You won’t always have ample warning when a disaster or emergency strikes. Some arrive with all the suddenness of an earthquake. Heck, the emergency may be an earthquake.
But for every don’t-blink disaster that may happen there is one that will furnish some kind of warning if you are alert and can recognize the signs.
Sometimes a gradual change in your environment might tip off the eagle-eyed prepper that trouble is brewing.
Other times weird phenomena that manifest as odd natural occurrences and would only give other people something to chatter about on social media may in fact signal imminent destruction.
The only way to take advantage of these early warning signs and symptoms for disaster preparedness is to learn what they are.
Government agencies have the benefit of real time weather radar and satellite observation to see trouble coming, we have no such luxury!
In today’s article we’ll do just that by diving into the sometimes strange and sometimes scary world of disaster warning signs.
Every disaster has its calling card, its signature if you’ll allow it.
From the flashing lightning, dark skies and smashing hail of a severe thunderstorm to the iconic and towering funnel cloud of the tornadoes they spawn to the milder tremors that immediately precede the heaving, shaking and rattling of an earthquake.
It’s easy to know what you are dealing with when you’re dealing with it and most natural disasters leave little doubt as to what they are.
But even though many natural disasters will present some kind of warning sign to allow you some kind of advance notice, however long or brief, it is not a certainty.
Maybe because they are highly localized or subtle, or maybe because you just missed it, or maybe because it just flat out did not happen. Whatever the cause, you cannot count on seeing any of these pre-indicators for certain. To bank on such a thing is to gamble your very life.
All you can do, sometimes, is stay on top of what disasters are most likely in the area you are in, and pay particular attention and stay ready when conditions are favorable or ideal for a certain disaster to happen.
Warning Signs of Natural Disasters
The following warning signs and pre-event indicators are grouped in no particular order or preference. Some may actually be “cousins”; that is separate warning signs for two closely related disasters.
As I mentioned, it pays to know what disasters are most common in your locale and study up on any and all related phenomena so you’ll be on the ball when things are iffy.
For instance, if you live in the Midwest Great Plains region, you might not have much to fret over from tsunamis, but tornado and flash flood activity will be very high on your list of threats.
Read the following list to brush up on some of the subtler and less known warning signs that present before disaster strikes.
1. Green, Cloudy Sky
If you are unlucky, you might have witnessed the sky turn a sickly shade of green. No, it definitely is not the luck of the Irish or some other hocus-pocus: it is a fairly common indicator for exceptionally severe thunderstorms.
In essence, the light from the sun is filtered through towering, taller than normal clouds, lending the sky its deathly and unsettling pallor. A storm of this magnitude will often produce tornadoes, making matters worse, but even if a twister does not form you’ll be in for a rough ride: expect torrential rain, sizeable hail, plenty of lightning and, of course, high winds.
If you notice the sky taking on this cast before a storm breaks or intensifies seek shelter post-haste! A severe thunder storm is only moments or minutes away. This type of phenomenon is virtually unseen in any other circumstances.
2. Hair Standing on End, Feeling of Static
Everyone learned this one when they were small. If there is ever a thunderstorm in the area, even if it is not raining, lightning is a hazard.
Since lightning strikes after a certain amount of charge has built up between cloud and sky, people can sometimes feel this buildup when it is accumulating nearby or, gulp, gathering directly about you.
This is commonly felt as hair standing up all over your body. Long hair will quite literally stand on end reaching for the sky in eerie yearning for the bolt to come.
Other people report a feeling like their ears need to pop, a prickly, coruscating feeling over their body and a faint buzzing around metal jewelry and the like.
Should you notice any of the above, you must take action at once! Seek covered shelter (not under a tree!) immediately as fast as you can, preferably shelter at a lower elevation.
If you are caught out with no cover, all you can do is crouch low, cover your ears and minimize your contact with the ground.
Be sure to ditch any long, metal implement you might be carrying. If the feeling subsides, you aren’t put of the weather yet but it is definitely your cue to hightail it out of there.
3. Rain and Wind Suddenly Falls Away During a Storm
Due to a quirk of tornado formation, most occur on the trailing edge of large supercell storms.
What this means is that it might be raining pitchforks and cannonballs one minute, and the next it will be eerily calm as the precipitation part of the front rolls past. Make no mistake, it still usually looks apocalyptic in the sky above, but not always.
It is during this time when many people peek out their heads or leave shelter thinking the worst has passed only to be hammered by the following tornado. This means you will experience another natural instance of “the calm before the storm.”
Don’t fall for this momentary reprieve! It is too often a false one, and you might not see a wall cloud or anything else of the sort coming.
It is too often a false one. If you have access to weather alerts, stay tuned in and wait for an all-clear notification or the official end of a warning before leaving your shelter.
4. Mass Animal Migrations
Sudden, unexplained emergences and mass movement of animals has since the dawn of recorded history been associated with strange happenings and natural disasters.
The reasons and speculations for this spontaneously ordered behavior varies, from simple survival instinct to finely tuned sensory organs that pick up on some as yet unknown environmental change that eludes the coarse sensors of mankind.
Whatever the case, this type of activity most often happens before an earthquake, with amphibians, mammals and birds, even insects, taking to wing, flipper or foot in panicked flight.
This will most often happen minutes or moments before an earthquake starts in earnest, but these kinds of events have been recorded as happening days prior to a major quake or other disaster.
If you should see or hear of a mass migration occurring out of season or character, stay on your toes: assume the worst and act accordingly.
5. Mass Die-Off
Similar to our #4 entry, a sudden die-off of animals around an area, especially a body of water, means trouble, usually contamination of some kind, chemical, biological, radioactive or otherwise. No matter what, pay attention and stay away!
It could be something like an algae bloom (discussed below), something akin to the infamous “red tides” off Florida’s Gulf Coast, but it could also be something like a subterranean gas releases from beneath the sea floor that strip the oxygen from the water and rise into the air above.
Volcanic activity can also directly or indirectly flood rivers, streams and lakes with its ejecta that will turn the water badly acidic and kill the fish and other waterborne creatures, perhaps signaling a proper eruption.
More esoteric happenings could be subterranean gas releases from beneath the sea floor that strip the oxygen from the water and rise into the air above.
Volcanic activity can directly or indirectly flood rivers, streams and lakes with its ejecta that will turn the water badly acidic and kill the fish and other waterborne creatures, perhaps signaling a proper eruption.
No matter where or what, anything like this is bad news.
Bacterial blooms are caused by an overgrowth of bacteria in a body of water, usually due to too much phosphorous or nitrogen runoff from farms and lawns, which provide food for the algae.
Many types of harmful bacteria can be found in fresh or saltwater but they typically affect only people who come into direct contact with contaminated water.
Sharks and other wildlife are particularly vulnerable to bacterial contamination and will die if they don’t leave the affected area.
6. Rapidly Receding Tide
The tide goes out and the tide comes in, bit a sudden withdrawal of the ocean that leaves swimmers high and dry, waders walking and crabs clicking is a sure signal that a tsunami is on the way.
This “drawback” will expose a significant amount of ocean floor not normally visible even in times of low tide.
Tsunamis occur when a powerful earthquake occurs on the ocean floor way out in the sea. Tsunamis travel fast, but much of their force is manifested below the surface.
You will not always see a rapidly approaching wave or hear that whooshing roar, but a drawback will occur much of the time. If you see this happen, don’t waste one second: it is time to get it in gear and get to high ground even if a tsunami warning has not been issued.
It is critical you act as soon as you recognize this event! Do not wait for official warnings, calls, alerts, sirens or anything of the sort. Get going or lose your life!
Move inland quickly and avoid low lying areas like rivers, creeks, spillways and any other low, enclosed space that will direct and gather the force of the incoming water.
7. Crosshatched Waves
It seems nearly impossible at first glance: waves intersecting each other at nearly perfect right angles close to the shore.
It might be rare, but it happens, and if you notice this oddly beautiful occurrence stay clear of the water! It signals a powerful and deadly rip current that will yank you out to sea and probably drown you.
This tidal system usually results from a shift in strongly blowing wind that sees a mass of water travelling perpendicular to another mass of water near the shore.
Once the wind dies down or shifts, the two are left to cross streams and the resulting forces created make for terribly powerful currents that can imperil boats and even some ships, to say nothing of swimmers in the water!
Enjoy the appearance of this one safely on shore, but no closer lest you throw your life away in a watery grave.
8. A Burned Smelling, Hot Breeze
As anyone who has been watching the news for the past two years knows, wildfires can be exceedingly destructive and dangerous. What most of them don’t know, though, is just how fast and erratically these fires can behave in ideal conditions.
A single spark, a carelessly discarded cigarette or an improperly extinguished campfire can be the start of a massive conflagration that can immolate tens of thousands of acres of land and wipe out towns.
Wildfires can move fast in ideal conditions, fast enough to overtake you or cut off egress routes. Today we typically depend on a variety of early warning systems run by various government and state agencies to give us the heads’-up when a wildfire kicks off, but there will be times when you don’t get the message.
Maybe comms are already down for some reason. Perhaps you are deep in the wilderness, far from cell phone reception and news broadcasts. No matter why, you cannot depend on a technological edge.
Should you notice a strong burning smell on the breeze, and the breeze itself being noticeably warmer, you might be looking at an oncoming wildfire in the vicinity.
Pay attention to any haziness or smoke you see, and keep your eyes open for more animals getting out of dodge.
The burning ash from a wildfire can travel a long way on the wind, so perhaps the fire is far, far away, but chances are if you see any particulate or can smell it strongly, it is too close for comfort. Head for home and be ready to move out again!
9. Sudden Traffic Snarls, Horns, Chanting and Thronging Crowds
In keeping with the most popular, disruptive and downright infuriating method of “protest” these days, demonstrators have taken to getting their point across to elected officials by pissing off everyone who is not in charge by blocking roadways using flashmob tactics.
This is often the precursor to a violent riot that culminates in fires, beatings, stabbings and property damage.
Unless that sounds like a good time to you, you need to be extra aware anytime you in a built-up area where such a thing might occur. If you should notice traffic come to a halt suddenly and quickly back up, roll a window down a little bit and listen for signs of a crash or chanting.
If you can hear the latter and not the former, or hear a multitude of horns and shouts, you need to get out while the getting is good unless you want to risk a violent confrontation.
If close to the epicenter of this idiocy, you’ll typically see a mass of people in excess of what a crash produces.
If you are able, reverse out, pull a j-turn and motor directly away from the shit show. If that is not possible, look for a weak point in the throng and roll past them at a slow speed, assuming they are not trying to open your doors or enter your vehicle.
They will not be able to stop your slow-roll no matter how hard they try, but take care that you don’t run over them unless there is a lethal threat.
Navigating this situation is fraught with peril and tricky, so your best bet is to avoid congested areas in the first place and always leave room between your vehicle and the car ahead of you in case you need to make emergency getaway maneuvers.
10. A Stand of Crooked, Rounded Trees
If you have ever been hiking in mountain or hill country before, you have probably seen a group of trees that look roundly crooked at their bases, sort of like an apostrophe.
Trees that have grown in such a shape, all together, are indicative of soil movement in that area that was likely induced by a previous landslide.
Landslides, when they occur, are terrifically destructive and will often cut loose with little or no warning, so paying attention to the subtle calling cards they mark their previous passages with is essential.
Seeing trees like this does not mean you’ll be facing an imminent landslide, only that a landslide has occurred there in the past and can definitely occur there again!
You should be doubly cautious to prevent any rockfalls or similar disturbances that could multiply and sustain into a landslide.
11. Roaring Sound, Shaking, Smoke, Appearance of Magma or Gas Plumes
There are many warning signs that a volcano is about to erupt. Most of these signs, such as earthquakes and the release of gases, occur days or months before an eruption. Occasionally, though, volcanoes may erupt suddenly without any forewarning whatsoever.
Fortunately, the more common signs usually give residents enough time to prepare for an impending eruption by evacuating their homes if necessary and taking other protective actions.
Seismic activity is one of the most common warning signs that a volcano is about to erupt.
Earthquakes may indicate that magma (molten rock) is bringing heat up towards the surface, causing rocks to fracture and release energy, a process called “faulting”.
If the moving magma finds a weak point along the fault, it can cause an earthquake. These seismic events are typically several minutes to several hours apart and of varying intensity.
Earthquakes may also signal that gases are being released from the volcano itself, a process called “degassing.”
Gas pressure builds up inside a volcano just below the earth’s surface, and a sudden crack or fault can release this gas with explosive, and devastating, force.
An increase of earthquakes, smoke and the appearance of sporadic magma is a typical warning signal that a volcano is about to erupt.
Earthquakes are typically a sign that magma is moving toward the surface under pressure—similar to water flowing out of a hose when someone steps on it. In some situations, there may not be any obvious changes at the volcano itself.
12. Strange Odors or Discoloration, Dead Wildlife or Livestock
If you should notice a total absence of life in an area, or worse, notice a variety of dead livestock or other animals on the ground, or dead fish floating in the water, it might be a sign that hazardous chemicals or other biological hazards are present.
Look for other signs that might indicate a dangerous situation, including the presence of oily sheens on water or patches of differently colored material on open water like ponds and lakes.
The CDC recommends staying away from any areas or waters where there have been reports of chemical spills or where there are visible warning signs such as slicks, foams, discolored water, odors, vapors, discoloration and blowing debris.
Since conditions can change rapidly in areas affected by chemical spills it is important to avoid them until public health and safety officials give the all-clear.
Headaches, nausea, difficulty breathing and other discomfort is an early indicator that traces of dangerous chemicals could be present.
It is also important not to interact with or eat any game or fish caught near these areas until authorities rule out pollution as the cause of death.
Many harmful chemicals evaporate quickly but some can leave lasting effects on the environment. Natural bacterial blooms can cause many of the same signs as chemical spills including toxic vapors, foaming and discoloration.
13. Sustained Winds, Torrential Rain and Swelling Seas that Get Worse over Time
They go by many names- hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons- but whatever you call these most massive and powerful storm events you’ll know they are making landfall by the warning signs that precede them in the Atlantic, Pacific and all the other oceans around the world: They come with heavy rain, high winds, storm surges and flooding. Wherever you live around the globe, the signs are so often similar.
The ocean begins to swell, particularly around the equator where these storms are most common. This swelling can be noticed at different levels of the tide.
A sudden drop in barometric pressure is another sign of an approaching hurricane/cyclone. It’s actually against Mother Nature for atmospheric pressure to drop so quickly. It takes some extreme circumstances for this to occur!
Sudden shifts in the wind direction and speed are another major warning sign. If you have time, check National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration alerts or local weather reports for possible warnings or watches.
Unusual animal behavior is one of the most obvious warning signs that a hurricane is on its way, particularly if you’re familiar with the local animal population. Birds, insects and even fish will suddenly panic and leave their habitats in droves.
And finally: days of gusty, strong winds, heavy rains and billowing storm clouds can all be warning signs of a hurricane or cyclone, especially if they grow worse over time. If you see these telltale signs it’s best to get ready for the worst, ideally by following any government warnings to evacuate!
Learn To Recognize These
You won’t always get a clear warning from a disaster or impending emergency, but a smart, sharp prepper has learned to read the signs and warnings that many will sound or signal before they arrive.
Using this knowledge and acting on it in a timely fashion may very well mean the difference between becoming a casualty and surviving.
Make sure you brush up on all the behaviors of various disasters common in your region so you can buy yourself even a little more time to react.
last update: 02/24/2022
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.