An unexplained seismic event ‘rang’ across the Earth in November

It has experts baffled.

  • On November 11, seismologists began puzzling over a weird low-frequency rumble that rang the entire planet.
  • The wave coming from somewhere was weirdly simple and tied to no known events.
  • More comprehensive study of an uncharted area of the ocean floor could provide an explanation of the mystery.

Someone who tracks earthquakes for fun noticed it first. On November 11, 2018, a Twitter user going by @matarikipax spotted a weird signal on the U.S Geological Survey's live seismogram page. The signal had been captured by equipment in Kilimambogo, Kenya. Matarikpax posted an image of it with the message, "This is a most odd and unusual seismic signal." Then he saw it in data from Zambia and Ethiopia before looking farther away and finding it in Spain, and then eventually in his own corner of the world, Wellington, New Zealand. Other seismic-savvy people soon joined in as the mysterious low-frequency rumble circled the globe for about 20 minutes. It was also detected in Chile, Canada, and Hawaii. Eventually, its source was determined to be about 15 miles off of French archipelago Mayotte, located off Africa between Mozambique and the northern end of Madagascar.

Speaking to National Geographic, Columbia University seismologist Göran Ekström, a specialist in strange earthquakes, says that, "I don't think I've seen anything like it." Even so, he cautions. "It doesn't mean that, in the end, the cause… is that exotic." Even so, it's got seismologists baffled.

What’s so weird about the mystery rumble?

While Mayotte has experienced hundreds of tremors since last May, the strongest, a 5.8 quake, occurred on May 15 and since then they've been tapering off in recent months. And there's been no seismic activity that corresponds to the November wave. Still, the seismology community suspects it's somehow related to the recent activity off Mayotte.

Normally, earthquakes produce "wave trains" comprised of high-frequency P (for "Primary") waves that travel in pulses, as well as mid-frequency S (for "Secondary") waves that wiggle side-to-side. Slow, low-frequency waves such as the mystery rumble are generally produced at the tail end of intense earthquakes, but again, there hasn't been one anywhere in the right time frame that we know of.

Also, and just as "odd," is that the wave is monochromatic. Most waves contain a cluster of waves at different speeds, or frequencies, that make for a fuzzy, complicated burst of a waveshape on monitoring equipment. The November wave was comprised of just a single frequency, and appeared as an unusually simple, clean zig-zag of about 17 seconds in length. Helen Robinson at the University of Glasgow, mischievously suggests to National Geographic, "They're too nice; they're too perfect to be nature." It could be surrounding rock is filtering out other waves. Supporting this possibility is that, when the lowest frequencies are filtered out of the waveform, noise appears that could be faint P and S signals are seen. Independent seismologist Anthony Lomax tweeted the following image.

(Anthony Lomax)

At the top is the simple, unfiltered mystery wave. The bottom shows possible P- and S-wave echoes when the wave was filtered.

Maybe it was...

Among the first people to whom @matarikipax reached out was Jamie Gurney, the founder of the UK Earthquake Bulletin, who replied, "First guess would be some kind of meteor air burst, possibly offshore Kenya/Tanzania in the Indian Ocean." Before lunchtime on the 11th, consensus was gathering around the theory that the global ringing was from a massive phreatic eruption very deep in the ocean. A depth of around 3,000 meters was suggested, although no supporting evidence of such an eruption has yet surfaced. Evidence of an event perhaps similar to this was spotted accidentally by an airplane passenger flying over the Pacific Ocean south of Raoul Island in 2012 — a floating raft of pumice gave it away. While no satellite imagery of the suspect Mayotte location has been examined yet, it's worth noting that no such weird wave was reported during the Raoul event.

The French Geological Survey (BRGM) is leaning toward the idea that the wave originated in some massive magmatic movement deep underwater. The Mayotte archipelago is volcanic in origin, and the last eruptions are believed to have been 4,000 years ago. Trouble is, "The location of the [Mayotte] swarm is on the edge of the [geological] maps we have," according to BRGM's head of seismic and volcanic risk Nicolas Taillefer, speaking with National Geographic. "There are a lot things we don't know." As for the Nov. 11 puzzler, "It's something quite new in the signals on our stations."

Another possibility, says Ekström, is that it was an unnoticed slow quake, possibly about a magnitude 5. Instead of the characteristic and dramatic snap of a regular earthquake, slow quakes occur over the course of minutes, gradually releasing built-up stress. "The same deformation happens, but it doesn't happen as a jolt," says Ekström.

Obviously, the mystery makes seismologist want to know much more about this area of the ocean floor and similarly uncharted undersea locations elsewhere. For now, it's a very intriguing riddle.

"Depending on what field and what time in history, 99.9 percent of the time, it's ordinary, or noise, or a mistake, and 0.1 percent, it's something. But that's just the way it goes. That's the way it should go. That's scientific advance." — Anthony Lomax

(Google Earth)

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.