Can Whale Strandings Help Predict Earthquakes?

stranded whales nz photo
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Photo via The Guardian

Earthquakes, like the one that struck in Christchurch, New Zealand yesterday, rank among the most devastating natural disasters, capable of leveling cities and causing extensive loss of life -- largely because they are so unpredictable. On Sunday, however, less than 48 hours before the quake, 107 pilot whales beached themselves and died along the nation's shores, a phenomenon that biologists have yet to fully understand. The proximity of the two events, in both time and location, have sent the Web in a frenzy over whether they are related -- and whether strandings can provide precious foresight before disaster strikes.It is important to note that biologists believe whales and dolphins beach themselves for a variety of reasons, like failing health and navigational errors, though no definitive correlation has been drawn thus far. This latest incident of mass-stranding prior to an earthquake, however, is not without precedent.

A report from The Mirror points out a that some 170 whales were stranded in Australia and New Zealand prior to the devastating 2004 quake that struck in the Indian Ocean which resulted in a tsunami that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands throughout the region. At the time, Indian professor Dr. Arunachalam Kumar suspected a relationship between the two events.

Three weeks before the tsunami, he was alerted to the whales' deaths, and wrote: "It is my observation, confirmed over the years, that mass suicides of whales and dolphins that occur sporadically all over the world, are in some way related to change and disturbances in the electromagnetic field co-ordinates and possible realignments of geotectonic plates thereof.
"I would not be surprised if within a few days a massive quake hits some part of the globe."
Scientists are currently speculating that the cause of death of New Zealand's pilot whales is due to sound reverberations in shallow water.

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday's quake, several groups of pilot whales had become stranded and returned to sea, culminating in Sunday's mass-stranding death of 107 animals. It may never been known for certain whether or not the subtle precursors to an earthquake drove them inland, but it is well-known that many animals are far more sensitive to such factors than humans.

Perhaps even more difficult than proving a correlation between strandings and earthquakes would be deciding how we should respond to these events if a relationship is found to exist. After all, we tend to be a lot better at collecting and analyzing data provided by the world around us than we are at acting in light of it.