To predict quakes, listen to animals: survivors advise

By Dan Martin, AFP

TANGSHAN, China — Well before this city was destroyed by an earthquake 32 years ago, the coming disaster was loudly preceded by strange animal behavior and other bizarre signals that survivors wish they heeded.

“The animals were trying to tell us something. If only we knew that, not so many people would have died,” said Fu Wenran, a retired farmer whose wife was among the estimated 240,000 who perished in Tangshan’s quake on July 28, 1976.

Several survivors of the disaster in this northern city — still the deadliest earthquake of modern times — said the toll in this month’s quake in southwestern China could have been minimized if such clues had been validated.

Chinese media reports and Internet blogs have buzzed with reports of mass migrations of thousands of frogs and toads near the quake region in Sichuan province just before the May 12 disaster, which left more than 80,000 people dead or missing.

Whether linked to the quake or not, there is little dispute among scientists that animals can predict earthquakes, possibly through sensitivity to pressure waves.

“Physical and chemical stimuli emanate from the earth prior to an earthquake and animals probably sense that,” said Dr. George Pararas Carayannis, a chemist and oceanographer who is president of the Honolulu-based Tsunami Society.

“Eventually, studies of animal behavior could lead to better and more sophisticated sensors for use in short-term prediction.”

Scientists can detect heightened earthquake risks by monitoring build-ups of seismological pressure, ground tilting and magnetic field changes, although no quake has ever been accurately predicted this way, he said.

Yet there are many other strange precursors whose utility in forecasting remains unexplored, said Pararas-Carayannis.

The 1976 Tangshan quake was a tour de force of such clues, survivors say. Fu, then a farmer on the city’s outskirts, said dogs erupted in wild howling and barking hours before the quake struck at 3:42 a.m.