When it comes to natural disasters, early warning systems are literal lifesavers. That’s why seismologists and earthquake engineers have spent decades trying to identify early predictors of earthquakes—without much luck, unfortunately. But while seismographic technology gets fancier and more expensive, one group of researchers is taking a different tack.
Folk wisdom has long held that animals exhibit unusual behavior prior to an earthquake. The US Geological Survey helpfully reminds us that animals do weird things for lots of unexplained reasons (why, for example, does the neighbor’s cat single me out for cuddles when I’m the only allergic person in the room?). A newly published study documents just such unusual behavior in Peru’s Yanachaga National Park the week before a magnitude 7.0 earthquake. Evidence of this unusual behavior came through the park's motion triggered cameras:
"[It was] determined that the park's cameras traditionally see between five and 15 animals in one day. However, a whole week before the earthquake struck, that number dramatically dropped, with five or fewer animals spotted by any one camera five to seven days before the quake."
The science seems sound: pressure built up before an earthquake sends an electric charge through layers of rock, which is released into the air at the surface, causing the ionization of air molecules. Ionization can affect serotonin levels in mammals, and while a little serotonin feels pretty good (that’s the chemical in our brain that contributes to feelings of happiness and relaxation), too much serotonin can have the opposite affect. Researchers hypothesize that animals suffering from nausea or restlessness associated with too much serotonin in an earthquake prone area will move to a place with less charged air—which is exactly what happened on camera in Peru.
All this is fantastically exciting when it comes to earthquake prediction, but it’s not exactly practical information yet. Unless you have a convenient way to monitor your dog’s serotonin levels, you might be better off focusing on preparedness, rather than prediction—especially if you live in an area prone to earthquakes. Here are a few ways we can use our resources to plan ahead for the Big One.
Have a plan. As with any disaster, the most crucial tool in our toolbox is a plan. Know the safest place to hunker down in your house. Know how to contact family members at work or school. Know where you’ll all meet when it’s over. And make sure kids practice the plan until it’s second nature.
Get gear. We all know we need to have an emergency kit. If you live in earthquake country, there may be more specific items you should have handy. Consider storing things like heavy-duty work gloves and boots, dust masks, and insurance information. It’s also smart to keep shoes and a flashlight by every bed, in the event of a nighttime tremor.
Secure your space. Many of the injuries sustained during an earthquake are not from collapsing structures, but from broken glass and falling objects. Heavy furniture—and especially top-heavy pieces—should be bolted to walls; items on bookshelves can be stabilized with putty; and heavy wall art or mirrors or shelves should never hang over beds and couches. Additionally, know how to shut off gas and water, and make sure any structural cracks or leaks are repaired.
Be your own best resource. No early warning system is as reliable as good, old-fashioned know-how. Become an expert in earthquake protocols. Learn CPR. Head up a community response team. Practice earthquake drills. And read up on engineering codes for your area to make sure your family and neighborhood are safe.
Have you experienced an earthquake? What are your best tips for earthquake prep?