Can animals predict earthquakes?

Given that we have made our home in one of the less geologically stable parts of the planet, the possibility that animals can foresee coming earthquakes is of pressing practical interest to us. Unfortunately this idea rests on very shaky ground.

Indeed any kind of earthquake prediction is, at present, beyond our grasp. Seismologists occasionally have bursts of optimism and claim that accurate and practical earthquake prediction is just years away. Those years grow into decades and the promised predictive power never arrives.

It may just be impossible. The earth’s crust is a large, complex system and maybe there are just too many responsible factors, spread too far across the planet and through time to make forecasting possible.

That doesn’t stop a few stubborn souls from trying, though. The goal is to find precursors of earthquakes, signs that appear days or even hours before the ground starts shaking. The possibility of precursors lurking out there just waiting to be discovered is irresistible to some people. Many precursors have been hailed and then quietly abandoned. The latest fad is for electromagnetic changes which have been detected and correlated with the epicentres of quakes.

This is where animals could help. Rumour and legend have it that animals will start acting up well before we humans become aware of an earthquake. It even makes sense that burrowers and other creatures with a particular interest in stable ground would evolve this ability. And once we found an animal that predicted earthquakes reliably all we would have to do is figure out what the animals pick up on.

Unfortunately there is no convincing evidence that animals pick up on anything. Most reports are anecdotal; very few experiments have been conducted and those turned up nothing. And if evolution failed to come up with an earthquake predictor when it has solved so many other engineering problems then perhaps it really is insoluble.

So animals can’t predict earthquakes. They’re stuck with us in a cross between a seventies disaster flick and Hitchcock thriller: we know the big one is coming, we just don’t know when.

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