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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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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