Mother Nature’s plans don’t include you. With a keen sense of awareness, we can enjoy a safer and more enjoyable trip into the outdoors. If our reason to be outside is for pleasure, paying more attention to our surroundings can vastly improve our experience and relaxation. If we are outside for work, that same attentiveness can help to prevent surprises that could be costly to our labors. Either way, paying attention to the weather can improve our safety and possibly give us a head start to pack it in and head to safety.
Nature often gives us clues about what’s coming if we know where to look.
“You cannot beware of something; that you are not aware of. Use all of your senses when in the wilderness to prepare yourself for wilderness success.”
Clouds Watch for changing clouds, how fast and in what direction they move across the horizon. Formation of long, thin high-level ice crystals clouds where the wind is moving fast in the jet stream are called cirrus clouds, which indicate being at the edge of a storm front where weather will change within 24-36 hours. Clouds coming from the south in the Northern Hemisphere could mean lightning storms or tornadoes where warm and cold fronts meet. As clouds darken, they reach the saturation point. The darker the cloud, the more eminent the storm.
Winds Change when temperatures are changing. Wind directions can indicate what type of weather can be coming based upon the direction of local prevailing winds. Winds from the north in the northern hemisphere often indicate colder weather is on its way.
Squalls indicate a significant area of low-pressure super-heated air is rising within a half-mile to a five-mile zone, which condenses and looks like a big anvil or thunderhead. When the thunderhead appears, it’s close to its dissipating stage when the moisture releases heavy rains, and it falls through the column it created, causing the air to go down. It hits the ground and sends high winds outward, parallel to the ground for several miles in the direction it is heading.
Rainbows Look at the colors of the rainbow and the intensity of the colors. The more intense the colors, the more precipitation. Lots of red means a wet head.
Campfires If smoke is rising straight up, there is high pressure. Low pressure means smoke is low to the ground.
Insects If mosquitoes and no-see-ums are pestering worse than usual and swarming, this can indicate a weather change. Insects that can’t fly in the rain like moths and butterflies will hide under leaves during the storm.
Animal Patterns Low flying birds can be an indicator of very high winds up high in altitude. Birds will hunker down before a storm in trees.
Squirrels will be busy packing seeds and nuts away in their midden before a storm and will be snug in their nests; high in trees or in tree trunks long before the storm hits where they will ride it out inside. They will often use their tail as an umbrella in the rain.
Den animals will burrow in their dens
Salamanders and Frogs and worms come out in the rain. Robins will eat worms escaping saturated ground in the rain.
American Bald Eagles will hold their wings out and open, trying to dry flight feathers in a rain.
Most terrestrial animals will seek shelter in a storm. Some may climb under rocks or leaves for protection. Some will bed down in an area with adequate thermal cover to protect them from the precipitation, wind, and cold.
Many species will also hibernate or semi-hibernate by slowing down their heart rate and metabolism to survive cold temperatures, and they could indicate a changing cold front on its way.
Trees Sap will run in trees when the temperature reaches 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the mornings and drops to below freezing overnight. Leaves will curl up before a rainstorm to be ready to collect water and will lay flat when no rain is imminent. Trees have sun and shade leaves. Sun leaves point due south in the middle of the day.
Wind on the water Wind direction and speed can all be viewed by the types of ripples on the water, and even the darkness the surface water indicates wind.
Fog is generally low-lying and does not result directly in storms. However, fog can be a hazardous weather pattern to navigate through. Fog will often burn off by mid-day as ambient temperature rises. Sometimes its best to wait out fog for the safest option. Fog can also rise and cause rain if nearby mountains present the right topography to condense to a saturation point. Fog rolling in can also cause reduced visibility, and it may be possible to get to a safer environment, i.e., out of a cloud bank before visibility becomes impenetrable.
Trees Sap expands as it freezes, causing the tree to explode at a dangerous velocity when they reach temperatures in the -20 degrees Fahrenheit range and below. Exploding frozen sap in trees can sound like a cascade of multiple gunshots and can send wood shrapnel flying as dangerous projectiles hurl through the air.
Wind Listen for wind as an indicator of changing weather. It often means an impending weather system is heading your way. Listen to the speed of the wind to indicate the upcoming ferocity of the storm.
The relative humidity is not an accurate measurement of moisture outdoors. Rather, the dew point is the most precise measure of the amount of moisture in the air. The more humidity is in the air, the more-moist your skin and hair will feel, and the more-curly long hair will get.
Dew Point is the temperature the air would have to cool to for dew to form.
Temperature changes predict changing weather patterns. High levels of moisture coming from the maritime environments often carry a warm moist air mass, and predominant winds build storms over the mountain ranges. As the moisture condenses and rises along with those ranges, it deposits the rain on one side of the mountain or other depending on direction and velocity prevailing winds and ocean currents.
Knowing your predominant wind direction and local weather patterns before entering a new area can be very helpful in determining weather possibilities. Slight or dramatic drops in temperature often forecast an upcoming storm. This occurs when warm and humid air meets cold and dry air. Moisture condenses and rises and forms storm cells.
Barometric Pressure Changes in pressure drop 12-24 hours before a storm.
Smell There is a distinct smell in the atmosphere after rain. Everything smells fresh. Before a large dust and windstorm hits, one can smell dust, pollen, and or wildfire smoke in the air when there is a wind shift.
Excerpt From Ben East’s Book Narrow Escapes A Story Entitled Frozen Terror
Lewis Sweet tramped across the rock strewn, snowy beach of Crane Island with two companions on that bitterly cold Tuesday morning in January in 1929. Lew didn’t know that before that week was up his name would be on the lips of people and on the front pages of newspapers across the country. Nor did he guess as he pushed on toward the rough shore ice and the lake-trout grounds beyond, that he was walking that beach for the last time in his life on two good feet. …As they reached the fishing area, Lew waved goodbye to his friends and headed for his shanty. He would kindle a fire of dry cedar in the tiny stove, sit and dangle a wooden decoy in the clear, green water beneath the ice in the hope of luring a prowling trout up to within reach of his heavy, seven-tined spear. …When he opened his shanty door and backed out to disengage the trout from the spear, he noticed the wind was rising and the air was full of snow. The day was turning blustery. Have to watch the ice on a day like that, Lew reflected. Could break loose along the shore and go adrift. …About an hour after he had taken the trout, the two men he had been fishing with stopped by. “We’re going in, Lew,” one of them hailed. “The wind is haulin’ around nor’east. It don’t look good. Better come along.” “Be all right for a spell, I guess,” he answered. “The ice’ll hold unless it blows harder than this. I want one more fish.”…It was only 30 minutes later that Lew, alone now, suddenly heard the crunch and rumble of breaking ice off to the east. The grinding, groaning noise, coming closer, rolled across the field like thunder. …. Author Ben East.
My commentary about Lew’s survival scenario;
Lew waited too long. He was adrift on an ice flow in Lake Michigan for days. Eventually, he jumped off of a tiny ice flow and swam in freezing water to a frozen mid-channel lighthouse. Somehow, he climbed sheer ice to get to the bottom of the lighthouse he stayed there for a few days until he ran out of provisions and then jumped a passing iceberg in hopes it would go the many miles to shore. Somehow Lew made it to within sight of land but still had to swim a very long way in freezing temperatures until he nearly drowned and almost died of hypothermia onshore. A local person heard his screams and rescued Lew. He suffered from hypothermia and frostbite. The lesson we can learn from Lew’s experience is to look, listen, and feel for changing weather, including changing snow and ice conditions. It could save your life.