Could animals save humanity from the devastation of earthquakes?

  • Tracking 10,000 animals to find the answer
  • Why some scientists dismiss ICARUS
  • Saving lives – there’s an app for that
  • The best simply isn’t good enough

It’s predicted that earthquakes may kill as many as 3.1 million people this century. That’s an astonishingly high death toll, but consider that hundreds of smaller quakes can have as many casualties as ten big ones – such as the monster that wiped out Haiti in 2010, claiming the lives of 100,000 people and destroying entire communities. Indeed, almost a decade later, Haiti has yet to recover from this disaster. And as the clock ticks towards the next devastating seismic event, governments and the scientific community are finding themselves in a race against time to develop better quake-predicting technology.

Unfortunately, there’s no protection to speak of when it comes to earthquakes. Existing tech can reduce casualties by strengthening buildings to withstand tremors, and we’ve developed early warning systems, but neither of these are without flaws.

The terrifying truth is that a strong enough earthquake will destroy any building. And many of the regions prone to earthquakes are too poor to afford quake-resistant construction. As for early warning systems – they, too, don’t offer any real protection. It’s impossible to tell from the first few seconds how big an earthquake is going to be. This means that sending warnings each time a quake is detected will cause unnecessary panic, a study warns. At the same time, if you live above the epicentre of an earthquake, no system can warn you fast enough.

In a desperate attempt to come up with solutions, scientists are now looking to the animal kingdom for much-needed inspiration.

Tracking 10,000 animals to find the answer

German experts running project ICARUS want to investigate whether there’s any truth to the age-old myth that animals can predict earthquakes. By tracking the movements of animals in earthquake-prone regions, the scientists have been gathering data that will be analysed in October this year. They hope to demonstrate that animals can, in fact, sense upcoming earthquakes. But others are sceptical and warn it’ll take more than that to provide a definite answer.

Martin Wikelski, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and the leader of ICARUS, dismisses the naysayers. He believes that the scientific data “suggest[s] that some animals can sense these events hours in advance”. If proven, it would be a major step in improving existing technologies that now can only “give you just a few seconds warning time”.

Two shepherds holding a sheep on a meadow while a herd of sheep stands nearby
German experts running project ICARUS want to investigate whether there’s any truth to the age-old myth that animals can predict earthquakes

The project, run by Wikelski, has been tracking 10,000 animals – such as birds, cows, and bats – for the past four years. Each animal was fitted with a transmitter tracking its location, speed, and heart rate. Unfortunately, the transmitters were too large for smaller animals such as songbirds and bees. Tracking a variety of animals is the key component of the project. As Wikelski explains, “it’s like the early days of elections where pollsters didn’t know who to ask. Initially, we’re really just finding out who knows best about what’s happening”.

The four-year long project will reach its final phase in October. The researchers will then study the data, connect the dots, and reach a conclusion. But the final verdict might not be so simple. “There are many different types of earthquakes, depending on how the tectonic plates are aligned, and we don’t know whether animals can sense all of these”, says Wikelski.

Why some scientists dismiss ICARUS

Irrespective of what his project will discover, it certainly isn’t the first of its kind. John Vidale, the director of the Southern California Earthquake Center, explains how they ran a similar project: “We’ve had instruments close to animals in many places for many years, and we’ve never had a case where the instruments showed something, the animals picked it up, and it was coming before an earthquake”. Roland Burgmann, a seismologist at the University of California, Berkeley, is a bit more optimistic. What he likes about ICARUS is that researchers track the animals for years, allowing us to see “if these animals show any signs of unusual behaviour before the event”.

But science can already explain some of that unusual behaviour. When an earthquake strikes, the small P(primary)-wave travels fastest, followed by much slower and more destructive S(secondary)-waves. The P-wave can’t be picked up by humans, but many animals can sense it and they run. Once the S-waves arrive, it’s too late to seek shelter. And most of the existing early warning systems and apps rely on sensing P-waves and warning people before S-waves strike. One of these apps is Quake Alert, and although Wikelski finds it inferior, this tech has already proven its worth.

Saving lives – there’s an app for that

When a magnitude-5.3 earthquake shook Los Angeles on the 5th of April, 2018, not everyone was surprised. Some citizens got a 30-second warning from the Quake Alert app that an earthquake was imminent. The app also alarmed power plants, subway systems, the police, and other emergency response officials. A similar app warned people in Mexico about the upcoming magnitude-8.1 earthquake on the 8th of September, 2017. The technology that made this possible relies on seismic sensors that detect P-waves. These apps are the best we have at the moment, and although every second of warning counts, the limitation of these systems is obvious. Wikelski plans to fix that, and instead of warning people a few seconds before the impending disaster, he wants to predict earthquakes a few hours or even days before.

The best simply isn’t good enough

Whether he succeeds or not, humanity is expected to suffer devastating earthquakes in the 21st century. As many as 3.1 million people could lose their lives, and only technology will stand between the forces of nature and human lives.

Unfortunately, existing early warning systems give only a few seconds of warning at best, while people at the epicentre of an earthquake really don’t stand a chance. To find a solution, German researchers led by Martin Wikelski have put their hopes in project ICARUS. Many people hope that the final results will tell us whether animals can really sense upcoming earthquakes, or whether they simply react to aftershocks and P-waves. The lives of millions of people depend on that answer.

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