Can Animals Warn About Coming Natural Disasters?

In the wake of the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the debate over whether or not animals can sense impending disaster has been re-sparked. Discovery News’s Benjamin Radford weighs in on the topic, explaining why he would rather rely on the internet, rather than his dog, for warnings about natural disasters. ― Global Animal

Discovery News, Benjamin Radford

In the aftermath of today’s tsunami in Japan, people on America’s west coast were on the lookout for any impending danger. Several southern California beaches were put on alert, including Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach. According to a piece in the Los Angeles Times,

“People crowded Lookout Point in Corona del Mar on Friday morning, looking for any sign of a tsunami. None came. ‘As soon as the animals leave, we’ll follow,’ said Michelle Hobson, 23. Many dogs yapped and barked, but none appeared to exhibit extraordinary signs of pending natural disaster. By about 9 a.m., many people grew tired of waiting, or had somewhere to go, and left.”

Hobson was taking advantage of the claimed ability of animals to “exhibit extraordinary signs of pending natural disaster.” Indeed, following earthquakes and tsunamis, stories often circulate of animals (especially pets and livestock) acting strangely or seeming to know of the disaster long before humans. Following the Dec. 26, 2004, Asian tsunami, some (erroneous) news reports claimed that no animals had been killed by the tsunami (they had supposedly all fled to higher ground).

But what is the nature of that ability? Some claim that it’s a sort of ESP or mysterious “sixth sense”; others chalk it up to simple biology. Animals that detect impending earthquakes and tsunamis don’t necessarily have more senses than humans; they just have much higher sensitivity. The fact that animals have keener senses than humans is well-documented. Dogs have a remarkable sense of smell, birds can migrate using celestial cues, and bats can locate food with echoes. The mistake is in confusing that higher sensitivity with some unknown, perhaps paranormal, power.

Animals may sense unusual vibrations or changes in air pressure coming from one direction that suggest they should move in the opposite direction. If a herd of animals are seen fleeing before an earthquake, all that is needed is for one or two of them to skittishly sense danger. The rest will follow, not necessarily due to some supernatural earthquake-detecting sense, but simple herd instinct.

Fortunately, with modern technology, tsunami warnings can be issued within seconds of an earthquake, in some cases providing hours of forewarning. So while Michelle Hobson and others can watch for signs of impending danger in a dog’s behavior, the Internet is much more reliable.