The Anthropause is here: COVID-19 reduced Earth's vibrations by 50 percent

The planet is making a lot less noise during lockdown.

house with collapsed foundation

A house is collapsed after a 6.4 earthquake hit just south of the island on January 7, 2020 in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico.

Photo by Eric Rojas/Getty Images
  • A team of researchers found that Earth's vibrations were down 50 percent between March and May.
  • This is the quietest period of human-generated seismic noise in recorded history.
  • The researchers believe this helps distinguish between natural vibrations and human-created vibrations.

The planet's vibes are down.

That's the consensus from a team of researchers at six European institutions; the study was based at the Royal Observatory of Belgium. Their research, published in Science, found that human-linked vibrations around the planet dropped by 50 percent between March and May 2020—the quietest period of seismic noise since scientists began monitoring the Earth.

Seismometers were invented in China during the 2nd century, though today's version dates to the 1880s, when a team of British and Scottish engineers worked as foreign-government advisors in Japan. Today, we generally discuss seismic waves in terms of bombs, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, though human activity, such as travel and industry, also produce such waves.

As the world slowed down during the pandemic—the researchers call it an "Anthropause"—travel and industry ground to a standstill. For the first time in recorded history, researchers were able to differentiate between natural seismic waves and those caused by humans. The drop was most noticeable in densely-populated urban areas, though even seismometers buried deep in remote areas, such as the Auckland Volcanic Field in New Zealand, picked up on the change.

Dr Stephen Hicks, a co-author from Imperial College London, comments on the importance of this research:

"Our study uniquely highlights just how much human activities impact the solid Earth, and could let us see more clearly than ever what differentiates human and natural noise."

Earth is quieter as coronavirus lockdowns reduce seismic vibration

The team investigated seismic data from a global network of 268 stations spread out across 117 countries. As lockdown measures in different regions began, they tracked the drop in vibrations. Singapore and New York City recorded some of the biggest drops, though even Germany's Black Forest—famous for its association with the Brothers Grimm fairy tales—went quieter than usual.

The researchers also relied on citizen-owned seismometers in Cornwall and Boston, which recorded a 20 percent reduction from relatively quiet stretches in these college towns, such as during school holidays.

The environmental impact of lockdown has been dramatic. Indian skylines are notoriously grey. This collection of photos shows how quickly nature recovers when humans limit travel and industry. Such photographs also make you wonder why we cannot control emissions to begin with, now that we know the stakes.

Lead author, Dr Thomas Lecocq, says their research could help seismologists suss out the difference between human-created vibrations and natural vibrations, potentially resulting in longer lead times when natural disasters are set to strike.

"With increasing urbanisation and growing global populations, more people will be living in geologically hazardous areas. It will therefore become more important than ever to differentiate between natural and human-caused noise so that we can 'listen in' and better monitor the ground movements beneath our feet. This study could help to kick-start this new field of study."

stray puppies

Stray puppies play in an abandoned, partially-completed cooling tower inside the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017 near Chornobyl, Ukraine.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The Earth is much stronger than us; humans are its products. In his 2007 book, "The World Without Us," Alan Weisman details just how quickly nature recovers from our insults. Chernobyl offers a real-world example, while earthquakes caused by fracking-related wastewater injection in Oklahoma are evidence of how much damage human "vibrations" cause.

Weisman's poetic homage imagines a symbiotic relationship with nature. This relationship depends on our cooperation, however. Weisman knows we aren't long for this world, nor is this world long for this universe: in just five billion years, give or take, Earth will implode. We all live on borrowed time. How we live during that time defines our character.

While he strikes a hopeful tone, Weisman knows nature will eventually have her way with us.

"After we're gone, nature's revenge for our smug, mechanized superiority arrives waterborne. It starts with wood-frame construction, the most widely used residential building technique in the developed world. It begins on the roof, probably asphalt, or slate shingle, warranted to last two or three decades—but that warranty doesn't count around the chimney, where the first leak occurs."

The play-by-play of our demise continues, though Weisman offers plenty of proactive advice. The question is, will we be able to live up to it? Sadly, nothing in modern society hints at the possibility.

The only way we seem willing to pause our relentless pursuit of "progress" is when we're forced to do so, as in the current pandemic. The results, as the team in Belgium shows, are measurable. Whether or not we heed the call to slow our impact remains to be seen. Given precedent, it's unlikely, though as Weisman concludes, one can always dream.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter, Facebook and Substack. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

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An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

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