Using Animals To Build An Early Warning System For Natural Disasters

"My vicuña sense is tingling"
"My vicuña sense is tingling"
Ulrike Roll

RADOLFZELL — Biologist Martin Wikelski put sensors on goats living on Italy's Mount Etna and watched what happened. He found that if you watched their movements, you could predict when there would be volcanic eruptions. So now he wants to do satellite research on how animals roam and escape on a world scale.

What happened on Etna was that the goats suddenly made a run for it, fleeing down the flanks of the volcano. Some six hours later, on the night of Jan. 5, 2012, lava shot out of Etna as a hefty eruption began.

For researchers working with Wikelski, who is director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, Germany, this was a first — the first time scientists could deliver proof of animal premonitions.

"Before the eruption we'd been observing the goats' behavior in a steady targeted way," Wikelski says. The sensors the scientists had equipped the animals with documented their movements in various directions.

Based on the pattern of movement, a computer program identified when individual animals were sleeping, running from a dog, or if a whole herd was fleeing the mountainside. It is still not known why goats are best at sensing approaching danger, perhaps because they can smell the rising magma.

History is full of anecdotes about how elephants, geese, toads and snakes have warned of natural catastrophe. In 2009, in Italy's Abruzzi region, residents noted that toads disappeared in the middle of their spawning season. A few days later, an earthquake killed more than 300 people around the city of L'Aquila.

When the devastating tsunami rolled over Southeast Asian coasts nearly 10 years ago, elephants, water buffalo and chickens fled to the hinterlands. "But all reports came after the fact and were very subjective," Wikelski says by way of explaining the difference between such reports and his scientific findings.

What animals tell us

His goal is to use the "sixth sense" of animals as a comprehensive early warning system. "We're only seeing the tip of the iceberg," he says. "Every animal has its own understanding of its environment, and we have to learn to read the signals." He wants access to the particular knowledge that generations of animals have collected over the course of evolution.

The University of Konstanz professor has been researching global animal migration for many years and equips birds such as storks with GPS devices. He is currently developing a worldwide biological early warning system based on a number of animal species. He and his colleagues travel the globe capturing animals to attach these devices.

Among the birds they use are albatrosses because they are able to avoid storms. Frigate birds are considered "living buoys" because they react to temperature differences on water surfaces and can warn of impending hurricanes.

Large gatherings of storks may presage a plague of locusts, "something that threatens a fifth of the world population," Wikelski notes. His team also has turtles on the Galapagos Islands, highland cattle in the Himalayas and fruit bats in Ghana all wearing tracking devices.

Observing bats also yields other information pertaining to disease control. The flying mammals often carry the Ebola virus and could be the source of the present epidemic in West Africa.

Wikelski's method, known as DAMN (Disaster Alert Mediation using Nature), doesn't just include animal observation but also the transmission, processing and interpretation of data.

When are thresholds reached when populations should be warned? Wikelski has a patent "accorded on principle" for the idea and technology, and just has to complete a last link concerning specific regions.

According to Wikelski, insurance companies are already talking to the researchers because current methods can't predict major volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Which is why the Sept. 27 Mount Ontake eruption in Japan caught climbers by surprise.

For the planned comprehensive warning system, the devices worn by animals will emit signals out into space that will be picked up by the International Space Station (ISS). So far the data has traveled over cell phone radio networks, which are full of dead zones, particularly in thinly populated areas.

In the framework of the ICARUS Initiative (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space), project astronauts are due to set up an antenna at the space station in early 2016.

The 1 million euro project is financed by the German Aerospace Center and Russian space travel authorities. "Our present problem is support on the ground," Wikelski explains. "We're looking for private investors."

The movements of birds with sensors can already be followed on the Internet. On Movebank, for example, school classes can follow the movements of "their" stork.

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The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Asham!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Pyongyang test fires a suspected submarine-launched missile, Colin Powell is remembered, Poland-EU tensions rise, and yay (or yeesh): it's officially Ye. Meanwhile, our latest edition of Work → In Progress takes the pulse of the new professional demands in a recovering economy.

[*Oromo - Ethiopia and Kenya]


• North Korea fires missile off Japan coast: South Korea military reports that North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the waters off the coast of Japan. The rocket, thought to have been launched from a submarine, is the latest test in a series of provocations in recent weeks.

• Poland/EU tensions: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused the EU of "blackmail" and said the European Union is overstepping its powers, in a heated debate with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the rule of law. The escalation comes in the wake of a controversial ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that puts national laws over EU principles.

• Colin Powell remembered: Tributes are pouring for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after his death yesterday at age 84. Although fully vaccinated, Powell died from complications from COVID-19 as he was battling blood cancer. A trailblazing soldier, he then helped shape U.S. foreign policy, as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and served as the nation's top diplomat for George W. Bush. Powell's legacy is, by his own admission, "blotted" by his faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. war in Iraq.

• Russia to suspend NATO diplomatic mission amid tension: Russia is suspending its diplomatic mission to NATO and closing the alliance's offices in Moscow as relations with the Western military block have plunged to a new low. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the move after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission for alleged spying. Relations between NATO and Russia have been strained since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

• Ecuador state of emergency to battle drug crime: President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency amid Ecuador's surge in drug-related violence. He announced the mobilization of police and the military to patrol the streets, provide security, and confront drug trafficking and other crimes.

• Taliban agrees to house-to-house polio vaccine drive: The WHO and Unicef campaign will resume nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline health workers. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and infectious disease

• Kanye West officially changes name: Some say yay, some say yeesh, but it's official: The-artist-formerly-known-as-Kanye-West has legally changed his name to Ye, citing "personal reasons."


The Washington Post pays tribute to Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, who died at 84 years old from complications from COVID-19.


Jashn-e Riwaaz

Indian retailer Fabindia's naming its new collection Jashn-e Riwaaz, an Urdu term meaning "celebration of tradition," has been met with severe backlash and calls for boycott from right-wing Hindu groups. They are accusing the brand of false appropriation by promoting a collection of clothes designed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, but giving it a name in Urdu, a language spoken by many Muslims.


Work → In Progress: Where have all the workers gone?

After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback. This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.

🗓️ Hail the 4-day week Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.

🚚 Empty seats In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because of the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines. The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.

💼 Key help wanted It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all? A recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment. The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


I'm worried for my Afghan sisters.

— Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai Nobel Prize tells the BBC that despite the Taliban's announcement that they would soon lift the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan, she worries it "might last for years."

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more yay or yeesh about the artist currently known as Ye? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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