Animals Can Sense Earthquakes: Can We Use This to Build Early Warning Systems?

Goat: “I seem to feel something…”

  In 2004, a 9.1-magnitude undersea earthquake in Indonesia triggered a tsunami that destroyed coastal communities and killed at least 225,000 people from different countries. There are many reasons for the tragedy, one of which is that many communities were not given advance warning.
  At the time, local man-made early warning systems, such as tide and earthquake sensors, failed to issue clear warnings. Many sensors are in disrepair and do not work properly. Many coastal areas lack tsunami early warning systems, and communication systems are also poorly planned. Therefore, many warning text messages have not been sent to the mobile phones of people in the affected areas, or they have not been read in time.
  However, some animals seemed to have sensed the impending danger and desperately wanted to escape minutes or hours before the 9-meter-high waves washed away the coastline. According to eyewitness accounts, at that time, elephants ran towards higher ground, flamingos abandoned the nesting areas in low-lying areas, and dogs stayed at home and did not dare to go out. In a village on the coast of Thailand, a herd of water buffaloes on the beach were seen suddenly prick up their ears and stare in the direction of the sea, before rushing to the top of a nearby hill just minutes before the tsunami hit, according to reports.
  ”Tsunami survivors also reported that animals such as cows, goats, cats and birds were consciously moving inland shortly after the earthquake and before the tsunami arrived,” said Irina Laffliana, a former Member of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction Advisory Group and now a researcher at the German Institute for Development Research. “Many people have survived because of running with or following these animals,” she said.
  There are many other similar stories, based on Lavliana’s work experience at the scene of other natural disasters. For example, in 2010, an undersea earthquake near Sumatra caused a tsunami that killed nearly 500 people in the Mentawai Islands. However, some animals on the island, such as elephants, also reportedly responded in advance, as if they had known in advance that a natural disaster would come. For another example, in January this year, a sea turtle that had just been released suddenly gave up its original swimming route in the direction of Tonga and made a 180-degree turn. Just two days later, a volcanic eruption occurred in Tonga.
  In fact, many areas frequently hit by natural disasters lack early warning systems. According to the World Meteorological Organization, as of 2017, about 100 countries with frequent natural disasters still lack such systems. However, the animals’ early warning behavior has also inspired researchers to pay more serious, scientific attention to the phenomenon. Many researchers believe that animals may be born with a system to sense impending natural disasters. This leads to an interesting question – can humans use this ability of animals to build early warning systems for natural disasters?
  The earliest records of abnormal animal behavior before natural disasters date back to 373 BC. According to the records of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, rats, dogs, snakes and weasels fled the city of Herris a few days before the earthquake. Coincidentally, in 1805, an earthquake occurred in Naples, Italy. A few minutes before the earthquake, livestock and poultry such as cattle, sheep, dogs and geese sounded an alarm in unison. Likewise, it is said that before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the horses were frightened and fled in all directions.
  Today, even with the blessing of advanced technology, many natural disasters cannot be detected until after they occur. Taking earthquakes as an example, the waveforms displayed by seismic sensors will only produce changes that are different from the past when the earthquake actually occurs. Therefore, precursor signals are necessary to make reliable predictions. However, so far, scientists have not found a regular signal before a major earthquake. As a result, some scientists are increasingly favoring less-orthodox warning signs, such as abnormal animal behavior.
  There are many studies on predicting natural disasters through the abnormal behavior of animals, the most important of which is a study by a research team led by Martin Wikelski of the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behaviour in Germany. One such effort was to record the movement patterns of cows, sheep and dogs, a process called “biological logging,” on a farm in the earthquake-prone Marche region of central Italy. Each animal was fitted with a chip that sent movement data to a central computer every few minutes between October 2016 and April 2017.
  During this period, according to official statistics, more than 18,000 earthquakes occurred in the region. Some earthquakes have a very small amplitude, only magnitude 0.4; there are also larger earthquakes. There have been 12 earthquakes with a magnitude of 4.0 or above, including the Norcia earthquake with a magnitude of 6.6. Data collected showed animals on the farm behaving erratically in the 20 hours before the quake. As long as half of the animals on the farm were monitored abnormally active for more than 45 minutes, the researchers predicted an earthquake of magnitude 4.0 or greater, and the method was accurate seven out of eight times.

It is said that before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the horses were frightened and fled.

Witnesses say the elephants ran to high ground before the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

  When the 2020 study was published, Wikelski said: “When an earthquake is about to happen, the closer the animals are to the epicenter, the sooner the behavior becomes abnormal. This is expected because physical changes in the epicenter will affect the more frequently, and gradually decrease with distance.” Another study by Wickerski also found that on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily, Italy, tagged goats appeared to be It can also sense in advance when the volcano will erupt.
  Rachel Grant, a behavioural ecologist at South Bank University in London, found a similar phenomenon. In 2011, she used motion-triggered cameras to biologically record the movement patterns of animals in Yanachaga National Park in the Peruvian Andes during the magnitude 7.0 Contamana earthquake in South America. In a 2015 paper on the study, Grant noted: “The number of animals captured by the cameras began to decrease around 23 days before the earthquake and accelerated during the 8 days before the earthquake. Quite anomalous, during the earthquake On that day, the machine recorded no animal activity at all.”

  What’s more, Grant also found evidence that the abnormal behavior of local animals was related to the earthquake: In the two weeks before the earthquake, the local atmospheric electric field disturbance occurred every two to four minutes. Eight days before the Kontamana earthquake, the machine detected a particularly strong electric field anomaly — a time that coincided with the second phase when animals began to disappear from view.
  Scientists are studying whether electromagnetic disturbances in the atmosphere before earthquakes are precursors to earthquakes, and whether animals use this signal to predict earthquakes in advance. In the period before an earthquake occurs, strong stresses tend to occur in the deep rock, creating cavities as a result. These fast-moving charge carriers can escape from the Earth’s crust to the Earth’s surface, ionizing air molecules. This ionization phenomenon is not uncommon, and similar records have been recorded all over the world. At the same time, during the movement of these carriers, ultra-low frequency electromagnetic waves are also generated, and some animals can receive and process this signal.
  ”The scientific record of earthquake precursors is not complete,” said Matthew Blackett, associate professor of physical geography and natural disasters at Coventry University in the United Kingdom. However, some scientists have theorized that animals may have evolved a Earthquake escape mechanism. “Maybe they can feel the pressure waves before the earthquake, maybe they can sense changes in the electric field when the rock starts to compress,” he said. “Animals have a lot of iron, and iron is sensitive to both magnetic and electric fields.”
  In addition to this, cavities can also cause certain toxic chemicals to appear before earthquakes. For example, if they come into contact with water, an oxidation reaction occurs, producing hydrogen peroxide. Chemical reactions can also occur between them and organic matter in the soil and produce other harmful substances, such as ozone.
  In 2001, a few days before the magnitude 7.7 earthquake in the Indian state of Gujarat, satellite monitoring found a surge in carbon monoxide concentrations in an area of ​​about 100 square kilometers centered on the epicenter. Scientists believe that as the pressure inside the Earth increases, so does the stress between the rocks, and the carbon monoxide gas inside the Earth may be forced to the surface.
  Of course, many animals have evolved highly developed sensory organs that can read a range of natural signals that they rely on to survive. Therefore, it is not surprising that some animals have the ability to detect the precursors of earthquakes. They can smell harmful chemicals, sense low-frequency electromagnetic waves, and sense ionized air with the touch of their fur or feathers.
  In a paper published in 2020, Wikelski and his colleagues built a model of an earthquake early warning system using animal activity monitoring sites based on research data from Italy. By his estimates, if the animals on the farm somehow sensed the danger signal, right above the epicentre, before the quake, they would have behaved erratically 18 hours earlier. Animals located 10 kilometers away from the epicenter showed abnormality after eight hours, while animals located 20 kilometers away took 16 hours. “If it fits the model, it means the earthquake will happen within the next two hours,” he said.
  To determine whether animal behavior can be used to predict earthquakes, researchers need to observe large numbers of animals over long periods of time in different seismic zones around the world. To that end, Wikelsky and others are collecting data on the movement of animals around the world through Icarus, the global animal observation system on the International Space Station. The Icarus system was established in 2002 by a global collaboration of scientists. It aims to provide a precise global observation system for tagged small animals, such as birds, to unearth data and clues about the interactions between Earth’s animals and geophysical systems.
  In addition to the Icarus system, China’s Nanning Earthquake Bureau has also established an earthquake early warning system, but the animals monitored by the system are mostly snakes on farms in earthquake-prone areas. Compared with other animals, snakes move much closer to the ground and have a powerful sensory mechanism that can detect subtle changes in their environment. In 1975, before the earthquake in Haicheng, snakes and other animals suddenly behaved abnormally. After the government found out, the crowd was evacuated in time, and countless people escaped.
  In 2006, an official from the Nanning Earthquake Bureau said in an interview with China Daily: “Among all creatures on earth, snakes may be the most sensitive to earthquakes. Even in cold winter, if an earthquake is approaching, snakes will Crawling out of their lair too.”
  Of course, animals’ foresight of environmental hazards is not limited to earthquakes. Today, birds are of increasing interest to researchers because of their ability to sense other looming natural disasters. “With all the technology available today, we still cannot accurately predict earthquakes or most natural disasters,” said Charlotte Francis, who leads the bird research group at the French Office for Biodiversity and is part of the Migratory Bird Migration Tracker project. , a project that studies how migratory birds avoid storms and other hazards as they cross the Pacific Ocean.
  In 2014, scientists tracking the American golden-winged warbler documented an astonishing case of so-called evacuation migration. The golden-winged warblers were recorded suddenly taking off from their breeding grounds in the Cumberland Mountains of eastern Tennessee and flying as far as 700 kilometers away—even though they had just migrated from South America and had already traveled 5,000 kilometers. And just after the flock left, more than 80 horrific tornadoes hit the area, killing 35 people and costing more than $1 billion.
  Apparently, the golden-winged warbler somehow sensed the tornado more than 400 kilometers away. As for how the golden-winged warbler did it, the researchers decided to focus on infrasound waves first. Although humans cannot hear this low-frequency background sound, it is widespread throughout nature.

Snakes may help humans warn of earthquakes.

  At the time, Henry Streby, a wildlife biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, said: “Decades ago, the meteorology and physics communities have discovered that tornado storms produce very strong infrasound waves that can travel out from the vicinity of the storm. Thousands of kilometers.” In addition, he further pointed out that the infrasound waves generated by violent storms are transmitted at a frequency that matches the hearing of birds. Therefore, the researchers speculate that migratory birds are able to avoid storms as they traverse vast oceans because of their ability to sense changes in infrasound waves. Today, the “Migration Tracking of Migratory Birds” project is underway in the Pacific, and this conjecture is being tested.

  The researchers speculate that migratory birds are able to avoid storms as they traverse vast oceans because of their ability to sense changes in infrasound waves.

  The study was inspired by a radio show. French naval officer Jerome Charlton listened to the show when he heard the introduction of a bird called the bar-tailed godwit, which travels 14,000 kilometers each year between New Zealand and Alaska. . As a seasoned rescue coordinator, Charlton has worked across Southeast Asia and French Polynesia, and he knows the perils of the bar-tailed godwit’s migration journey. The Pacific Ocean and scattered isolated islands are inevitably hit by violent storms, so how exactly do bar-tailed godwits avoid these random storms during their migrations?

A GPS tracker carried on the bird sends out signals and collects data.

  In January 2021, the “Migration Tracking of Migratory Birds” project was launched, and a team from the French National Museum of Natural History equipped a total of 56 birds of five species with global positioning trackers to track their routes across the ocean. The International Space Station is responsible for receiving signals from these birds as they fly, while watching how they respond to natural disasters en route. In addition, the devices on them can collect meteorological data to help improve the accuracy of climate models and weather forecasts in the Pacific Ocean.
  In the future, the project will also investigate whether bird behavior can be used to warn of rarer natural disasters, such as tsunamis. Before a tsunami hits, a unique infrasound wave is produced. French weather balloons recorded infrasound waves after the Tonga volcano erupted. The research team is recovering the positioning devices on the birds to check if they respond to infrasound waves.
  Samantha Patrick, a marine biologist at the University of Liverpool, is also studying infrasound waves as a way for birds to detect and avoid natural disasters. She believes that if the technology can be further promoted, it may also be used for human disaster warning. “It can be speculated that birds do perceive changes in infrasound waves,” she said. Patrick is investigating whether albatrosses show a preference for high or low infrasound areas, and the analysis is ongoing.
  Of course, not all experts are bullish on using animals to build early warning systems for natural disasters. Some argue that even if the behavior of animals is truly informative, people cannot make judgments based on these alone, and other early warning signs need to be considered.
  But while we can’t talk to animals just yet, it’s always good to pay more attention to the alarms they sound.

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