Listen to an Earthquake’s Eerie ‘Whale Songs’

SeismoDome shows enable people to hear the previously inaudible sounds of earthquakes deep in the Earth—and that may lead to better safety.

Is it possible to “hear” an earthquake? Not the rumbling of the ground that results, but the earthquake itself. Even if you could, what’s the point of listening?

About a dozen years ago, geophysicist Ben Holtzman and musician/sound designer Jason Candler set out to answer these questions, with a side goal of sharing their passion for earthquakes with the public. From the fruits of their research, the SeismoDome show was born.

Holtzman and Candler co-produce the show—with Holtzman writing scientific content, creating sounds from seismic data, and working with collaborators to produce the visual elements, while Candler handles the sound engineering and design and helps with the writing and conception of the show.

HERE'S WHAT EARTHQUAKES LOOK LIKE FROM INSIDE THE EARTH

When asked what listening to earthquakes can contribute to our knowledge of them, Holtzman explains how our subconscious factors in: “Humans perceive an enormous amount of information about physical processes through sound; we do it all the time, mostly subconsciously,” he says. “Interpreting footsteps and motor sounds, doors opening—this processing becomes conscious when we do not know what the sound is.”

So, where do earthquakes come in? Holtzman says seismic data is almost completely inaudible if played at its natural speed, and the frequencies of large earthquakes aren’t even within our hearing range. However, if the frequency is shifted up, a much wider range of sounds can be heard. These sounds can vary a great deal depending on how close the seismometer was to the earthquake source, as well as the magnitude of the earthquake.

20 PICTURES REVEAL NEPAL'S HEARTBREAKING EARTHQUAKE DEVASTATION
(WARNING: SOME PHOTOGRAPHS CONTAIN GRAPHIC MATERIAL.)

CRUMBLING INFRASTRUCTURE Roads in and around Kathmandu were split apart as a result of the quake and its aftershocks. Here, Nepalese people inspect a crack made dangerously wide by the earthquake.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NIRANJAN SHRESTHA, AP

ONGOING RESCUE EFFORTS In Swyambhu, an area in Kathmandu, rescuers save a man from the rubble on Sunday. His friend, next to him, was killed.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PRAKASH MATHEMA, AFP/GETTY

AVALANCHE ON EVEREST An avalanche triggered by the earthquake struck a section of Mount Everest Base Camp on Saturday, just as the 2015 climbing season was beginning. At least 18 are thought to be dead there, with helicopter evacuations underway. 
PHOTOGRAPH BY AZIM AFIF, AP

BURIED BUDDHA In Bhaktapur, Nepal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a temple collapsed around a statue of the Buddha. Scores of other temples and religious sites have been reported destroyed. The exact toll of the damage is not yet known.
PHOTOGRAPH BY OMAR HAVANA, GETTY

DEATH TOLL RISING A relative of one of the victims identifies a dead family member in Bhaktapur, a town south-east of Kathmandu.
PHOTOGRAPH BY OMAR HAVANA, GETTY

TENDING TO THE DEAD The body of a person killed in the earthquake lies ready for cremation on Sunday.
PHOTOGRAPH BY OMAR HAVANA, GETTY

CREMATING VICTIMS Nepalese families gathered in a field to cremate their family members near Bhaktapur, Nepal.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NIRANJAN SHRESTHA, AP

DIGGING THROUGH DEBRIS Two men search through debris in Bhaktapur as part of rescue efforts. Multiple aftershocks have shaken the area and complicated the arrival of supplies and personnel by aid organisations.
PHOTOGRAPH BY OMAR HAVANA, GETTY

SURVIVORS In a hospital in Kathmandu, a man named Suresh Parihar plays with his daughter Sandhya. Parihar was injured in the earthquake.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MANISH SWARUP, AP

COLLAPSED SQUARE Buildings in and around Durbar Square, a site surrounded by ancient palaces that are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites, collapsed as a result of the Kathmandu earthquake. Rescuers cleared the debris Saturday afternoon in the search for survivors.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NIRANJAN SHRESTHA, ASSOCIATED PRESS

BURIED BY RUBBLE People tried to free this man in Kathmandu Saturday even as aftershocks continued shaking the area.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NARANDRA SHRESTHA, EPA 

STREET DEMOLISHED The facades of buildings in Lalitpur District, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, fell into the streets on Saturday. Ripples from the earthquake were felt around all of Nepal and in several neighbouring countries.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PRAKASH MATHEMA, AFP, GETTY IMAGES 

RESCUE EFFORT Some people who had been buried by falling debris were rescued as aftershocks continued to shake the region.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NARENDRA SHRESTHA, EPA 

FALLEN TOWER More than just government rescue workers contributed to the search and rescue effort in the hours after Saturday’s quake. These workers carry a woman who was injured after the historic Dharahara Tower in Kathmandu collapsed.
PHOTOGRAPH BY OMAR HAVANA, GETTY IMAGES

COLLAPSED LANDMARK The Dharara Tower, a 14-story cultural landmark built in 1832, was reduced to a 33-foot (10 meters) stump after the quake. The tower had been open to visitors for the past decade.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PRAKASH MATHEMA, AFP, GETTY IMAGES

SEARCH, RESCUE, AND TREATMENT Rescue workers set up clinics in the streets to respond to victims on Saturday.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NIRANJAN SHRESTHA, ASSOCIATED PRESS

TEMPLE DESTRUCTION A man passes near a collapsed temple near Durbar Square, the historic site of palaces in Kathmandu.
PHOTOGRAPH BY OMAR HAVANA, GETTY IMAGES

HOSPITALS IN THE STREET With hospitals overtaxed and in uncertain structural condition, injured people received treatment outside in the streets. The Red Cross said it had thousands of aid items available for deployment and more on the way from neighbouring countries.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NIRANJAN SHRESTHA, ASSOCIATED PRESS

UNCERTAIN DAMAGE A man in Kathmandu surveyed the rubble in part of Kathmandu on Saturday. International aid officials said that the full extent of the damage and its death toll wouldn’t be known for days at least, or possibly much longer.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NIRANJAN SHRESTHA, ASSOCIATED PRESS

The traditional way of understanding earthquakes is to examine a chart made by a seismograph: squiggles on a page that convey the characteristics of the Earth’s movement. But that is lacking in meaning and context, says Holtzman. Instead, people can take advantage of our natural ability to compare sounds and interpret meaning from them.

As Holtzman puts it, “the data come to life.”

Holtzman adds that the closer to the epicentre the data is recorded, the more details they are able to pick up. For example, the crust adjusting and settling into its new configuration after a large earthquake. Moving further away from the source can detract from the sharpness and clarity.

“Further down the spectrum, we can listen to the surface waves,” says Holtzman. “When these waves are sped up more, they sound like slow chirps, and sometimes even like whale songs. There is a clear physical explanation for the chirp (rising frequency with time). So hearing the sound, and then the explanation gives people a visceral experience to attach the physical meaning to.”

Holtzman and Candler use the SeismoDome project to explain concepts like surface waves and plate tectonics, in order to educate people not just about earthquakes, but also what earthquakes tell us about the Earth more broadly.

“Our aim is to demystify earthquakes, but more importantly to get people to see them as a natural process,” explains Holtzman. He goes on to say that the vast majority of earthquakes do not hurt anyone and that learning more about the natural phenomena can help us understand how and where to build our cities to prevent damage.

Holtzman adds, “because large earthquakes repeat on time scales that can be longer than our generational memories, people lose sight of the hazard. Most societies don’t have the resources to take these hazards into consideration when planning cities and building buildings.”

Holtzman and Candler also test our perception of time. Playing with our narrow band of perception, they compress more and more “earth time” into each sound and video, ranging from a few hours to a few years. By the end of the show, their goal is to pull the crowd’s sense of their spatial and temporal scale so much that they think about their own lives differently—how small we are and how short our lives are, but not with the intent of conveying insignificance. Says Holtzman, “quite the opposite.”

The next SeismoDome program will be this fall, October 25th at the Hayden Planetarium. For more information, you can explore their Vimeo and their lab website.

Header Image: MOUNTING DAMAGE Mountains of debris have piled up in Nepal's capital. Here, rescue workers search for survivors on Sunday in Bhaktapur, near Kathmandu. PHOTOGRAPH BY NIRANJAN SHRESTHA, AP

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