The COVID-19 lockdown caused the Earth to go quiet – literally

  Last updated July 27, 2020 at 4:53 pm


Scientists have taken advantage of the longest quiet period of seismic noise ever recorded, listening to the Earth’s natural vibrations without interference.

seismic noise_lockdown_melbourne restrictions

A lone person is seen walking through the usually popular graffiti lined Hosier Lane in Melbourne. Credit: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

Why This Matters: The lockdown highlights the impact of humans on the Earth.

The lack of activity during the COVID-19 lockdown between March and May caused human-linked vibrations in the Earth to drop by up to 50%.

According to a study involving researchers from the Australian National University (ANU), the net effect of social distancing measures, closure of services and industry, and drops in tourism was the longest and most pronounced quiet period of seismic noise in recorded history.

As a result, scientists could listen in to previously concealed earthquake signals and differentiate between human and natural seismic noise more clearly than ever before.

The first study of the impact of lockdown on seismic noise

The decrease in human noise was most obvious in densely populated urban areas, but the study also found signatures of the lockdown on sensors buried hundreds of metres underground and in more remote areas.

“There has been much discussion about the environmental effects of the pandemic lockdown, but this is the first global study of the impact it’s had on the solid Earth beneath our feet,” says Associate Professor Meghan Miller from ANU.

Also: These 5 images show how air pollution changed over Australia’s major cities before and after lockdown

“Walking around, driving cars, getting the train, construction work – all these things create unique seismic signatures.”

“Perhaps unsurprisingly, the strongest seismic noise reductions were found in urban areas. But, we also saw signatures of the lockdown on sensors buried hundreds of metres below the ground and in more remote areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa.

The project brought together more than 70 researchers from 66 institutions around the world. They looked at seismic data from 268 seismic stations in 117 countries and found significant noise reductions at 185 of them.

Listening to the Earth without human influence

Beginning in China in late January 2020, the researchers tracked a wave of quietening between March and May as worldwide lockdown measures took hold.

The largest changes in vibrations were seen in areas such as Singapore and New York City, but falls also were seen in remote areas like Germany’s Black Forest and Rundu in Namibia. Countries like Barbados, where lockdown coincided with the tourist season, saw a 50% decrease.

Citizen-owned seismometers, which measure more localised noise, noted drops around universities and schools in Cornwall, UK, and Boston, US, that were 20% greater than during school holidays.

Also: Where the wild things are: As humans stay indoors, nature is emerging

The researchers say this unique period provided the opportunity to listen to the Earth’s natural vibrations without the distortions of human input.

Previously concealed earthquake signals were much clearer on seismometers in urban areas, particularly during the day, and scientists could differentiate between human-caused noise and natural signals that might warn of upcoming natural disasters.

And that’s important, says Thomas Lecocq from the Royal Observatory of Belgium, who led the research.

“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.”

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About the Author

Nick Carne
Nick Carne is the Editorial Manager for the Royal Institution of Australia.

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