A new research project is looking into whether there's scientific truth behind a long-held, but as yet untested, belief - that animals are able to sense imminent earthquakes. These new insights might be able to help us predict earthquakes in the future, set up early warning systems and ultimately limit their damage.
It has long been suggested that animals often demonstrate unusual behaviour shortly before an earthquake. According to reports, some wild animals leave their sleeping and nesting places immediately before strong earthquakes occur, and pets such as dogs become particularly restless. Until recently, however, these observations were not based on scientific studies and there was no way to rule out these changes in behaviour being caused by other factors. So, can animals really "predict" earthquakes?
Researchers from Germany's Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Behavioural Biology in Constance/Radolfzell and the Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour at the University of Constance have now investigated exactly this. In a region of northern Italy where earthquakes are particularly common, six cows, five sheep and two dogs were equipped with small sensors. With the help of these sensors, the researchers were able to measure whether the animals were indeed able to actually detect early signs of earthquakes. They were observed over several months, before and during a series of several earthquakes. The measurement data from the sensors was able to provide information about the animals' movements and the position of their bodies.
© Zerstörtes Haus in Norcia, Mittelitalien, eine Region, die besonders häufig von Erdbeben betroffen ist.
How Cows, Dogs and Sheep Sense Coming Earthquakes
The research results were able to confirm the long-standing assumption: "Cows become less active shortly before an earthquake, they virtually freeze. When dogs and sheep see this, they then become nervous and restless," says Martin Wikelski, head of the research project at the MPI. In this sense, the animals are reacting to each others as much as they are to environmental stimuli.
"It's a bit like a stock market crash, and then it rises. With the acceleration patterns we can then see from the animals' energy consumption that they change their behaviour before an earthquake". The data sets were compared with the animals' normal behaviour and the respective daily activity. If it is observed that the animals become particularly active in the middle of the day, when they are usually rather inactive, this may be an indication that an earthquake is about to occur.
How animals "sense" coming earthquakes has not yet been conclusively researched. "It is quite likely, however, that the pressure of the plates that later slide apart during an earthquake is so great shortly before a major quake that rock minerals are released into the air," says Wikelski. The animals should be able to perceive the ionisation of the air with their fur. It is also conceivable that the animals could smell the gases released from quartz crystals before an earthquake. Wikelski explains: "If the epicentre is directly below the animal pen, the advance warning time is around 15 hours. If the epicentre is about 15 kilometres away, it is about two hours". According to Wikelski, these time spans correspond roughly to the speed at which the rock particles spread in the air.
Observation Data as an Early Warning System for Earthquakes
Currently, the animal observation data is sent directly to the researchers in Constance via an internet-connected receiver on site. Almost in real time - around every three minutes - the researchers receive new data on the behaviour of the animals.
However, in order for the observation data to actually be used for earthquake predictions, the researchers plan to observe an even larger number of animals over longer periods of time and in different earthquake zones around the world. The global observation system ICARUS on the International Space Station ISS will be used for this purpose. It's scheduled to start operations a few weeks from now. The processing capacity on the International Space Station (ISS) is set to be improved so that the data can be transmitted to the satellite in real time.
This article is part of the RESET Special Feature "Satellites for Sustainable Development". Click here to explore all of the articles in the series.
This is a translation by Mark Newton of an original article that first appeared on RESET's German-language site.