The 10 biggest earthquakes recorded since 1900 have taken more than 1.5 million lives — not counting the toll from the 7.8 magnitude temblor in Nepal, which has killed 7,500 and counting. There’s some hope that the big quakes of the future could be less lethal — because we’ll see them coming. Or at least, the rats will.
A research team working from three continents recently pored over data from a major earthquake in Peru and concluded that wild animals — especially rodents — know when the ground is about to buckle.
Days before the 7.0 magnitude Contamana earthquake that struck a remote Andean village in 2011, motion-triggered cameras revealed that most wildlife in the Yanachaga-Chemillen national park had already fled the area, returning only after the quake had run its course.
Investigators caution that any conclusions are still tentative, but the initial findings are intriguing. By tracking wildlife, the researchers say they might be able develop a data-based early warning system that could help governments and first responders to evacuate danger areas.
Anecdotes of animals’ seismic premonitions aren’t new. Just 48 hours before a big earthquake hit Helice, Greece, in 373 B.C., “the snakes, weasels and worms deserted the city,” wrote Swiss energy expert Helmut Tributsch, in a celebrated 1984 book, “When the Snakes Awake,” which offered some scholarly backbone to what experts had always dismissed as folk tales.
The latest research comes from the Andean cordillera, where animal behavior specialist Rachel Grant pored over images captured by a conservation group’s “camera traps” before, during and after the Contamana quake.
Because the epicenter of the temblor was more than 300 kilometers from the park, she didn’t expect to see much. “What I found made my hair stand on end,” said Grant, a lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University, in the United Kingdom.
Pictures snapped from nine infrared cameras showed that some 23 days before the quake, when not a leaf was shaking, pacas, mice, razor-billed curassows and other creatures had grown scarce. And five days before Contamana, almost no animals had been sighted.
Grant is not an earthquake expert, so she turned to two physicists, Friedemann Freund, at NASA’s SETI Institute in California, and Jean-Pierre Raulin, from Mackenzie University’s Center of Radio Astronomy and Astrophysics, in Brazil.
Working together, the trio found that the commotion in the menagerie coincided with big changes in the Earth’s crust.
Prior to the quake, rocks began to shift underground, generating electrical charges that reached surface water and released positive ions into the lower atmosphere.
It was this ionized air that apparently made animals disoriented and hyperactive. Because the effect is more intense at higher altitudes, the park’s cameras revealed an almost spooky absence of animal activity on the high ridges where wildlife normally rambled.
The connection was a revelation. “A door flew open,” Freund told me. He, Grant and Raulin are hoping to expand their research to monitor wildlife behavior and fluctuations in the atmosphere’s electrical field from other areas prone to earthquakes, such as the spine of the Pacific coast running from Mexico to Chile.
With enough backing, Freund reckons that within five years scientists could develop the tools to forecast a major earthquake before it hits and possibly save many lives.
First, however, he may have to blast through the calcified scientific establishment. “We are competing with conventional seismologists, who have never been able to forecast anything,” Freund said. “They only ring the church bell once the emergency has hit.”
Maybe it’s time they also noticed the mice in the belfry.
Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg View contributor in Rio de Janeiro. He has reported on Latin America for Newsweek and contributed to The Economist, the Washington Post, and Foreign Policy.