Video screen capture Seismic Sound Lab

Ever wonder what an earthquake sounds like? It’s an interesting question that isn’t easy to answer, since the waves of energy behind an earthquake are actually too slow for human ears to detect. But a group of scientists and sound artists over at the Seismic Sound Lab of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory are experimenting with new technologies to speed up those earthquake sounds, and transforming into audiovisual data that both our eyes and ears can understand.

The team’s project aims to take a big picture approach to years of seismic data that has been collected from various places around the world. Using computer code, these variables are then made more concrete as visual patterns of sounds and colour that make the viewer almost feel like they are experiencing it from inside the planet.

After processing and creating these beautiful visuals, the team dubbed their scientific and artistic show "SeismoDome", which was presented at the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City late last year. Here’s an excerpt which makes the sonic waves of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake (the precursor to the Fukushima nuclear disaster) visible:

© Seismic Sound Lab © Seismic Sound Lab © Seismic Sound Lab

Not surprisingly, different earthquakes will sound different, says Ben Holtzman, a geophysicist and director of the Seismic Sound Lab:

These are such complex, intriguing sounds, they excite wonder and curiosity in anyone. Why does that one sound like an acorn hitting a tin roof, and that one sounds like a gunshot? Or why does a nuclear bomb test sound different than an earthquake? The sound provides an entryway into the physics of earthquakes.

© Seismic Sound Lab © Seismic Sound Lab

According to the team, this project is one of the first to transform seismic waves into audible visualizations. Here’s a bit of a geeky tidbit: the team actually adapted code previously created by an astrophysicist to visualize the formation of stars. In yet another version, the team created a video that compresses years of seismic data into a few minutes, linking the magnitude of the quakes with a spectrum of sounds. The result is an audiovisual map that shows us the places with the most earthquake activity.

Seismic Sound Lab/Video screen capture Seismic Sound Lab/Video screen capture

So all this looks very cool, but are there any practical applications to this approach? In fact, there are: the team hope to further develop this "auditory seismology" into a solid tool for studying earthquakes in a methodical way, or perhaps an early-warning system that may be used by experts in the future.

By linking data with sound and visualizations, and using high-tech data analysis tools, seismology would be enhanced, says Holtzman:

As you’re listening to seismic signals, changes in the sound would trigger where to look in the seismic data. If we routinely look at the records this way, patterns will emerge and we’ll start to be able to identify differences.

Ultimately, these eerie, pulsing visualizations may be part of the key to unlocking the mysteries of earthquakes, as well as saving some lives. For more information, visit the Seismic Sound Lab and watch the rest of their videos on Vimeo.

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