As natural disasters threaten communities around the world, scientists are hard at work to predict catastrophes. It may be impossible to prevent a typhoon or drought, the reasoning goes, but the sooner people can be warned, the sooner they can prepare—or escape.
While technological means of sensing nascent storms do exist, some researchers—and their governments—are investigating another means of detecting natural disasters: animal response. A French team of scientists wonders: do birds hear hurricanes and tsunamis before they hit? And if so, can we notice when they flee oncoming disaster?
Anecdotal evidence suggests that birds can sense calamities before humans are ever aware of them. In 2004, not long before the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami struck land, eyewitnesses noticed an unusual number of birds flying inland. Plus, migratory birds that fly thousands of miles across the Pacific seem able to avoid the ocean’s terrible storms.
The French scientists point out that tsunamis and hurricanes generate infrasound, a sound with such low frequency it’s undetectable to human ears. Infrasound, like all sound waves, travels faster than the waves made of water. If birds can detect the infrasound wave of a tsunami or hurricane, the scientists theorize, then they’ll be able to easily avoid getting trapped in it.To study this possibility, the research team went to French Polynesia in the South Pacific. There, they attached high-tech tags to fifty-six birds from five different species, allowing the researchers to trace the birds’ migration. Tracking the birds’ movement could reveal when the birds hear an approaching storm—and, by extension, warn humans of the storm as well.