Listening to the 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake
March 7, 2012 2:10 PM   Subscribe

What does a magnitude 9.0 earthquake sound like? Researchers sped up low-frequency ground waves recorded during the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, bringing them within range of human hearing. Hear the mainshock from just off the coast of Japan. And how it "sounded" in California.

The mainshock needs no introduction, but you can also hear aftershocks following it as sharp firecracker-like pops afterwards. And if you thought it was loud, the mainshock was actually trimmed to 1/50th of its power so you could still hear the aftershocks. From the California recording, you hear the thunder-like boom from the Japanese earthquake, followed by a crackling noise which is the San Andreas fault shifting in response. This is known as distant triggering.

Additional sound and animation from the earthquake is available, along with Matlab code to convert seismic data into sound files. More earthquake "sounds" from the USGS.
posted by Mercaptan (14 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Unnerving and oddly pretty. Thanks for the post.
posted by brundlefly at 2:27 PM on March 7, 2012

I'm surprised it's not more zappy sounding, like you hear on frozen lakes. Is the gooey mantle absorbing the higher frequencies or something?
posted by aubilenon at 2:37 PM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I felt a sudden surge of animal fear when I played the Japan recording, like I needed to leap up and run from danger.

When I played the California recording, however, I felt a sense of alarm mixed with urgent curiosity, like I wanted to get to an open vista and investigate, immediately.
posted by CynicalKnight at 3:06 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

aubilenon - The higher frequency waves lose their energy much faster, due to attenuation. Seismic waves (as well as other kinds of waves) lose a certain proportion of their energy each cycle. Higher frequency waves have more cycles in the same distance, and so their energy drops off much more quickly than that of lower frequency waves. You'll notice that the frequencies are much lower in the California spectrogram compared to the one from Japan. Basically, the farther away you are from the earthquake source, the less of the high-frequency stuff you can "hear."

P.S. More fun with earthquake sounds: Screaming volcanoes! Also, glacier quakes produce some pretty cool sounds, but I'm having trouble finding a link for that.
posted by mandanza at 3:15 PM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

The non-sped-up version will be used for dubstep.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:02 PM on March 7, 2012

Yeah, the sped up version is more Pink Floyd by way of Orbital.

The first recording could almost sound like wind on a microphone, except for where it's dead silent between bursts. Wind doesn't do that. That's what makes it creepy, to me: it sounds familiar until it... isn't familiar at all.

Also - screaming volcanoes? - whoa.
posted by cmyk at 4:07 PM on March 7, 2012

Hear the mainshock from just off the coast of Japan.

It sounds like a distorted field recording of a bowling alley slowed down by 50%.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:28 PM on March 7, 2012

mandanza: "P.S. More fun with earthquake sounds: Screaming volcanoes!"

Sounds like a tea kettle!
posted by brundlefly at 4:32 PM on March 7, 2012

Reminds me a lot of a thunderstorm from a distance.

Those were sped up 100 times? That was a loooong earthquake. And I thought the 89 quake went on forever!
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 4:34 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yep, sounds like a thunderstorm, that's fascinating.
posted by empath at 5:35 PM on March 7, 2012

This is so, so cool. Thank you for posting.
posted by nevercalm at 6:58 PM on March 7, 2012

Clip 2? That's some beast, 11 feet tall, breaking down the front door and then walking, walking across an old wooden floor in heavy wooden shoes. You are going to die. Quickly, violently, and soon.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:12 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Drums: that's what struck me. And the hell that people were going through in those long seconds
posted by Mercaptan at 9:20 PM on March 7, 2012

Back in the day I found a recording similar to this of a couple of underwater earthquakes that happened somewhere in the Pacific basin.

I took the files and processed them (mostly just by playing them at different speeds) and turned it into: "Earthquake Fugue--A Soundscape for Six Elephants, Two Rhinoceroses, and Solo Brontosaurus."

If you can play OGG format files, you can take a listen here.
posted by flug at 8:07 AM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

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