Thursday, January 26, 2012

Strange Sounds, Electrophonics And Spacequakes

Since the early part of January, people all across the globe have reported hearing strange sounds that have evoked perplexing amazement.  Despite the fact that videos recording this phenomenon have gone viral among many alternative internet groups, they have largely been ignored in the mainstream news.  What's remarkable is the consistency of these sounds.  Some have described them as having an industrial quality, but as far as we know they cannot be pinned to any known industry.  Others have described them as having a brass or metallic-like quality.  In some cases, these sounds were recorded in wilderness areas far from any known industrial operations, making any sort of man-made origin unlikely.  So the $10,000 question remains: What is causing these strange sounds?

Just to give the unfamiliar reader a feel for what we're talking about, below are some recordings of this sound from around the world:

01-17-2012  - Boulder, Colorado


01-18-2012 - Scotland


01-12-2012 - Chile

01-12-2012 - Czech Republic

01-12-2012 - Costa Rica

01-16-2012 - Strange Sounds heard worldwide (composite video of strange sound recordings)

Actually, these sounds are nothing new; they have been sneaking up on us over the last several years.  They may have been with us much earlier for all we know, but either way it seems they have been steadily increasing in frequency.  Every now and again you'll come across a story in the news of some disturbed locals not knowing what to make of an unexplained sound.  These stories have become increasingly common the last several years.  Originally, these were assumed to be isolated incidents, so local causes were suspected first and foremost.  Now, it appears that this is not a geographically isolated phenomenon at all, but something worldwide in scope.  In fact, there was even a map started to keep track of the sounds when a wave of them hit around March of last year, just around the time of the devastating tsunami that hit Japan.

Strange Sounds heard worldwide as of Jan 24, 2012
Unfortunately, the map has not been that well maintained.  It appears that the purple marks were originally intended to be strange sound locations dating back to the early part of 2011, but people seem to have disregarded that rule and are also using purple marks for recent sounds too.  (The purple marks in the middle of the ocean are actually supposed to marks within the US, in case you were wondering.)  All of the blue marks appear to be from December 2011 to January 2012 and the green marks account for strange sounds heard during the latter half of 2011.

All in all, the majority of these sounds appear to be coming from the US, although this may be because the map is primarily accessible to a US or English-speaking audience; many strange sounds from other parts of the world may have gone unrecorded.  The location and details of these sounds have not been followed up on as far as we know, so this map is by no means scientific.  Regardless, even without making an exhaustive analysis, it still gives us a rough idea of the enormity of the situation.  It's quite apparent that this is a worldwide phenomenon and not a series of isolated industrial noises.  Therefore, we need to turn our attention to global factors as a possible cause.

Before we get into discussing a possible causual mechanism behind these sounds, we first need a little background on certain other concepts that, although at first glance may seem to be unrelated, could provide us with important clues about the origin of these strange sounds.

Sizzling Meteors

The fact that sizzling or hissing sounds have been heard in association with large meteors or fireball sightings has puzzled scientists since the eighteenth century.  One of the first recorded instances of this phenomenon was from the astronomer Edmund Halley (the discoverer or Halley's Comet) who recorded accounts of fireball sightings from witnesses all over England.  As one article describes his interviews with witnesses:

Many witnesses, wrote Halley, "[heard the meteor] hiss as it went along, as if it had been very near at hand." Yet his own research proved the meteor was at least "60 English miles" high. Sound takes about five minutes to travel such a distance, while light can do it in a fraction of a millisecond. Halley could think of no way for sky watchers to simultaneously hear and see the meteor.
Knowing the physics of how sound travels, Halley dismissed these stories as pure fantasy on the part of the witnesses.  Recently, however, researchers have taken a less skeptical approach to this phenomenon and have put some serious thought into understanding the basis for it.  Colin Keay, a physicist at the University of Newcastle in Australia, is one such researcher who claims to understand the process of how meteors can be 'heard'.

According to Keay, glowing meteor trails give off not only visible light, but also very low frequency (VLF) radio signals. Such radio waves, which oscillate at audio frequencies between a few kHz and 30 kHz, travel to the ground at the speed of light -- solving the vexing problem of simultaneity.

Of course, human ears can't directly sense radio signals. If Keay is right, something on the ground -- a "transducer" -- must be converting radio waves into sound waves. In laboratory tests, Keay finds that suitable transducers are surprisingly common. Simple materials like aluminum foil, thin wires, pine needles -- even dry or frizzy hair -- can intercept and respond to a VLF field.
So these sounds from meteors work on the same principle that a regular headphone or speaker works on.  In a speaker, an oscillating electromagnetic current travels through a wire that controls an electromagnet, which pushes air back and forth via a diaphram.  The result is that an electrical signal from the wire is transduced into mechanical vibrations loud enough for the human ear to pick up.  But headphones and speakers are not the only objects that can transduce electromagnetic signals into sound.  As the article states above, Keay discovered that natural transducers are surprisingly common; a wide variety of natural objects respond easily to VLF electromagnetic radiation of a certain strength.  So how exactly does a meteor create an electormagnetic signal?

To explain this phenomenon further, Keays had to look towards plasma physics for a satisfying explanation of what was causing these VLF signals from meteors.  What Keays discovered was that when a meteor enters the earth's atmosphere it drags behind it a large plasma tail in the form of ionized air particles.  This plasma twists and turns in a vortex pattern as it follows behind the meteor.  As Keays states, "The plasma is swirling so fast that the magnetic field can be scrambled up like spaghetti."  This scrambling or changing magnetic field then becomes the source for the VLF signal, which is then transduced and ultimately heard somewhere on the ground.  This phenomenon of transducing electrical signals into sound is also referred to as electrophonics.
So why is the understanding of electrophonic meteors important in the context of all these strange sounds heard around the world?  It seems unlikely that these sounds can be attributed to meteors.  No meteor sightings have been observed alongside of these strange sounds as far as we know.  Besides, the sounds produced from meteors don't match the description of the sounds heard in the videos above.  Meteors supposedly make a sizzling or hissing sound, whereas most of the sounds in the videos above contain a long drawn-out metallic-like sound.  We're going to have to look to other causes if these sounds are, in fact, produced via some sort of electrophonic mechanism. Although we don't have any evidence yet to suggest these strange sounds are produced by some electrophonic mechanism, let's continue along this line of inquiry and see where it leads.

Spacequakes And Magnetic Ropes

It appears that meteors aren't the only things that can cause plasma vortexes to assault the earth's atmosphere.  In 2007 NASA discovered a new phenomenon via its THEMIS satellite which researchers have dubbed "spacequakes."  These quakes are magnetic in nature and register on a magnetogram (a device that senses magnetic field fluctuations) similar to how an earthquake registers on a seismograph. 

So what exactly is going on in the event of a "spacequake"?  According to another NASA article we find that:

The action begins in Earth's magnetic tail, which is stretched out like a windsock by the million mph solar wind. Sometimes the tail can become so stretched and tension-filled, it snaps back like an over-torqued rubber band. Solar wind plasma trapped in the tail hurtles toward Earth.


According to THEMIS, the [plasma] jets crash into the geomagnetic field some 30,000 km above Earth's equator. The impact sets off a rebounding process, in which the incoming plasma actually bounces up and down on the reverberating magnetic field. Researchers call it "repetitive flow rebuffing." It's akin to a tennis ball bouncing up and down on a carpeted floor. The first bounce is a big one, followed by bounces of decreasing amplitude as energy is dissipated in the carpet.


The surprise is plasma vortices, huge whirls of magnetized gas as wide as Earth itself, spinning on the verge of the quaking magnetic field.

"When plasma jets hit the inner magnetosphere, vortices with opposite sense of rotation appear and reappear on either side of the plasma jet," explains Rumi Nakamura of the Space Research Institute in Austria, a co-author of the study. "We believe the vortices can generate substantial electrical currents in the near-Earth environment."

Acting together, vortices and spacequakes could have a noticeable effect on Earth. The tails of vortices may funnel particles into Earth's atmosphere, sparking auroras and making waves of ionization that disturb radio communications and GPS. By tugging on surface magnetic fields, spacequakes generate currents in the very ground we walk on. Ground current surges can have profound consequences, in extreme cases bringing down power grids over a wide area.
Here's one video that discusses spacequakes in light of these strange sounds.  It's a pretty interesting watch even if the spacequakes theory isn't all that well developed in the video.

Another phenomenon referred to as magnetic ropes could also be a factor in setting up the right plasma conditions to generate electrophonic sounds too.  Magnetic ropes are long magnetic vortexes or rotating magnetic fields connecting the earth (or any planet for that matter) to the sun.  Keep in mind that any magnetic field implies the flow of electrical current, in this case in the form of plasma moving between the earth and the sun.  Researchers have determined that these magnetic ropes are the main power source for the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights.  You could almost think these magnetic ropes as a planet's electrical connection to the sun; and like any electrical connection there can also be power surges from time to time.

These magnetic ropes are about as wide as the earth and connect to the magnetopause, the region above the earth where the earth's magnetic field meets the solar wind.  Sometimes this region is referred to as the "bow shock."  Think of it as similar to the bow wave in front of a boat as it sails through the water (see image below.)  There have also been 'explosions' observed in space when a twisted knot of magnetism hits this bow shock.  Perhaps explosion isn't the best description, maybe "discharge" would be the better term?  Actually, NASA uses the term "Hot Flow Anomaly" (HFA) to describe these.  Either way, there seems to be some similarity between these magnetic ropes and spacequakes; they both appear to be additional ways of generating plasma conditions similar to those discovered from electrophonic meteors. 

Given the descriptions of these spacequakes and magnetic ropes it seems that they may be capable of generating VLF signals and thus electrophonic sounds just like some meteors do.  There are simple tests that could determine whether there is an electromagnetic component that correlates with these sounds or not, but so far we know of no such tests being carried out.  So the theory that these sounds are caused by electromagnetic signals is certainly falsifiable.  With the help of satellite data, it may be possible to confirm or rule out the extra-terrestrial origin of these signals too. 

Remember that according Keay's study of electrophonic meteors, just about any object on the ground can act as a transducer, thus turning an electromagnetic signal into sound.  Perhaps there are rock formations or some other natural feature in certain locations which act as natural transducers for these signals?  For instance, natural magnetism in the rocks may be enough to cause audible vibrations in the surrounding area.  For such a sound to be so consistent in tone and timbre throughout the world, one would think there needs to be some sort of common transducer.  Detailed map plotting of these sounds might reveal the answer to this riddle.

A Changing Solar System - A Changing Planet

For spacequakes to occur, there generally has to be an increase in solar activity to stretch out the earth's magnetic field lines causing them to "snap."  The earth being bombarded by a CME (coronal mass ejection) would be one way of accomplishing this.  But if increased solar activity is actually the cause of these strange sounds, then why are we all of a sudden hearing them now?  Why didn't we hear more of these sounds during the last solar cycle 23 which was an order of magnitude more intense than the current solar cycle 24?  Solar activity is generally measured by the number of sunspots counted (see the graph below for a comparison of the current solar cycle to the last one.)  The fact is, the sun has been abnormally quiet throughout this recent solar cycle despite a small uptick in activity within the last year or so.  If spacequakes are part of the overall process causing these strange sounds, then there must be another variable at play beyond just solar activity.

It seems that the next question we must ask along this line of inquiry is what, if anything, could make the earth more 'sensitive' to electromagnetic effects from space?  If the intensity of the solar storms has not increased by any sizable amount, then perhaps something about the earth itself has changed?

As a matter of fact, we know that the earth's magnetic field is changing and in a very dramatic way at the moment.  Not only has the north pole moved progressively towards Siberia, it is also been steadily decreasing in strength (about 10 percent over the last century.)  Could we have possibly reached a tipping point where the strength of the magnetic field has become so weak that the earth is becoming extremely sensitive to electromagnetic effects from space?  Could this explain why we have recently begun to hear more and more of these sounds (assuming they are electrophonic)?  Of course, this then begs the question just what is causing the earth to lower its magnetic 'shields'?  But that question will open up a whole new can of worms which we'll have to put aside for the moment.

Graph showing the decrease in earth's
magnetic field over the past century

The fact is, we're not alone in terms of being the only planet to experience strange once-in-a-lifetime occurrences as of late.  It appears that the whole solar system has experienced odd anomalies over the past several years.  Many visible changes to the outer planets have been observed; changes that were once thought to be quite rare.  Here's a small, but by no means complete, list of recent news items from around our solar system:

A bizarre six-sided feature encircling the north pole of Saturn
CREDIT: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Pluto May Have Grown a Tail

Bizarre Hexagon Spotted on Saturn

Cassini Captures Images and Sounds of Saturn Storm

Jupiter loses one of its stripes and scientists are stumped as to why

Mars getting warmer, may have quakes

New Research Finds Venus’ Winds, They Are A-Changin’

Taken as a whole, could these anomalies be indications that the electromagnetic environment of the entire solar system is changing?  It appears there is definitely something going on "out there," the effects of which are only beginning to be noticed down here.  Could these strange sounds be one noticeable effect brought on by the earth's changing electromagnetic environment?  (Which is ultimately connected to the electromagnetic environment of the whole solar system.)  The theory outlined above suggests that this is a possibility.  On a much less scientific note, it hasn't escaped our attention that the brass or metallic-like quality of these sounds could in some way be related to the "trumpets" mentioned in the Book of Revelations - a work largely describing the destruction of the earth via comets.  Could these strange sounds be the harbingers of something much worse lurking on the horizon?  We'll have to wait and see, but for now we can only sit tight and keep our eyes (and now ears) to the sky.