Listen to your Mother! Planet Earth — giver of life, bringer of destruction, our shelter and safety against the hard vacuum of space: she speaks!
The gravity of Sun and Moon, the shifting continents, earthquakes, volcanoes, storms, meteors, and ocean waves all contribute to a powerful upwelling stream of acoustic and seismic energy, a chorus of deep sound from below. Occasionally violent, but usually inaudible, invisible, and impalpable, these restless vibrations shimmer across the entire planet, lifting and lowering, flexing and tilting the solid ground, influencing all of us who dwell here on the surface. These invisible subterranean forces unite us all.
The Earthsound Project aims to bring these hidden sounds of Earth into conscious awareness. Sensitive seismometers and microbarometers detect the Earth's deep inaudible signals, which are then digitally transposed into audible sound and relayed live to listeners around the world via the Internet and broadcast radio. Over time, additional sensors will be brought online — seismic, atmospheric, and oceanic — further expanding the vocabulary and dialects of the deep.
With the planet in the throes of devastating climate disruption and species extinction, listening to the inaudible sounds of Earth may help us realize Rilke's challenge:
In listening to the "invisible" vibrations of Earth, perhaps we may likewise find transformation, thereby joining the planet and each other in a shared invisibility that transcends our perishable nature.
Questions & Answers
- How does this work?
- A global network of sensors — seismic, atmospheric, and oceanic — continuously monitors the planet's geophysical vibrations and provides the raw material for the Project's audio streams. Some of these sensors are located here in Steuben, Maine, while others are located at research observatories around the world. Custom software running on a cluster of cloud-based dedicated computers — collectively dubbed the Planetary Sound Machine — continuously gathers data from these sensors via the IRIS consortium in near-real-time, translates them to audible sound, and delivers audified planetary signals to listeners around the world — and, eventually, beyond.
- How can I participate?
- You can help contribute to heightened planetary self-awareness by sharing and redistributing these sounds in creative ways. Some ideas: set up a public listening kiosk at your school, workplace, or in a nearby park or shopping mall; integrate these sounds into a musical or dance performance; set up a micro-power AM or FM transmitter to broadcast these sounds into your neighborhood, into the atmosphere, or into space. The possibilities are endless. If you need help, just contact me.
- Can I edit, copy, paste, remix, tweak, share, and rebroadcast these sounds?
- Yes, indeed! The project, its text, and its sounds are governed by a Creative Commons BY-NC license, which means that you can do all those things, provided that: (a) you attribute the source sounds to the Earthsound Project and (b) you don't use them for commercial purposes.
- Why can't we usually hear the Earth's sounds?
- Most of the Earth's seismic and atmospheric vibrations are simply too low in pitch for us to hear. To make them audible, the Planetary Sound Machine raises their pitch by digitally "speeding them up", in much the same way that playing a vinyl LP record at 78 rpm raises the pitch of the original 33⅓ rpm recording. By speeding up the signals various amounts, we can "tune in" to different portions of the Earth's acoustic spectrum. Some of the Project's audio streams have been sped up by a factor of 60; others by a factor of several thousand. This is enough to bring many of the Earth's deep sounds into the range of our ears. Each doubling of speed effectively transposes the sounds upward by a musical octave. Some of the sounds in these streams have been transposed upward by more than 11 octaves — much more than the entire range of a concert piano!
- What am I listening to?
- In the seismic audio streams, the restless whisshhhhh is the planet's natural microseismic background ambience, caused by storm-generated ocean waves interacting with the ocean floor far out at sea. Now and then you may hear the faraway pop! or whoop! of a distant earthquake. And once every week or two you may hear the dramatic boom! of a major earthquake somewhere in the world, as its energy echoes across distant mountain ranges and ocean trenches. If it's a particularly large quake, you'll hear the repeated echoes as its seismic surface waves repeatedly circumnavigate the entire planet.
- Sometimes I don't hear much of anything. What's going on?
- There are several possible reasons. First, the Planetary Sound Machine automatically adjusts the volume of each audio segment up or down to make room for the loudest signal. This means that when the Earth is relatively quiet, the volume will be turned up high and you'll easily hear the steady background ambient sound of the planet. When a large earthquake occurs near a seismic station, however, the volume will be turned way down and the only sound you might hear is the brief bang! of the earthquake. Second, because many of the sensors are located in remote locations, a hardware or network failure somewhere along the way can result in loss of data for several hours or even days. Finally, the software that drives the Planetary Sound Machine is experimental and still under development. I continue to chase down bugs in an effort to make it more resilient to data glitches and other unforeseen conditions.
- Can I rely on a steady audio stream for my live dance/music/radio/etc. performance?
- Maybe, maybe not. Some audio streams run flawlessly for days or weeks at a time. Others can be flaky and may drop out several times a day. Depending on your project's aesthetic requirements, this unreliability may be a plus, as it hints at the underlying challenge and complexity of listening to the Earth. If your project requires a rock-solid uninterrupted audio program, you might try working with some of the archived recordings that are saved each day. You are welcome to download and use any of those recordings.
- More to come...
The Earthsound Project relies on data provided by the following networks and institutions:
- Berkeley Digital Seismograph Network [BK]: “Data for this study come from the Berkeley Digital Seismic Network (BDSN), doi:10.7932/BDSN, operated by the UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, which is archived at the Northern California Earthquake Data Center (NCEDC), doi: 10.7932/NCEDC.”
- Global Seismograph Network [IU] : “Albuquerque Seismological Laboratory (ASL)/USGS (1988): Global Seismograph Network (GSN - IRIS/USGS). International Federation of Digital Seismograph Networks. Other/Seismic Network. 10.7914/SN/IU.”
- IRIS/IDA Seismic Network [II] : “Project IDA currently operates a global network of broadband and very broadband seismometers for the IRIS Consortium. Project IDA is based at the Cecil and Ida Green Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego.”
- Seismographs in Schools [S]
- UH Infrasound Network [UH]
(Here is the complete list of FDSN networks.)
Data from these sources are delivered to the Planetary Sound Machine via the IRIS Data Management Center near Seattle, Washington.