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NASA Science Idle

Using Toads to Predict Earthquakes 78

ClockEndGooner writes "The BBC is reporting that a team led by Dr. Friedemann Freund from NASA and Dr. Rachel Grant from the UK's Open University have found that 'animals may sense chemical changes in groundwater that occur when an earthquake is about to strike.' Just prior to the quake that struck L'Aquila, Italy in 2009, Grant observed a mass toad exodus from a colony she was monitoring as part of her PhD project, and her published results prompted NASA to contact her as they found that highly stressed tectonic plates released a greater amount of positively charged ions that affected the water quality, which was sensed by the toads. According to NASA's Freund, 'Once we understand how all of these signals are connected, if we see four of five signals all pointing in [the same] direction, we can say, "ok, something is about to happen."'"
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Using Toads to Predict Earthquakes

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  • When I was a boy (Score:5, Interesting)

    by datavirtue ( 1104259 ) on Friday December 02, 2011 @01:21AM (#38234826)

    Years ago when I was a young lad back on the toad farm (4000 head) I recall the sensitivity the toads had to various climatic and environmental changes. I would go into the barn where about 1000 of our toads where housed at any one time, it could be a sunny day with a clear blue sky, and the toads would be twitching, bumping into each other and whatnot. Sometimes it would get really scary as I feared for my safety from their bucking and random jaunting. But anyway, it seemed they would start reacting to storms way before any human could even sense them. After a while you learned to read the toads and know what was coming.

  • Toads! I Knew it!

    • by TheInternetGuy ( 2006682 ) on Friday December 02, 2011 @02:06AM (#38234990)
      I live in Japan, and it has long been an old-wife's tale here that Toads and frogs will go quiet and disappear before big earth quakes. And that has been documented to happen in connection with the 3/11 earth quake. Some scientists have suggested that large amounts of Radon is released when pressure builds up before a quake, and that the toads are able to detect this. Another old-wifes tale is that eels also are able to predict earth quakes ( I have yet to understand exactly how they then communicate this to humans) And lastly there were many news articles connecting the fore and after shocks of 3/11 to group dolphin stranding on the affected coasts. There are also stories about wells in Japanese Temples, that are usually murky but turns clear before major earth quakes. Finally it is also said here that temperatures ( or perceived temperature) raise before a quake. All though I have actually found this to be true on several occasions I still believe it is coincidental (or maybe due to selective memory processes).
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by korgitser ( 1809018 )

        Well the scientific world usually neglects correlations without a plausible causation. The disbelief that science has had towards the stories stems from, I believe, the fact that not every story can be taken on face value. Our thinking tradition with it's platonic roots has much trouble accepting non-formalised discoure. But what _we_ have as formalised science, literature, psychology, history, 'old wives' have all as stories.
        What I would like to see is this frog story being a part of a movement to look int

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          Found a whole book on this topic: Earthquakes and animals: from folk legends to science, By M. Ikeya (Google Books) []. Studies going back to at least 1923 are found via Google Scholar []. I'd be all in favor of studies which would figure out what mechanisms are involved here; we in the Pacific NW of the US are due for a real monster of a subduction quake someday, the hardship and loss of life will be quite extreme, and some advance notice would be welcome, to say the least.

          Of course, test it out in some regi

          • by MasaMuneCyrus ( 779918 ) on Friday December 02, 2011 @02:01PM (#38240282)

            Seismology Ph.D. student, here. Bear with me here as I don't recall the sources for this but if you do enough Googling, I'm sure you can find them. I wrote a paper on the history of Japanese seismology for my undergrad senior project (included some information from Japanese textbooks that might not be available in English), so I've read a lot of about this subject.

            People have noticed phenomena such as bizarre animal behavior, earthquake lights, and earthquake clouds since the dawn of time, and more recently people have noticed an increased charge in the ionosphere before earthquakes. A NASA scientist has also shown that a spike in electric current will run through a rock moments before the rock fractures.

            Much research has been done by Chinese and Japanese regarding animals. Japanese believed for hundreds of years that earthquakes were caused by catfish. They based this on much historical evidence of catfish going crazy shortly before an earthquake. At one time in Japanese history, "catfish" and "earthquake" were used as interchangeable words. There were lots of science experiments and observations done regarding catfish in the early 1900s at a lab in Aomori prefecture. A famous early Japanese seismologist (his name escapes me) found an incontrovertible correlation between oarfish catches and some seismic swarm in the 1960s. There was an earthquake in Hokkaido a few decades ago that was foreshadowed by all of the mice on the island running amok in the streets. It is common folk knowledge that when deep sea fish appear near the surface en masse, a large earthquake will strike soon.

            I don't know as much about Chinese seismological history, but it's commonly believed and has been shown that snakes can detect earthquakes. There have been studies and anecdotal evidence in Chinese seismology of snakes that will awake from hibernation before an earthquake. My Taiwanese adviser claimed that the Chinese scientists determined that sulfur gasses produced similar behavior in hibernating snakes. I also should note that China is the only place in the world where there is a government mandate to study earthquake prediction, event if it's fruitless. Every seismological bureau in China (there is one in every province) must look into earthquake prediction. There is a stigma about earthquake prediction and looking at animal behavior in the West, but that stigma is much less severe in Asia, especially China.

            In addition to Asia, every time there's a major earthquake in the Western world, I see stories like this, like "I'm a biologist and my frogs went berserk the day leading up to the earthquake," or "I'm a zoologist and my alligators did weird things before the earthquake." There is clearly some link between animal behavior and earthquakes that has been shown repeatedly throughout history.

            Lastly, it wasn't but a year ago I saw posters at a seismology meeting about huge spikes in ionosphere charge before large earthquakes. This has been shown repeatedly to happen all over the world.

            Now for the bad news. This past Seismological Society of America meeting, I saw a poster from NASA research debunking a specific ionosphere charge before a large earthquake result. There are many large earthquakes that are preceded by a huge spike in ionosphere charge. The problem is that there are many, many other times where there are equally, if not more severe spikes in ionosphere charge. The ionosphere likes to have charge spikes relatively frequently. How can you tell the difference between a normal day with a high ionosphere charge and the day before an earthquake? Well, you can't. At least we cant, yet.

            The NASA scientist that has shown electrical current running through rocks the moment before a fracture is also very controversial. His results are extremely promising for seismology. The problem is that we've never been able to observe an increased charge in the ground or a change in resistivity before an earthquake. Look up Parkfield, CA. That place is loaded with instruments for earthquake pr

            • fascinating. Moderators- mod this post up. It's knowledgeable, true balanced, multi-viewpoint science. Something we don't see a lot of here.

            • Good post, balanced, sober and realistic. Well worth the effort of your writing it.

              There is probably a solution out there somewhere, but it will take many more years of research to get to, if it's even possible. Some people say it isn't.

              There is possibly a solution out there, but I know of no law of nature that requires there to be a reliable precursor signal, let alone a single, reliable, universally applicable signal.

              It is plausible that particular faults may have reliable precursors along particular seg

              • A lot of seismology veterans are completely jaded from the failure of the Parkfield experiments to turn up any precursors. I'm new to the field and young, so understandably I'm more optimistic.

                In my opinion, there are clearly some precursors to some earthquakes. There is a huge variety of precursors to choose from for any given fault.

                1. Seismic gap. Some faults signal an imminent earthquake by a sudden drop in seismicity: suddenly there are no earthquakes; that means the fault is not moving, not releasing s

                • In my opinion, there are clearly some precursors to some earthquakes. There is a huge variety of precursors to choose from for any given fault.

                  I would need to see it demonstrated that the same precursors are effective along extended sections of particular faults for extended periods of time. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that changes in the wall rock nature would mean that, where the wall rocks are different, different physical processes are the limiting processes for the stress at which the fault sli

          • we in the Pacific NW of the US are due for a real monster of a subduction quake someday, the hardship and loss of life will be quite extreme,

            Quite correct.

            and some advance notice would be welcome, to say the least.

            here is your advance notice : at some point in the next half-millennium, the Pacific NW coast of America is going to suffer a major (8+, possibly 9+ moment magnitude) earthquake. At that time, being somewhere else would be a very good idea.

            Feel free to choose when you want to leave.

            I know that y

          • we in the Pacific NW of the US are due for a real monster of a subduction quake someday, the hardship and loss of life will be quite extreme,

            BTW, whatever the loss of life when the Cascadia fault lets go ... it's almost certain to be dwarfed by the next "big one" in the Ganges valley area. The historical earthquake records are comparable, and the timescale to the next "big one" is likely to be similar. The population at risk in the Ganges area is considerably higher, and building standards and infrastructu

        • by kryliss ( 72493 )

          "It should be time for science to listen to it's father again."

          Don't you mean It should be time for science to listen to it's mother again."?

    • by GNious ( 953874 )

      Plausibly, it is the sudden absence of toads, that cause tectonic stress-levels to change, and cause earthquakes....


  • then you have more problems than earthquakes.

  • Annual phenomenon? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by gnatman64 ( 688246 ) on Friday December 02, 2011 @01:38AM (#38234886) Homepage
    I was just listening to this week's episode of Big Picture Science [] where they addressed this issue, and the scientist they interviewed claimed that the toads that started this whole thing naturally migrate every year. Not sure who's right, but I'm more likely to believe it was a fluke until they can actually prove the ability to predict an earthquake before it happens, and not after.
  • Every year there's this cacophony of frog croaks from the frogs that inhabit the rice fields surrounding my house, and I've noticed they go very quiet, a few seconds or just before a quake strikes.

    The pheasants, on the other hand, are useless - they only start just after the quake has begun.
    • by sFurbo ( 1361249 ) on Friday December 02, 2011 @04:29AM (#38235362)
      That is detection, not prediction. There are several different types of tremors coming from earthquakes, and they travel at different speeds. The toads probably detect some of the faster ones that you don't. They then go quite just before the ones you can detect arrives.
      • by NeoTron ( 6020 )
        Sure, it's detection, and yes, the article talks about prediction.

        I just thought my anecdote might be interesting, Mr Pedantic :)
        • by sFurbo ( 1361249 )
          I did not mean to imply that it wasn't interesting, I just wanted to point out the difference between that and the article, and offer an explanation for your anecdote.

          How did you know that my secret identity was Peter Pedantic?
      • And, the article talks about toads detecting high positive ionic concentration in their water three days before the quake. Three days before tremors are detected. Call it detection if you want, but three days before a tremor is pretty good prediction in my book.

        • by sFurbo ( 1361249 )
          The three days are prediction, if that word is to make any sense. The three seconds could be prediction, but is probably detection. And three days prediction of an earthquake would be really big, you can evacuate a lot of people in three days.
          • The big question for me is when they are going to deploy these detectors... apparently the big Japan quake gave similar warnings days in advance. Once the detectors are in place, we'll start to figure out how many false positives, and quakes without warning we get.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Friday December 02, 2011 @02:07AM (#38235002) Journal
    Aside from the issue that groundwater monitoring tends to be one of those things that produces results people hate to hear(yes, Virginia, you are overpumping, your predictions of longterm availability are optimism bordering on fraud, and we still don't know exactly who is releasing those curious new compounds...) measuring things like ion concentrations, charges, pH, and so forth is something you could do with a network of probes at comparatively modest expense...
    • by JoeMerchant ( 803320 ) on Friday December 02, 2011 @09:26AM (#38236318)

      I don't know about Virginia, but Florida has been overpumping for decades now, killing coastal forests with saltwater intrusion and killing wet-dry swampy areas by keeping them wet year round with ag runoff.

      In Sarasota county, they impose no-car-wash and alternate Thursday lawn watering restrictions, and still the tomato farmers use more water than then entire residential and commercial population. (No, tomato farming is not a major component in Sarasota County's economy, just it's water problems.)

      • I think my favorite Floridian aquatic insanity is the fact that the effective 'price' imposed on certain classes of commercial users is so vanishingly small that it is economically viable for a number of bottled-water bottling operations to feed on the state's bounteous freshwater reserves...
        • The locals mostly hate the trucks that come with a bottled water operation, the actual water loss is fairly trivial compared to "flood the field" agriculture.

          The recent rash of sinkholes around Lakeland were directly traceable to the strawberry growers "protecting their crop" from a freeze event... some tradeoff: potentially protect a few million $ in strawberries while causing tens of millions $ worth of unpredictable sinkholes, under I-4, several local roads, and houses.

  • Everybody knows goombas are better at predicting earthquakes.
    • Everybody knows goombas are better at predicting earthquakes.

      I don't think it's that hard to predict an earthquake when you see a plumber carrying a large block with "POW" on the side coming towards you.

  • by Mech610 ( 2317310 ) on Friday December 02, 2011 @02:33AM (#38235076)
    "And this my lord is how we know the Earth to be banana shaped."
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 02, 2011 @02:39AM (#38235094)

    in the version of TOAD I use. Do I need to upgrade?

  • very old news? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    the ancient chinese seismograph used toads too.

  • by Sooner Boomer ( 96864 ) <> on Friday December 02, 2011 @06:14AM (#38235686) Journal
    My cat predicted the earthquakes here in Central Oklahoma, and I'm still trying to scrub the pee out of the carpet! Keep your toads away!
  • Anyone wishing to see a mass toad exodus should just stand outside corporate headquarters at five o'clock on a Friday.

  • by Required Snark ( 1702878 ) on Friday December 02, 2011 @07:24AM (#38235878)
    Just wondering.
  • Aside from ionosphere disturbances, nature has a number of ways that signify an earthquake's arrival far earlier than an iPhone can.

    Not if the iPhone is tied into the toad network.

    • But the iPhone-toad network interface cable is terribly expensive.
      • You can make your own for cheap, you just need to hook up a few resistors in the right places to fool the iPhone into thinking it's an official Apple iToad cable.

  • by wisnoskij ( 1206448 ) on Friday December 02, 2011 @09:45AM (#38236400) Homepage

    That the scientific consensus was that animals did not know anything special and all the reports of precognition of devastating events were miss-rememberences or random chance.

    • That is the scientific consensus.

      However, if you RTFA, and particularly RTFPaper, you'll see that the authors have proposed a causal mechanism for these anecdotes. Which renders it more amenable to test. Unfortunately, the long record of poor and failed animal-prediction ideas bodes poorly for their predictive power.

  • His last name is Freund, after all.
  • by Toad-san ( 64810 ) on Friday December 02, 2011 @12:16PM (#38238506)

    Unless she didn't speak Italian, of course.

    "Stiamo ottenendo l'inferno fuori di Dodge, signora! Alcuni merda brutto accadrà presto!"

    Is that so hard to understand?

"Yeah, but you're taking the universe out of context."