Nature's Warning Signs of Approaching Natural Disasters

By Michael KasianLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:14:28 PM ET
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Severe weather systems like hurricanes, avalanches and wildfires pose a threat to anyone in their path. But what if there were ways to avoid danger by observing the environment around you?

Scientists have followed behavioral patterns in storm systems, animals, insects, and other natural phenomena to uncover helpful hints to keep you safe. These natural disaster safety tips are surefire ways to keep yourself out of harm’s way. 

Head to Higher Ground if the Ocean Level Drops

If you’re enjoying a day at the beach along the Pacific Rim and notice the ocean tides start to roll away fast, head to higher ground immediately. That’s nature’s way of telling you, “a tsunami is heading your way real soon.”

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Tsunamis are long, powerful waves created by subsea earth movements and can rise to 100 feet tall. When there’s a powerful enough earthquake in the Pacific Ocean, water quickly retracts to help feed the wave. So the next time you see the water levels dropping to reveal coral, boats or ocean dwelling animals in the sand, get running. 

Small Earthquakes Near a Volcano Indicate Imminent Eruption

Volcanic earthquakes may be smaller than major quakes, but volcanologists go on high alert when a volcano starts to shake. This is normally a reliable sign that the volcano is going to erupt within the next few weeks, prompting evacuations of nearby communities.

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When magma rises, it causes the solid rock around it to break, which creates the small earthquakes felt around the volcano. Thankfully, these small quakes leave plenty of time for you to receive the news that it’s time to clear the area. 

Developing Cracks on the Ground is a Landslide in the Making

Have you noticed the ground around you developed a little more character in the last couple of hours? If you spot more cracks on the street, or even on your house’s foundation, it could mean a landslide is developing.

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A landslide is any downward sloping movement of soil and rock under the direct influence of gravity. The final results of a landslide are often disastrous, so pay attention to the ground around you. Even strong surfaces like pavement can suddenly crack before a landslide brings them down.  

If Animals Start Panicking, You Might Experience an Earthquake

Scientists are still debating the exact time frame, but your house pets may have a leg up on detecting earthquakes before you do. Cats, dogs, and other small critters are known to get anxious and run away moments before an earthquake strikes.

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These animals are able to sense the preliminary waves that signal an earthquake ahead of the more destructive seismic waves. Humans can’t detect the first set of waves, but your spooked pets could give you enough time to run outside where it’s safer.  

If Animals Run Towards You, There’s a Wildfire Nearby

If you notice panicked woodland animals are running towards you, it may mean that there’s a wildfire nearby. Foxes, squirrels or other critters will forgo their usual fear of humans and run as far away from the fires in whatever direction they need to. 

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Of course, a wildfire can also be easily detected by accumulations of smoke in a concentrated area. However, if you’re ever unsure whether what you’re seeing is wildfire smoke or fog and some bears run past you in a panic, it’s likely a wildfire and you should head in a similar direction. 

A Sudden Drop in Temperature on a Cloudy Day Could Mean Hail

If it suddenly gets very cold outside on a gray, rainy day, there’s a high likelihood that it’s about to start hailing. Cold fronts in poor weather are a strong indicator that hailstorms are on the way and you should head indoors for safety.

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In order for clouds to produce hail, they must have two things: high moisture content and very low temperatures throughout most of the cloud. If you live at a high-altitude, you are likely more frequently affected by hail storms because the air freezes more easily at high elevation. 

An Increased Ocean Swell Means a Hurricane Is On Its Way

Roughly three days before a hurricane makes landfall, ocean swell increases around six feet in height. The swell creates giant ocean waves that crash against the shore about every nine seconds. This is one of the earliest signs of an impending hurricane.

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When the hurricane gets closer to making landfall, the ocean swell can increase to a terrifying 16 feet. At this point, you should have already headed towards safety from the storm. You don't want to be around for those waves, or for the storm that's rapidly approaching.  

A Tree with Deep Cracks Could Collapse at a Moment’s Notice

If you’re curious about home safety, you might want to check the trees around your property. Some trees may be revealing that they could tumble over. One of the more obvious signs is deep cracks developing along the bark of the tree. The tree’s weight could be unevenly distributed, causing it to separate itself until it collapses. 

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It’s also a good idea to check your trees for hollowed out holes in the bark, or any dead and low-leaning branches. A strong wind can take down a tree with these warning signs, so do yourself (and your wallet) a favor and inspect the trees on your property. 

Dead Fish on the Shore Reveals a Red Tide

If a series of dead aquatic animals has washed ashore, it’s a good idea to stay out of the water. When microscopic algae in the ocean receive an excess of nutrients, they can multiply in massive numbers, with dangerous results for nearby life.

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This is what is called a red tide, which gets its name from its occasional discoloration of the water. Even consuming aquatic life caught during a red tide can cause illness in humans, which is why red tides temporarily shut down coastal tourist destinations. 

Fish Jumping Irregularly Could Mean an Earthquake Is Imminent

On the flip side, if you notice that fish are jumping out of the water, it could mean that an earthquake is rapidly approaching. There is a debate over whether catfish and other fish species can sense changes in electrical impulses in the water caused by impending natural disasters like earthquakes.

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This speculation dates all the way back to Japanese folklore, but the scientific community hasn’t yet reached a verdict on its validity. The giant oarfish’s name in Japan translates to “messenger from the sea god’s palace” and supposedly makes more frequent appearances around the time of powerful seismic activity. 

Cold Ground on a Wet, Windy Day Means a Blizzard Is Approaching

A blizzard is a large snow storm with winds above 35mph and low visibility for at least three hours. They are potentially very dangerous storms, but you can stay out of harm's way if you keep the three major ingredients of a blizzard in mind.

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The ground temperature has to be cold enough so the rain that falls can freeze. Additionally, if the wind isn’t blowing, it’s just a snowstorm. Wind needs to blow hard enough to lower visibility for the storm to be considered a blizzard. Listen, none of these conditions sound enjoyable, so on a cold, wet, windy day, your best bet is to stay inside before things get dangerous.  

Cracks in the Snow Are Signs of an Avalanche

If you’re having a great ski session but notice cracks along the snow, it’s a telltale sign that an avalanche is looming. When there is extensive snow cracking along the side of a mountain, it means the snow isn't set on the ground below and is considered extremely unstable. Get off the slope and head to safety immediately.

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You can also detect an unstable snow floor as you walk in the snow. If it’s easy to reach the ground through the snow and there’s extra drop to your steps, it means the ground beneath you is unstable and could easily start to rush downhill.  

Development of a Circular Depression Warns of a Sinkhole

If a new, circular area starts to slowly sink into the ground, it is a sign that a sinkhole is in the works. Before the void of space collapses the ground completely, it tends to droop downward. This early indicator could be a warning sign that saves you or your house from danger.

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It’s also helpful to pay attention to the water around you when you suspect a sinkhole may be forming. Newly sunken ground sometimes collects water, forming a circular puddle or small lake. If water goes missing in the dropping area, the rainwater has moved to the underground space that the sinkhole created.   

Low Flying Birds Mean a Storm Is Brewing

Birds respond to the usual drop in air pressure before a storm by flying low to the ground. Right before a storm hits, they’ll avoid flying entirely. Farmers follow the phrase, “If birds fly low, expect rain and a blow” to track their crops during stormy seasons.

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Others believe birds fly low before storms to get closer to bugs, who also fly lower as a storm approaches. This tactic keeps birds closer to their prey before the bugs disappear to protect themselves from the storm. Being bird brained may have its benefits after all.  

A Funnel Cloud Means a Tornado is Forming

If you happen to come across a funnel cloud, head towards safety immediately. A funnel cloud indicates that a tornado is likely to touch ground and start wreaking havoc in the area. Head away from the funnel cloud or get underground for protection.

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Like other clouds, funnel clouds contain condensed water particles. But funnel clouds have the distinction of being the only cone-shaped clouds that develop in a storm. If the air is warm enough, the swirling cloud has the capability to touch down and become an active tornado.  

Glossy Ground is a Sign of Slippery Black Ice

Black ice typically forms when it’s raining and the air is at or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The low temperature causes the rainwater to freeze, creating the ice on the ground. But black ice isn’t black, it’s translucent, making it particularly hard to spot on roads or sidewalks.

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Be sure to pay attention before you step into your car after a cold storm. If you can see both shiny patches and dry patches of pavement, you’re likely looking at black ice. Stay calm and refrain from sudden increases or decreases in your speed to avoid unwanted collisions.  

Crystals on Top of Snow Is a Key Ingredient of Avalanches

If you spot tiny crystals developing on top of fallen snow, be on the alert. A crystal that shines like a diamond atop the snow is hoarfrost, and it's a key ingredient of avalanches. When it snows on top of a collection of hoarfrost, it creates a very loose layer of snow that can move around. That loose layer can sometimes fall prey to gravity, causing an avalanche.

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Think of hoarfrost like frozen morning dew. It takes shape as water vapor collects near the ground, but rather than staying wet, freezes upon development. Be on the lookout for hoarfrost when you’re on your next mountainside trail. That area may be the source of the mountain’s next avalanche.  

Green Skies Above Mean a Serious Storm Is Approaching

If a red sky from a sunset mixes with giant, thick, gray clouds, the results can produce a threatening green cloud. Green clouds only occur when a cloud is both tall and dense enough, which are the typical ingredients for a major storm cloud.

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It’s a good idea to avoid green clouds at all costs. They are usually a sign of a serious thunderstorm approaching, but they could also be a sign of something worse. Tornados and hail storms are also known to follow the presence of a green cloud, but they aren’t as common. 

A Wall of Debris Developing Means a Dust Storm Is En Route

Dust storms most frequently appear in the hot summer months and are always followed by thunderstorms. If there are large storm clouds and high winds on the horizon, a wall of dust and debris can pick up, creating the dust storm wall.

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The windy conditions and lightweight components of the debris make dust storms move quickly. They can be thousands of feet high and stretch several miles long, making them easy to spot, but difficult to avoid. Head indoors to protect your lungs and eyes from exposure, and be sure to pull over if you’re driving.  

A Halo Around the Sun or Moon Means Rain or Snow Will Come Soon

This helpful rhyme can serve as a friendly reminder the next time you spot a large ring of light around the sun or the moon. The halos that can appear out of nowhere are caused by sunlight or moonlight careening off of thin cirrus clouds.

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These slim cirrus clouds are made up of tiny ice crystals that reflect the light, creating the halos. While the air may seem like it’s free from storms when you see a halo, beware. Cirrus clouds appear before a storm develops, which can follow within the next day or two 

High Temperatures Are Approaching When Ladybugs Gather

During summer months, you may notice your garden has some tiny red residents. Ladybugs eat aphids, the soft little insects that suck the juices out of your summer crops. But be on the alert when a large number of ladybugs gather on top of one another in the summertime.

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That group of ladybugs is actually trying to keep from drying out due to impending hot temperatures. A ladybug can dry out if it’s in a very hot climate, so to preserve their body moisture, they’ll hover together in tight groups to stay moist. This means that the heat is going to get worse, and that you should plan accordingly. 


A Roar of Rushing Water is the Sound of a Flash Flood

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, flash floods are the single deadliest storm-related weather hazard in the United States. These sudden floods will appear within six hours of a slow-moving storm. The sound of a rush of water nearby is a telltale sign that you need to get to higher ground as fast as you can.

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Flash floods can be very destructive. Bridges, buildings, and plant life are all at risk when a flash flood takes shape and rushes by. Be on high alert for flash floods when you’re near smaller rivers and streams after a storm. 

 

A Loud, Train-Like Sound on Land Is a Tornado

The sound of a train passing by can be a soothing, comfortable hum. But when there’s no train around and you hear the sound, it means a tornado is approaching fast. If the gray sky and high winds didn't give it away, the train-like howl of destruction should be enough to alert you.

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As a tornado rips through densely-populated areas, it can create a lot of loud, simultaneous noises. The destructive storm tears apart trees and buildings, so the sounds can all fuse together to sound like a giant, angry freight train.  

A Loud, Train-Like Sound Near Water Is a Tsunami

On the flip side, if you hear a train-like roar and you’re by the ocean, it means that a tsunami is approaching. The massive rush of water that collects as a result of an earthquake gives little warning outside of the barreling blast.

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If you experience this phenomenon, don’t wait for other warning signs. A dangerous tsunami is not something you want to be a part of, and humans cannot run faster than the destructive wave. Move away from the water as quickly as possible

Lightning May Soon Strike if Your Hair Stands on End

Lightning strikes the United States almost 25 million times each year. Before lightning touches down, invisible electrical charges move up houses, trees, and even you! The charge can work its way up your body and make your hair stand on end, like rubbing a balloon on your head.

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Take nature’s final warning about nearby lightning seriously, as the repercussions of being in the crossfire can be life-changing. People who have felt lightning strikes can endure lifelong pain because of misfiring nerve damage. Try to stay indoors and away from phone lines.  

Louder Frogs Warn of Very Wet Weather

If you live in an area with frogs, you’re used to the sounds of occasional croaking. However, when the sounds of frogs start to pick up, that means you should head for your umbrella, as frogs will increase their croaking rate before the rain starts pouring.

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When frogs mate, they lay their eggs in bodies of freshwater. When frogs sense moisture approaching, they know to start calling out with a croak to attract themselves a mate. With more opportunities to store their fertilized eggs, it makes sense why an active frog symphony can precede some serious rainfall. 

Honey Bees Are Very Busy Before a Storm

Honey Bees are also helpful critters when it comes to predicting weather conditions. In fact, they can be even better weather forecasters than frogs. The bees know they must protect their food stores for the lean times ahead and work overtime before a major storm keeps them in their hives.

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Scientists observed spikes in defensive behavior when the bees were observed before major storms. Sensors attached to bees in other studies revealed that they work more aggressively and for longer hours before a storm begins. Scientists claim that this is the result of meteorological factors like temperature, humidity, wind speed, and barometric pressure.

A Cross Sea Is a Dangerous Time to Be in the Water

Sometimes nature’s warning signs of danger can look almost otherworldly. A cross sea occurs when waves from one weather system forge forward, even though a shift in the wind has created waves in the other direction. It’s beautiful to look at from afar, but dangerous up close and personal. 

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When a boat or a person is in the water, they’re supposed to approach a wave head on to avoid getting engulfed. But if big waves are coming in many directions, things can get intense. Depending on the waves' size, it’s possible for large vessels to get tossed into the air if they come face to face with a cross sea. 

A Warbler Mass Migration Means Trouble’s Afoot

The adorable golden-winged warblers appear to have stellar storm avoiding instincts. According to a study conducted by Dr. Henry Streby in 2014, the warblers exhibited a well-documented migration away from a series of powerful weather systems in the U.S. that spawned 84 tornadoes and killed 35 people. 

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Two days before the storms hit Tennessee, all the birds Streby monitored with tracking devices flew south, avoiding danger. One week after the storms passed, the warblers all flew back to their territories in Tennessee. Streby suggests the birds were tipped off by the storm’s low-frequency sound waves and took flight, avoiding danger. 

A Wall Cloud Sighting Means a Storm Is Getting Intense

Wall clouds make their appearance once rising winds make the pressure drop under a storm system. The clouds, which can stretch up to five miles long, typically indicate where the strongest winds are occurring under the storm clouds. While they don't produce much rain of their own, they are still considered very dangerous.

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If the wall cloud starts to rotate, that’s where the trouble lies. A rotating wall cloud could produce destructive tornadoes, some of which may become strong and deadly. The site of a wall cloud should always be alarming to people nearby, as you don’t want to stick around for the tornado afterward.