it is.

Early theories suggested that perhaps it was some kind of bacteria in the water, perhaps picked up from local waste waters or the Indian Ocean, which is currently the official explanation.  Others said perhaps, it was fine meteor dust trapped in the upper atmosphere being condensed by the action of the rain.  Close analysis didn’t bear that theory out, however.

In January of 2006, two physicists from the Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam India, published a paper in the journal Astrophysics and Space Science, which suggested that the red rain was in fact caused by extraterrestrial biological cells brought to Earth via comets and meteors.[4]  This theory, of course, is hotly contested, but it remains a part of the discussion.

So, as mentioned earlier, no one really knows where the phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs” came from, but if experience is anything to go by, perhaps it harkens to an actual event where it really did rain cats and dogs.  Maybe not though.

[1] Author unknown. Flesh Descending in a Shower.  New York Times, March 10, 1876. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=FB0914F9355B127B93C2A81788D85F428784F9

[2] Mysterious Showers of Meat. Scientific American – Supplement 2,437. July 22, 1877 http://rr0.org/time/1/8/7/6/07/22/MysteriousShowerOfMeat_ScientificAmerican/index.html

[3] Alden, William L. Domestic Explosives and Other Sixth Column Fancies (From the New York Times). Lovell, Adam, Wesson & Company, 1877.  Page: 50-52 https://openlibrary.org/books/OL20463677M/Domestic_Explosives_and_Other_Sixth_Column_Fancies_(From_the_New_York_Times)

[4] Godfrey Louis, A. Santhosh Kumar. The red rain phenomenon of Kerala and its possible extraterrestrial origin. Astrophysics, Space Sci. 302 (2006) 175-187. arXiv:astro-ph/0601022

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