Week 2014.19 (May 11-17) ~ The Earth listening to itself

Sometimes listening to the Earth feels like paying a visit to a strange sonic zoo, with one exotic creature after another on display. Over here we have the persistent and meandering shhhhh of the Earth’s microseismic background, swelling and fading over the span of several days; over there we have the echoing whoop of earthquake-generated seismic waves ricocheting off mountain ranges and coastlines around the world for hours; and over here (especially towards the second half of this week) we have the jittery chatter of human activity in a nearby house as its occupants move about through the day. It’s a truly bizarre menagerie.

Not only does each creature have its own habits and quirks, but each occupies its own niche in the Earth’s soundscape—a niche defined by the scales of time and space in which its inhabitants operate. Some species of seismic waves heave and undulate over a period of many seconds or minutes, whereas humans skim across a living room in only a second or two. Fans of the original Star Trek series will recall the episode “Wink of an Eye”, in which time-accelerated aliens take over the starship Enterprise. To the human crew, the aliens appear to move so quickly that they sound like buzzing gnats; from the aliens’ point of view, the humans seem trapped in a slow-motion trance. They share the same world, but occupy entirely different time scales and frames of reference. The trick, of course (as Kirk and Spock discover) is to find a way to bridge that divide. A good place to begin is through listening.

As you visit this week’s sonic zoo, you can enjoy a number earthquakes that were audible here in Maine. Among them are one in the Southern Indian Ocean (magnitude 5.5, at time 00:26), where the Antarctican and Indo-Australian tectonic plates are actively spreading apart; one in the Southern East Pacific ocean (6.5, 01:25); another near Panama (6.5, 01:50 ); one in northern Argentina (5.2, 02:31); one in Micronesia (6.6, 03:29), hundreds of miles from the nearest human settlement; one near the Philippines (6.2, 03:33); and one a few miles offshore from the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Guadeloupe (6.0, 04:23). A damaging and lethal earthquake in Pakistan that made the news this week was not audible from here.

Over time, as you acquaint yourself with the sounds of Earth, you may discover that your journey begins to feel less like a visit to a zoo of caged specimens and curios, and more like a walk through a thriving and luxuriant wildlife refuge; one in which you are no longer a detached observer of what is Other, but one in which you are a co-participant: you are the Earth listening to itself.

What else was going on this week:

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