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231 Varieties of Rain: Frogdrops Keep Falling on My Head

Poor Rob McKenna. He drives a truck, so he’s constantly moving, never in the same place for long. And yet everywhere he goes—city, country, near, far, morning, afternoon—it doesn’t matter, wherever Rob is, it’s raining. He can turn, reverse, zigzag, it doesn’t matter. Clouds just follow him, and to prove it (because who would believe this?) he keeps a log and shares it with his friend Arthur Dent, who says, You should show this to scientists. He does, and the scientists tell him, Rob McKenna, we know what you are. You are a Quasi Supernormal Incremental Precipitation Inducer.

What’s that?

He’s a “Rain God.” That’s the gist. Clouds see him and can’t help themselves. They love him and want “to be near him, to cherish him, and to water him.” And the worst of it is, Rob (a totally fictional character in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) hates rain. Can’t abide it. But the rain doesn’t care. So Rob tries to get along. He turns his curse into a part time job: Hotels and vacation spots pay him not to go there. He becomes a regular at a pub called the Thundercloud Corner, where he sits, grimly staring out the window at … well … at scenes like this:

But because he spends so much time staring at rain, Rob learns to see rainfall as no one has seen it before; he sees its many shapes, moods. He realizes, in the words of poet Conrad Aiken, that raindrops are “the syllables of water,” that rain can take hundreds of different forms.

There’s lashing rain, sheets of rain, rain pissing, bucketing, pouring. There are drizzles. There are mizzles. But Rob McKenna likes superspecific categories. He’s a taxonomist. And so he creates his own rain glossary; it’s described in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish—the fourth book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series—with its 231 different rain types:

There’s “light pricking drizzle which made the roads slippery” (type 33).

There’s “vertical light drizzle” (type 47).

There’s “heavy spotting” (type 39) .

There’s “regular” cab-drumming and “syncopated cab-drumming” (types 126 and 127).

There’s “dirty blatter blattering against his windscreen so hard that it didn’t make much odds whether he had his wipers on or off” (type 17).

I love parsing through Rob’s categories. Being a rain gazer myself (and rain, by the way, feels especially noticeable here in New York, where I live) …

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The wonderful graphic designer T. Kyle MacMahon—known as “tkyle”—is especially good at capturing the joys of rain-gazing. GIF by tkyle
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GIF by “tkyle”

… I couldn’t help but notice that something is missing from Rob’s list. He limits himself to one kind of rain—the kind that rains water, what you might call “raindrop rains.” But, in fact, there are other kinds.

In her book Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, Cynthia Barnett mentions Jonathan Swift’s fanciful metaphor “raining cats and dogs” (a coinage from 1738), but she then goes on to describe actual, unfanciful, documented rains of—and I kid you not—golf balls, fish, and, though I’ve heard about this before, frogs. As in, raining frogs (or toads).
Frog rain is shockingly normal.

Drip, Drop, Thunk

Barnett writes that in June 1954, Sylvia Mowday and her kids were in a park in Sutton Coldfield, just north of Birmingham, England, when it began to rain. They opened their umbrellas and were heading for shelter when all of a sudden they felt “gentle thuds” on their umbrella tops, “too soft for hail.” When they looked, they saw tiny frogs, “wee bodies” falling from the sky.

Maybe that’s what you’re seeing in this video—posted from Knox County, Ohio, on June 11, 2012—which shows (after the filmmaker, “MrKoozzz,” focuses) teeny frogs, all facing the same way, after a rain. (Alternate explanation: Could they be migrating? Hopping from one pond to another? Nope, they arrived by rain, writes MrKoozzz. “That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”)

In 1873, Scientific American ran eyewitness accounts of a frog rain in Kansas City, Missouri. It happened again, Barnett writes, in 1901, in Minnesota. There are ancient accounts, medieval accounts, even battlefield stories. During a French/Austrian battle in 1794 …

“A hot afternoon was broken by such heavy showers that 150 soldiers had to abandon their trench as it filled with rainwater. In the middle of the storm, tiny toads began to pelt down and jump in all directions. When the rain let up, the soldiers discovered more toads in the folds of their three-cornered hats.”

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Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Assuming that all these stories—or at least some of them—are true, how do hundreds of toads manage to get airborne? Little toads—teeny as they are, are much heavier than raindrops. “Modern meteorologists,” Barnett explains, believe that “tornadoes and waterspouts are the most likely culprits.” High winds, especially whirlwinds, pick up water, toads, frogs (fish, golf balls) and all, and whisk them across the sky for a little while, then lose speed and dump the contents on, for example, Sylvia Mowday and her kids.

(Though, Cynthia wonders, if a whirlwind can pull a frog up into the sky, where’s the algae, the other pond plants, the fish? Why didn’t the Mowdays get hit with pond scum? She doesn’t know.)

But frog rain happens. Maybe not as often as rain type 49 (“sharply slanting light drizzle”) or type 51 (“light to moderate drizzle freshening”) or a “dirty blatter battering,” but frogs have been falling from the skies often enough, long enough, that I think they’ve earned the right to be called precipitation.

It’s odd that Rain God Rob MacKenna would leave them out. But he’s a lesser deity. The Big Guy, as you may recall, was more frog-friendly. Just ask Pharaoh …

For the best, craziest, most over-the-top frog rain ever (particularly the slack-jawed look on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s startled face when giant toads begin falling from the sky into his brilliantly lit swimming pool), there is nothing better than Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 movie Magnolia. If you dare (and I suggest you do … but it’s pretty graphic …) take a look …