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)

Should you defend the free speech rights of neo-Nazis?

Former president of the ACLU Nadine Strossen discusses whether our society should always defend free speech rights, even for groups who would oppose such rights.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Former ACLU president Nadine Strossen understands that protecting free speech rights isn't always a straightforward proposition.
  • In this video, Strossen describes the reasoning behind why the ACLU defended the free speech rights of neo-Nazis in Skokie, Illinois, 1977.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less

Moon mission 2.0: What humanity will learn by going back to the Moon

Going back to the moon will give us fresh insights about the creation of our solar system.

Videos
  • July 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the moon landing — Apollo 11.
  • Today, we have a strong scientific case for returning to the moon: the original rock samples that we took from the moon revolutionized our view of how Earth and the solar system formed. We could now glean even more insights with fresh, nonchemically-altered samples.
  • NASA plans to send humans to a crater in the South Pole of the moon because it's safer there, and would allow for better communications with people back on Earth.

NASA releases stunning image of ISS crossing in front of the sun

Strangely, the sun showed no sunspots at the time the photo was taken.

Image source: Rainee Colacurcio
Surprising Science
  • The photo shows the International Space Station as it orbits the Earth, as it does every 90 minutes.
  • The photo is remarkable because it offers a glimpse of the star at a time when there were no sunspots.
  • In November, astronauts aboard the ISS plan to grow Española chili pepper plants.
Keep reading Show less

U.S. Air Force warns UFO enthusiasts against storming Area 51

Jokesters and serious Area 51 raiders would be met with military force.

Politics & Current Affairs
  • Facebook joke event to "raid Area 51" has already gained 1,000,000 "going" attendees.
  • The U.S. Air Force has issued an official warning to potential "raiders."
  • If anyone actually tries to storm an American military base, the use of deadly force is authorized.
Keep reading Show less