Nature’s Warning Signs That Disaster Is About To Strike
Going out in nature is refreshing and relaxing, but there’s always danger lurking around the corner. You may have street smarts, but lack wild-smarts. So instead of getting struck by lightning or drowning in a rip current, learn about the different ways nature warns you away from disaster and imminent natural disaster. Plus, sometimes you just can’t check the weather forecast and want to know if it’ll rain tomorrow.
1. Beware of a patch of J-shaped trees on a slope
Have you ever been hiking in the woods when you saw a patch of trees bent into a J shape? You may have escaped a very dangerous situation since that’s a sign of an upcoming landslide. The ground is moving very slowly, making the trees grow in the odd shape.
Another sign of potential landslide is cracking in the ground, which could be in the sidewalk, street, or dirt. Plus, if there was a landslide there before, another one may be on the way. Would-be rescuers have been buried in the second landslide. Landslides occur on slopes, though, so if you’re in a flat area you’re probably fine.
2. When the ocean level drops, danger is not far behind
If you’re walking along the beach in the Ring of Fire, aka the coasts along much of the Pacific Ocean, and the water starts receding, you may be in trouble. Are the coral reefs uncovered? Don’t waste any time looking at flopping fishes or pretty corals, get to high ground as fast as possible. A tsunami is likely on the way.
Tsunamis are usually formed when an earthquake happens underwater, which displaces the water above it. At this point, the waves can move as fast as a jet airplane — 500 miles per hour — across the ocean. You may as well keep a look out for the ocean level dropping along other beaches, because while tsunamis are most common in the Pacific, they happen elsewhere too.
3. A wall cloud in the sky might take you out of Kansas
Lying on the grass and watching fluffy white clouds may be a calming way to pass the time, but if you find yourself watching a wall cloud, get to shelter. Wall clouds sit lower than the rest of the thunderstorm and can be up to five miles long.
Quickly rising air makes the pressure drop below the storm, forming the wall cloud. But these formations can mean danger, because if the cloud is rotating, it could produce a destructive tornado. As we all learned from the Wizard of Oz, tornadoes can be the start to an amazingly colorful journey, but usually, they’re just bad news.
4. Steer clear of the channel of choppy waters at the beach
If you see a channel of choppy water on the beach, seaweed and debris moving away from the shore in a particular area, a section of discolored water, or a gap in the line of waves, it’s likely that a deadly rip current lies beneath the water’s surface. Commonly (though mistakenly) called riptides, rip currents are very fast, powerful channels of water flowing away from shore.
Rip currents kill over a hundred people in the U.S. every year and are responsible for most lifeguard rescues. You can check rip current risks before heading into the water, but if you do get caught in one, you should swim parallel to the shore to break out of the channel. Then head at an angle to shore. If you’re having trouble with that, you should flip, float, and follow. That means flip onto your back and float, then follow the path to safety. That can mean floating with the current until it dissipates.
5. If animals start leaving, an earthquake might be on the way
As far back as 373 BC Greece, people have reported that animals like rats, snakes, and insects flee their homes days before a large earthquake shakes the land. But so far these stories are not backed by science. Scientists don’t know what the animals are detecting — if they are actually sensing anything. It’s also pretty hard to study their behavior right before an earthquake.
Generally, animals can sense earthquakes a few seconds before humans, because they feel the initial small waves that we can’t detect. But while this could be marginally helpful, it won’t tell you to get out of the earthquake zone soon enough.
6. But if animals start running toward you, there could be a fire behind them
Alternatively, if you see birds and mammals flying and running toward you, there might be a wildfire behind them. Some animals, like amphibians, stay in the fire, burrowing underground to escape it, but others run as fast as they can. Of course, if you see smoke, that’s also a pretty good indicator of wildfire.
You’ve probably conjured up half a dozen animal-centric animated films in your head at this point. It seems like it’s always a fox or a horse or something running from fire and inevitably getting caught on a fallen log. You’ve always wanted your life to be a Disney film, right?
7. If your hair stands on end, take action
Lightning strikes may seem like the unicorns of natural threats, but more people die each year from lightning than unprovoked shark attacks. While the annual deaths have been declining greatly since the 1940s, it’s all because people are more aware of the danger (and, you know, medical advancements).
So if your hair starts standing on end and your jewelry starts buzzing, lightning is probably about to strike very close to you. Get to shelter immediately, or if you can’t, crouch low on the ground and make yourself a small target. Touch the ground as little as possible, resting on the balls of your feet, and then get out of the area when you can.
8. Sharks swimming to deeper waters probably means a hurricane is coming
In the off chance that you’re out in the ocean and you see a bunch of sharks swimming deeper in the water, it’s likely that a hurricane or tropical storm is approaching. They are probably sensing the drop in barometric pressure that accompanies the storm and trying to get out of the hectic zone.
Contrary to what popular movies like Jaws show, sharks do not have the sole mission of attacking humans. So instead of staying shallow and getting swept into nearby cities, sharks are trying to get to safety. Don’t believe those fake pictures of sharks in flooded malls and streets, because these animals didn’t evolve for millions of years to be that stupid.
9. If you hear a roar of rushing water, run to high ground
If it’s been raining a lot, you’re near a stream or river, and you hear a roar of rushing water, get to high ground immediately. It’s likely that a flash flood is about to spill out in front of you and, considering that floods are the second most deadly form of severe weather (in the U.S.), you don’t want to be caught in it.
Flash floods are incredibly powerful. They can roll boulders, level buildings, uproot trees, and drag bridges. Broken dams, failing levees, and heavy rain can all cause flash floods. Unfortunately, rain is only romantic until it takes away half the road.
10. If all the golden-winged warblers disappear, a storm’s brewing
While it’s unclear if animals leave before an earthquake, if all the golden-winged warblers suddenly fly away, it’s possible a severe tornado is on its way. In April 2014, researchers were tracking a group of these birds in Tennessee when suddenly they weren’t in Tennessee anymore.
After checking their geolocators, the scientists realized they’d gone all the way down to Florida. One was actually in Cuba. A few days later, all the birds came back to Tennessee, completing their 900-mile round trip. The scientists think the birds heard low-frequency infrasound coming from the storms. Humans can’t hear infrasound, but birds can.
11. A ring around the moon or sun can predict tomorrow’s weather
Have you ever seen a heavenly glow around the sun or a mysterious halo around the moon? These rings are formed when very thin, high up cirrus clouds drift above you. The clouds are made up of tiny ice crystals that split and reflect the light, thus making a ring around the sun or moon.
But since cirrus clouds often come before a storm, the ring can be a sign that rain is on its way in the next day or two. Sure the air is clear now, but a low-pressure system is probably coming to disrupt that. But it’s worth it to see these beautiful halos.
12. If you see fish on the beach, don’t go in the water
One deceased animal on the beach probably means nothing for your health, but if you see a lot of fish or other animals, the water might be toxic. It’s possible that a red tide is congregating in the water near the beach. Red tides happen all over the world, but one algae species causes them in the Gulf of Mexico: Karenia brevis.
When the water is full of more toxic algae than normal, it’s called a red tide. They can make the water reddish or brown, but sometimes the water’s color is normal. If you go in the water, you might experience respiratory irritation like coughing or an itchy throat. Thoroughly rinse off in freshwater and the issues should go away.
13. If your dog seems concerned about a part of your body, get it checked out
Dogs are great at telling you things, even if they can’t speak our language. So if your dog is sniffing or licking a particular part of your body more than usual, you should probably get it checked out. Dogs have such a powerful nose that they can sniff out evidence of cancer.
Scientists think they smell organic compounds coming from cancer and have proved they can distinguish between cancer patient urine and cancer free urine. There have also been plenty of cases where a dog alerted their owner to growing cancer. So just like you let your dog out when it stands by the door, listen when it’s telling you something is wrong.
14. Cracked snow underfoot could signal an impending avalanche
Skiing is all fun and games until a devastating avalanche tumbles down the mountain. They can be impossible to escape, as the snow can move as quickly as 80 miles an hour and people generally sink in the snow. But if you see the signs beforehand, perhaps you can avoid getting caught in the disaster.
Pay attention when you walk on the snow: does it feel hollow? Do you hear an odd “whumping” sound underfoot? Check around your feet for cracks in the snow. Plus, if there’s been heavy snow or rain, significantly warmer temperatures, or previous slides in the area, it could lead to an avalanche.
15. Rising water levels warn of an incoming flood
If it’s been raining a lot and you see the water level in a stream or river rising, a flood is probably on its way. Plus, the water may be brownish and muddy, from the quick moving water eroding the surrounding sediment.
If you’re ever caught in a flood while driving, stay away from any water on the streets. Turn around and drive away. Even if the water is only two feet deep, it could lift your car and put you in a lot of danger. You’ll want to avoid inflicting a flash flood of emotions on your loved ones.
16. If the ocean makes an unusual roaring sound, get up high
Usually, the ocean has a beautiful and calming sound that plenty of people like to sleep to, but on occasion, it roars like a train. If you hear this unusual sound, chances are that a tsunami is coming toward you. The ocean is dangerous enough without a tsunami rushing at the coast, so get away immediately.
While most tsunamis are caused by underwater earthquakes, a meteorite crashing into the ocean can launch a wave around the world. 3.5 billion years ago, a huge asteroid hit Earth, causing giant tsunamis to roam the oceans. Hopefully, we’ll be able to shoot down any asteroids trying to do the same to us.
17. Green skies indicate severe weather may be on the way
A thunderstorm may appear green because the setting sun’s red light is intermingling with the blue light under the storm. The green color indicates that this thundercloud is extremely tall and warns that a tornado or hail may be coming soon.
If you don’t want to have a scary but colorful dream of a mystical land like Dorothy did, it’s best to get inside and out of the storm. You might want to go to the basement, but only if you won’t feel embarrassed by hiding from what might not be a tornado at all. Otherwise, check the news because the green doesn’t predict anything other than some kind of severe weather.
18. Beware of lakes near volcanoes in hot environments
If a lake is located in a very hot environment that never cools and is near volcanoes, it could be the equivalent of a viciously shaken soda can just waiting to pop. The magma underground might be pushing carbon dioxide into the bottom of the lakes, where there’s a ton of pressure. Since it’s hot year round, the lake never mixes and the gas never gets a chance to escape.
However, if the lake is disturbed by heavy rainfall or maybe an earthquake, it explodes in what is called a limnic eruption. Water bursts out and suffocating carbon dioxide erupts, killing almost everything for miles around it. There are a couple of these lakes in Africa, but once they were identified, people have started degassing them.
19. If you see square waves, get out of the water
This oceanic pattern doesn’t even seem possible, but it occurs when two wave systems run into each other. One of the wave systems continued despite the wind shifting, creating what is called a “cross sea.” But as neat as they may be to look at, they can be incredibly dangerous for ships, surfers, and swimmers.
Underneath the surface of these cross-seas is an exceptionally strong current that can carry you out to sea. The water is also very difficult for boats to navigate, so some ships are wrecked by cross seas. The Isle of Rhe in France is famous for them, but they can be found elsewhere, like in New Zealand.
20. If you see a hole in the sky, try not to get abducted!
An invasion is in our midst! Fallstreak holes, otherwise known as punch hole clouds, are often attributed to UFOs because they form a large circular gap in clouds that appears as if an alien ship just took-off. They form in mid to high-level clouds made of tiny water droplets surrounded by below-freezing temperatures but have not yet frozen. Airplanes passing through the cloud help the supercooled water droplets freeze.
Air expands and cools as it passes over the wings and the propeller blades, decreasing the temperature within just enough to allow the droplets to freeze. The ice crystals grow and start to fall while causing the water droplets around the ice crystals to evaporate. This leaves a large hole in the cloud with brush-like streaks of ice falling below it.
21. Beware of cloudy well water and cracks in the walls or floors
Sinkholes may sound like a cool, dramatic thing from a disaster movie, but you certainly don’t want to find yourself falling into one. They’re most common in areas with limestone below ground because it can dissolve in water. Excessive rain or water supply use can cause the ground to collapse.
If you’re worried about sinkholes near you, look for the signs in your house and on your property. Inside, keep an eye out for cracks in walls or the floor, cloudy well water, and doors not closing properly. Outside, look for small ponds, fallen trees, or previously buried things becoming unburied.
22. If you see bands in the sky, get to a basement
If you’re cloud watching outside and you see long streaks of rotating clouds stretching into the main thunderstorm, don’t call out “it’s a snake” and keep naming shapes. Find shelter. Preferably, get away from windows and in a basement because a tornado might form soon.
These streaks are called “inflow bands” and their presence indicates the storm is drawing in low-level air from far away. They usually stretch to the southeast or south of the storm and are relatively low in the sky. Professional storm spotters look for them to figure out if a tornado will form, so they can warn people in the area.
23. Don’t go in the water if it’s green or smells bad
If you’re near a river, lake, or ocean and the water is green, scummy, or smells bad, stay out of it. Don’t go in or let your pets or children take a dip. An algal bloom is happening in the water, which means there is a lot more algae than normal thriving near the surface.
The algae may or may not be harmful, so it’s best to just stay out altogether. The toxins can sicken or kill animals and occasionally humans. Often, these blooms are caused by too much fertilizer polluting the water. It’s not going to be a nice swim anyway, with all that green gunk, so just take an algal bloom check on your beach day.
24. If you’re in a cave during a full or new moon, get out as soon as possible
There are plenty of beautiful caves along beaches that are only accessible when the tide is low. You might find yourself wandering along the coast and curiously exploring a gaping cavern, but be careful. If the tide comes in, you might be trapped in a watery doom.
While you always need to be mindful of tides when you go to one of these caves, it’s especially so during a full or new moon. During these phases of the moon, the tide is called a Spring Tide. High tide will be especially high because the sun, Earth, and moon are all in a line, which pulls on the tide more than normal.
25. Rattlesnakes alert you when they’re angry
Of course one of the more famous warning signs in nature is the rattlesnake’s rattle. Situated at the end of their tail, the rattle is made up of keratin segments, which is the same stuff that makes up our fingernails. When vibrated, these segments knock into each other to make the buzzing sound.
Every time a rattlesnake sheds their skin, a new segment is added to their rattle. The snakes use this rattle to warn predators and enemies from trying to get too close, because if you do, the snake will bite you and inject its venom. Normally, this venom is for killing small mammals for food, after the snake uses its heat-sensing vision to find the prey.
26. Red skies can predict the weather, morning or night
There’s a common saying that the color of the sky can predict the weather: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.” But does it have any truth? Yes, a bit. The red color comes from the sunlight bouncing off water vapor and dust particles in the air, which can indicate the weather.
So since weather generally moves from west to east, the time of the red sky can partially predict the coming weather. Red skies at night indicate good weather coming in, because the dust particles generally mean there’s a high-pressure system. However, a red sunrise might show that the good weather is passing and a low-pressure system and storm are on their way in from the west.
27. Volcanoes shake, swell, and get gassy before they blow
Volcanoes can be very cool to visit, but as the infamous story of Pompeii tells us, they can be just as deadly. So how can you tell if one is about to erupt? Well, there will probably be small earthquakes under the volcano. Plus, it could swell and release more heat and gas. But these signs are kind of hard for the average person to notice.
Luckily, we have volcanologists constantly monitoring these signals via radar satellites and other detectors. Some of nature’s warning signs are just too hard to notice without technology. Unfortunately, though, scientists can’t easily monitor the gas an impending eruption releases the most: water vapor. There’s just so much water vapor already in the air.
28. If you see a funnel cloud in the sky, get inside
While funnel cake brings joy and giddiness, funnel clouds bring fear and danger. They are cone-shaped clouds that protrude out of storms, but don’t touch the ground. Like any cloud, funnel clouds are made of water droplets condensed together. If it’s rotating, the cloud may turn into a tornado.
If the funnel cloud touches the ground, it becomes a tornado. Also, funnel clouds do not cause damage on the ground or make a debris cloud, so if it’s doing that, it’s technically a tornado. However, funnel clouds are only dangerous if they’re made of warm air. Cold air funnels aren’t threatening.
29. If you find a mushroom growing close to a tree, don’t eat it
The most deadly of mushrooms belong to the Amanita genus, which includes the “destroying angel” and “death cap.” Both of which look rather nondescript; the destroying angel is all white while the death cap can range from yellow to brown to white on top, while its bottom is all white.
However, it can be tough to distinguish different mushrooms from each other. Most Amanitas live near trees, though, so it’s best to not eat any mushroom living near a tree. Actually, don’t eat any mushrooms growing in the wild unless you’re an expert at identifying them, because the potential lethality is not worth it for your faux survivalist ego-boost.
30. Brightly colored animals often signal danger
While we certainly hope you aren’t in the habit of eating random animals in the wild, predators have to do just that. But when they see bright colors like red, orange, or yellow, they know to stay away from that prey. Some animals evolve to have this warning coloration, because they’re dangerous and they want predators to know that.
For instance, monarch butterflies are bright orange and can make birds very sick if eaten. Coral snakes, on the other hand, sport bright yellow and red stripes to tell everyone about their venomous bite. But some are false warning signs, like the harmless king snake who has evolved to look like the much scarier coral snake.
31. A tree with deep cracks or missing bark may be about to fall over
A falling tree can be dangerous to your life or your wallet, if it falls on you or anything you own. So, to avoid the damage, check the trees near your house. There are a variety of signs the tree is unhealthy and could fall over. For example, does it have deep cracks in the bark or is it missing sections of bark?
A hole in the trunk, dead or falling branches, and a leaning trunk are all signs something is wrong with the tree. Check to see if it’s losing leaves from the outside. If your tree has these signs, it could be at risk of falling over in strong winds.
32. Be wary of these signs a bull is about to charge
More people die each year from cows than sharks, so you should pay attention to their behavior when around these animals. If a cow or bull is pawing at the ground or snorting, you should get something between the two of you, like a tree or feeding trough. Bulls are notoriously dangerous, but cows can be dangerous too, especially if they have calves.
Bulls also threaten you by showing their side with an arched back and their head down. A bull might shake its head from side to side and the hair on its neck may be raised. Once danger is imminent, the bull’s head will be lowered and pointing toward its target. At this point, walk backward to at least 20 feet away and the bull should lose interest.
33. Listening to the frogs can help you predict the weather
Frogs are famous for their croak, but if you’ve heard them croaking a lot more than usual, it might be because it’s about to rain. Okay, so a little bit of rain doesn’t hurt, but it can ruin picnic and hiking plans. For the frogs, though, it makes romantic plans for them.
The frogs are actually calling out to potential mates because they have to lay their eggs in water. They just want to be ready for when all the small ponds fill up with water and become perfect little nurseries. So, yes, the frogs are singing in the rain, but they’re also kissing in the rain.
34. Glossy pavement can mean danger during winter
All of Key and Peele’s black ice jokes aside, the stuff is a nightmare. Black ice is not black, but particularly clear ice that you can hardly see, which makes it dangerous. It can be dangerous if you’re walking on it and just as bad, if not worse, if you’re driving on it.
Black ice usually occurs when it rains at temperatures near freezing, because the water turns to ice as it hits the cold pavement or sidewalk. So notice the weather before you go driving, to know if you should be extra careful. If the road or sidewalk is glossy in one spot but dry in others, then that’s likely black ice. When driving, stay calm and keep a controlled speed—no sudden accelerating or braking.
35. If you see a wall of dust, get off the road immediately
If you’re driving in the Southwest United States and see a cloud of dust coming your way, you should safely drive off the road if possible. Get away from the thoroughfare, turn on your emergency brake, and turn off your car’s lights. Dust storms can cause massive car accidents, so you want to get away from the other cars.
It’s important to turn your lights off when parked off the road because otherwise, the lights might make other drivers go offroad and toward you. If you can’t get off the road, keep your lights on and drive slowly, using your horn every now and again.
36. If a skunk stamps its feet and raises its tail, get out of the spray zone
While a skunk’s spray is hardly life-threatening, it is deeply unpleasant so avoid it if you can. Since skunks celebrate Valentine’s Day (mating season is February in Northern California), this is when you’re most likely to encounter them. However, skunks have limited spray, so they warn you first so as not to waste any of it.
If you see a skunk raise its tail and shake it, back away and leave the skunk alone. If you don’t, the skunk will stamp its feet and raise its butt toward you, giving you one last warning sign to get out before your stinky demise. And if you don’t leave it alone at that point—you’ll be sprayed.
37. If a lake is covered in white or gray ice, don’t step on it
“You’re on thin ice,” may be a fun jab at someone who’s annoying you, but it certainly is not a situation you would want to find yourself in. If you’re going to try and ice skate or simply walk on a frozen lake (which is a very peculiar experience), you should first make sure it’s safe.
Some places have professionals checking the safety of the ice, but not every random lake has that. You should probably bring materials to check the thickness of the ice, but a quick look at the color can be a good first step to determine its safety. If it’s clear and blue, it’s probably safer than if it’s white or gray.
38. If you’re stung by a bee near a hive, run to shelter
When around bees, the most important thing to do is not swat them or threaten them. However, bees are attracted to sweet smelling and bright things and accidents do happen. People get stung. But while getting stung may seem the end of it, since honey bees die after stinging mammals, it isn’t always.
A dead honey bee emits pheromones that call nearby bees to attack. So, if you’re near a hive and you get stung, you might want to run. You should run to shelter, covering your head and face as best as you can. Avoid hitting the bees because it might just attract more.
39. If you see a beautifully colored pool, don’t go in it
If you’re in Yellowstone National Park and see one of the beautifully colored hot springs, don’t get any closer. Going in the pool could be deadly, since they’re often at scalding temperatures of 200 degrees Fahrenheit or more. A hot tub, by comparison, is usually at 105 degrees or under.
Bacteria that thrive in an extremely hot environment give these deadly pools their pretty colors. Each color, from yellow to bright orange to burgundy, is from different bacteria. In the National Park, there are signs and paths indicating whether an area is safe or dangerous, so luckily you don’t even have to use nature’s warning sign because you can use people’s warning signs.
40. If you see five-toed paw prints and scratch marks on trees, be wary
When trekking through bear country, it’s always best to be on the lookout for bears or signs of them. You might see paw prints in the mud that are large with five toes and claws. They’re vaguely diamond shaped. You also might see scratch marks on trees nearby.
There are a few other signs of bears, such as tufts of fur and their scat. If you see these signs, stay alert for the actual animal. If you see a bear, don’t run and avoid eye contact. You should talk in low tones and slowly wave your arms, making yourself look as large as possible. Slowly, move away sideways.
41. If you see red berries in the wild, don’t eat them
Generally, don’t eat random things in nature unless you’re sure what’s what. There are several kinds of nondescript red berries that are poisonous to humans. Holly berries can cause vomiting, dogwood berries are often eaten by birds but are not safe for humans, and cotoneaster berries can cause seizures.
Call poison control and get to a hospital if you’ve eaten any mysterious berries, or someone you know has eaten mysterious berries. Instead of sampling nature on your next hike, just pack some raspberries to go. Or, if you’re going for a longer trip into the woods, bring a book guide that can help you distinguish between safe to eat and poisonous wild berries.
42. Ecosystem canaries can warn scientists about an ecosystem’s collapse
While coal miners once used canaries to check for poisonous gasses underground, scientists are now looking to “ecosystem canaries” to check the health of an ecosystem. These species are not canaries, and maybe not even birds at all, but species that have started dying even before the entire ecosystem collapses.
Generally, they reproduce slowly and aren’t great at competing for resources. They aren’t the most crucial parts of the ecosystem, like the keystone species, but they can be a signal of its health. Scientists hope to identify ecosystem canary species, then use them to monitor ecosystems before they are beyond saving.
43. Plant and animal range shifts warn of climate change
One of the first signs of climate change is the shifting of animal and plant ranges. A range is an area where a species naturally occurs, based on the temperature, rainfall, humidity, and other natural factors. But as these factors are altered by climate change, animals and plants are moving out of their normal ranges.
For example, grizzly bears are moving north and running into polar bear territory. Moose and snowshoe hares have done the same, following a bush that’s been able to grow taller in the warmer temperatures. Scientists estimate half of all living species are moving somewhere new.
44. There’s no real warning of quicksand, but you can get out
Perhaps the last time you saw quicksand was in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which featured several glaring misconceptions about how it works. The thing is, you can’t drown in quicksand and you shouldn’t grab a rope or snake to pull yourself out.
Quicksand is denser than your body, so while your foot will initially push down the sand, causing the water and clay to close around you, you’ll only sink halfway down. Now, if the tide comes in, that’s where the danger of drowning comes in. So, to get out, you have to wiggle your leg a bit and calmly step up. Getting horizontal will help and at some point, you should float back to the top. It’s possible that if the quicksand has gaseous bubbles in it, you will actually be denser than the quicksand and sink. Maybe.