Science Questions

How do toads predict earthquakes?

Tue, 5th Jul 2016

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Paul asked:

The toads that "predict" the earthquakes, are they hearing the noises from the rocks? Another episode mentioned that they were researching the sounds the earth makes before a volcano erupts. I'm thinking the earth must make sounds before a quake as well. Frogs and toads have amazing hearing right? Maybe they are hearing the movements in the rocks before a quake hits?


Chris Smith put this to Marian Holness, geologist from the University of toadCambridge...

Marian - At first sight, it sounds like a really crazy question. But in fact, itís a subject of a really serious research effort particularly in China and Japan because everyone is very, very anxious to know when the next earthquake is going to go off. And so, people are exploring all avenues. In fact, a very, very long time ago, 373 BC, there's the first report of strange animal behaviour immediately preceding an earthquake. This is an earthquake that wiped out really important Greek city of Helike. Apparently, five days before the earthquake, rats, weasels, centipedes, and snakes all left the area and ran away. And so, ever since then, people have thought that animals know much more than we do about whether earthquakes are on their way. But the question is, how on Earth do they do it? there's a very obvious way of doing it for animals particularly those that live in burrows and thatís because when earthquakes go off, they send off two types of waves. There's P-waves which are like sound waves and there's S-waves which are more like light waves. The P-waves come much, much faster than the S-waves. If you're the sort of animal like gerbils for example that communicate by thumping, you're really, really tuned to vibrations. So you can hear these things coming before humans can and thatís when you leave your burrow because otherwise, it will collapse in on you.

Chris - You're sort of suggesting then that the animals are picking up on either the earthquake itself or maybe some of the rumbles that presage or predate an earthquake because earthquakes sometimes giveaway signature rumbles before they actually move, donít they?

Marian - Yeah. Theyíll be picking up on pre-shocks but any earthquake will send out these two sorts of waves Ė one of which comes much faster than the other and theyíll pick up these fast ones. Earthquakes are caused by the movement of faults and faults are generally all sort of jammed up and they're accumulating strain, and then suddenly the strain will be too great and theyíll sort of go and pop open. But as they start to slide, itís going to affect the water table. So, you get water movements changing, you'll get springs stopping flowing, or starting flowing. So the toads might have been picking up on something to do with water, with humidity in the soil, something like that but picking up something five days before, now thatís a real mystery.

Chris - So there are lots of potential environmental clues that they could be picking up on. Thank you, Marian.

Kat - Itís totally fascinating. Andrew, hereís a query for you. Weíve got a question from (Alisna Arun) asking how signals sent from space probes get back to Earth. Do you know itís about to reach Jupiter? We had loads of those amazing pictures coming back from the New Horizons mission thatís out like Pluto. How are they getting back to us?

Andrew - Well, the simple answer is itís just a radiowave. Itís a radio transmitter on the spacecraft that sends a signal to Earth.

Kat - So, itís basically like a snapchat.

Andrew - Kind of. The thing isÖ

Chris - Instagram.

Andrew - If only it were that simple. The thing is that the transmitters on these space probes, they're so low power. The power requirements of the spacecraft are just a few watts so that the transmitter is only beaming a tiny, tiny weak signal back to us. And so, itís literally sending the data back a bit at a time. So, you donít get a whole picture at once. You get each pixel one by one. And so, you have to build up the pictures over time. And thatís why it takes so long for the data to get particularly from that New Horizons probe out of Pluto.

Chris - Sounds like my home internet connection. (Tucker Oilinkee) has twitted @nakedscientists and says, ďWhat kind of camera can take photos of Pluto where light is very limited?Ē he wants to know things like the sensor, the ISO rate in the proper time, the f value if you know it.

Andrew - I'm afraid I donít know the details like that, but it is literally a digital camera. Thatís what it is onboard these spacecraft taking pictures in low light levels, perhaps in the infrared rather than visible light. But yeah, itís working just like the camera on your phone. But working in those low light levels.

Kat - It is incredible to think that those amazing pictures that we saw of Pluto, the sort of the heart shaped on its surface, one pixel at a time over thousands and thousands of miles.

Andrew - I know. It really is incredible. We tend to think, ďOh, itís just a space probe out there in the solar system sending back the picturesĒ but yeah, itís taken years to get there. And even the signals themselves will take hours to get back to Earth.

Chris - Itís 6 billion kilometres to Pluto. Light goes about a billion kilometres an hour so itís 6 hours for all the messages to come out. MarianÖ

Marian - So, how long is it going to take for all the data to eventually get back to us?

Andrew - Well, I guess theyíll keep going until the power runs out really. Yeah, it could be many, many months yet.

Kat - So in many ways, it is like a mobile phone. You just keep taking those photos, keep posting them on instagram until your phone dies.

Andrew - Exactly.



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Seismic Waves are inaudible sounds carried through the earths crust.
The pads on an elephants feet are sensitive to these waves. Toads probably have similar ability. Insects and cats also can predict danger and they also have pads on their feet that suggest they feel seismic waves.
Some people are very sensitive to seismic waves also.
I've heard of modern native groups fleeing prior to tsunami striking, whether they saw the animals react and followed or whether they had the ability themselves is up to discussion.
Also I would imagine that whether you are located in a concrete jungle or natural landscape would also influence your ability to anticipate an earthquake.

echochartruse, Fri, 7th May 2010

Very interesting! I guess by "hear" I meant "feel" I wonder how hard it would be to pick these waves up in order to predict (at least to some degree) when a quake is on its way? I would think they are working on that some were?

Thanks very much for the reply brshorten, Sat, 8th May 2010

I would not get too exited about that. Seismologists have very sensitive equipment for measuring any disturbances of this nature. If there are any detectable precursors to earthquakes, I think they will be aware of them. Geezer, Sat, 8th May 2010

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