Quake signals investigated

Strange lights in the sky, bizarre animal behaviour and unexplained electrical failures. These unusual phenomena are all coming under the critical eye of scientists looking for signals of impending earthquakes.

Vicki Anderson from the Press interviewed quake expert Dr Neil Whitehead about his fascinating hunt for earthquake precursors.

An excerpt (read in full here):

Reading signs before a quake

If your pet goes berserk at an inconvenient time, be inclined to humour it: it might save your life.

That’s the advice from Dr Neil Whitehead who, after the 7.1 earthquake in Darfield on September 4, 2010, researched whether there were real precursors of the event.

A website was set up, and survey categories based on similar previous studies in Kobe, Japan, and Izmit, Turkey, were selected. Kiwis were invited to offer their observations at chchquake.co.nz.

Christchurch people helped with several hundred replies to the internet survey, he says.

“Their detailed time reports allowed statistical tests to be done and establish for the first time that animal responses in particular were real and not just due to selective reporting. Their reporting of earthquake lights was also in unprecedented detail,” Whitehead says.

“The most interesting information was strong statistical evidence that animals, particularly dogs and cats, reacted somehow at varying times before the September 4 quake, this had been only anecdotal for previous earthquakes,” he says.

There was also strong anecdotal evidence of people experiencing a feeling of pressure, or sometimes headaches before the quake and aftershocks.

“There was timing evidence that precursors were not due to foreshocks, and were consistent with electromagnetic radiation, presumably extremely low frequency, otherwise it could not reach the surface from the epicentre.”

Based in Wellington, Whitehead is a research scientist who spent 27 years with Crown Research Institute GNS Science and its predecessors, and four years with the International Atomic Energy Agency (United Nations). He is now an independent consultant. His most recent official post was Visiting Professor at Hiroshima University from 2005-2006.

“I spent nearly a year at Osaka University from 2002 to 2003 with the late geophysicist Professor Ikeya and showed statistically for the first time that some publicly reported precursors were valid, though not helpful for prediction,” Whitehead said.