Crashes, Crises, and Calamities: How We Can Use Science to Read the Early-Warning Signs

Crashes, Crises, and Calamities: How We Can Use Science to Read the Early-Warning Signs

Crashes, Crises, and Calamities: How We Can Use Science to Read the Early-Warning Signs

Crashes, Crises, and Calamities: How We Can Use Science to Read the Early-Warning Signs

Excerpt

The clever men at Oxford
Know all that there is to be knowed.
But they none of them know one half as much
As intelligent Mr. Toad!

—Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (1908)

On April 1, 2009, the toads in San Ruffino Lake in central Italy left their traditional breeding grounds and headed for the hills. Five days later, a violent earthquake hit the region, demolishing the nearby medieval town of L’Aquila and killing more than three hundred people.

By a singular act of serendipity, the British ecologist Rachel Grant happened to be studying the mating behavior of the toads at the time of the earthquake. She was understandably annoyed when the toads suddenly disappeared from her study site, but thrilled when they returned the day after the earthquake—not just because she could continue her study, but because she was the first scientist to be able to confirm the many anecdotal reports over the centuries of animals acting strangely just before a natural disaster.

Following her scientific account of the phenomenon, there have been suggestions that we could use the behavior of toads or other animals as early-warning signs for earthquakes. Whether this suggestion will withstand scrutiny is not clear, but at least we may be able to discover any physical signals that the animals are responding to and monitor those.

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