HAMNET Report 9th April 2023

A strong earthquake of 7.0 M at a depth of 63 km occurred in northern Papua New Guinea on Sunday 2nd April at 20:04 CAT. The epicentre was located 97 km from the coastal town of Wewak, in the country’s East Sepik province in the sparsely populated mountainous Momase Region and 240 km east of the border with Indonesia.

According to the local aid agencies and partners, the earthquake was felt strongly in Mendi and the whole Highlands province. On 4th April, media reported four fatalities, 17 injured persons and approximately 300 heavily damaged houses across 23 villages throughout the East Sepik Province, in particular nearby the area of the Chambri Lake.

USGS estimates that up to 133,000 people were exposed to very strong shaking and up to 333,000 people to strong shaking.

This earthquake comes merely two weeks after a 6.1 M earthquake hit Papua New Guinea’s capital on 14 March.

Now, I am sure you have all heard of the phenomenon where animals of various types seem to sense oncoming tectonic plate shifts and earthquakes long before any seismometers or other technology reports them. Humans, of course, are the last to feel the onset of such tremors.

Can technology build on this, using the sensitivity of certain animals to the subtle signals of impending danger? In his book Where We Meet the World: The Story of the Senses, Ashley Ward reports that Martin Wikelski, director of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour in Konstanz, believes it can. Over the course of his career, Martin has developed an extraordinarily sophisticated system that traces the movement of different species around the globe. Each individual animal carries a state-of-the-art tag that transmits detailed information, including speed, acceleration, activity and location. This information is collected by the International Space Station and relayed back to Earth. One of the main goals of the project, known as Icarus, is to study long-distance migrations, and to examine how animals interact with the ecology of their environment and with each other, ultimately allowing targeted conservation efforts. The unprecedented richness and quality of the information, however, provides a means to harness animal behaviour as an early warning system for natural disasters, or, to give it the name that Martin coined, Disaster Alert Mediation using Nature (DAMN).

Some years ago, Martin and his colleagues travelled to Sicily to confront the island’s perennially troublesome volcano, Mount Etna. On the flanks of the volcano, goats graze contentedly on the vegetation that flourishes in the rich, volcanic soil. To mine this caprine local knowledge, a handful of these animals were fitted with electronic tags, allowing the researchers to monitor their behaviour from afar. Martin and his team didn’t have to wait for long, as Etna erupted a few weeks later. Retracing the behaviour of the goats in the run-up to the eruption, Martin identified a clear response around six hours earlier, when they became unusually active.

As a scientific measure, however, “unusually active” doesn’t really cut the mustard. So the next step was to establish the exact behavioural parameters that would indicate that the goats had sensed that Mount Etna was about to erupt. If this were achieved, the goat-powered alarm system could then be automated, triggering an alert whenever specific aspects of the animals’ behaviour surpassed a threshold value. Over the next two years, the doughty goats successfully detected almost 30 volcanic stirrings, seven of which posed a significant danger. That on its own is impressive, but more was to come. Etna is ringed with measuring stations that use mechanized sensors to predict volcanic activity, yet the goats outperformed these by sensing Etna’s disquiet far earlier than the tech gizmos. What’s more, they were able to identify the likely severity of the imminent eruption, something that has been notoriously difficult to achieve via scientific instruments. By melding cutting-edge technology with the evolved “supersenses” of animals, Martin has brought a rigorous 21st-century perspective to long-established cultural lore, one that promises to provide an inexpensive and effective solution to a global problem.

Thank you to Ashley Ward for this excerpt from his book.

You’ve heard me talk about the risk of radiation damage to flora and fauna in the neighbourhood of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear meltdown after the tsunami in 2011. An article in Phys.org this week notes that even a decade after the incident, concerns remain about the long-term effects of the radiation. In particular, it is not clear how the residual low-dose radiation might affect living organisms at the genetic level.

The brunt of the disaster is usually borne by the flora inhabiting the contaminated areas since they cannot move. This, however, makes them ideal for studying the effects of ionizing radiation on living organisms. Coniferous plants such as the Japanese red pine and fir have, for instance, shown abnormal branching after the Fukushima disaster. However, it is unclear whether such abnormalities reflect genetic changes caused by the prevailing low-dose-rate radiation in the area.

To address this concern, a team of researchers from Japan developed a rapid and cost-effective method to estimate the mutation risks caused by low-dose-rate radiation (0.08 to 6.86 microGrays/hour) in two widely cultivated tree species of Japan growing in the contaminated area. They used a new bioinformatics pipeline to evaluate de novo mutations (DNMs), or genetic changes/mutations that were not present earlier or inherited, in the germline of the gymnosperm Japanese cedar and the angiosperm flowering cherry.

The study, led by Dr. Saneyoshi Ueno from the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute, was recently published in the journal Environment International and involved a contribution from Dr Shingo Kaneko from Fukushima University.

“People living in the affected areas are worried and need to feel safe in their daily lives,” says Dr Kaneko when asked about the motivation behind their study. “We wanted to clear the air of misinformation regarding the biological consequences of the nuclear power plant accident.”

[The principle was basically to decipher the original DNA of the two types of tree, and then cultivate seedlings from them, looking for new mutations (DNM’s) which seemed likely to be caused by the constant radiation exposure.]

Interestingly, the team found no DNMs for the Japanese flowering cherry and very few in the Japanese cedar  

These findings suggested that the mutation rate in trees growing in contaminated areas did not increase significantly owing to the ambient radiation. “Our results also suggest that mutation rates vary across lineages and are largely influenced by the environment,” says Dr Ueno.

The study is the first to use DNM frequency for assessing the after-effects of a nuclear disaster. With the number of nuclear power plants increasing globally, there is a growing risk of nuclear accidents. When asked about their study’s future implications, Dr Ueno says, “The method developed in our study can not only help us better understand the relationship between genetics and radiation but also perform hereditary risk assessments for nuclear accidents quickly.”

In general, good news for the world, particularly as the biggest nuclear power station in Europe in Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine is at the centre of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, and could theoretically be damaged or melt down as a result of the war.

Thank you to Phys.org for this report.

This is Dave Reece ZS1DFR reporting for HAMNET in South Africa.