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Humans Stopped Shaking the Earth During Lockdown

loseup of a seismograph machine needle drawing a red line on graph paper
Inked Pixels/Shutterstock

While planet Earth generates its share of shakes and shimmies from natural geologic processes, humans also contribute to the vibrations passing through the planet. So when we all took a pandemic pause, the Earth got a break too. It got quieter than it’s ever been in recorded history. 

Researchers at the Royal Observatory of Belgium, Imperial College London and four other institutions around the world determined that, as countries around the world instituted stay-at-home policies in response to the COVID-19 crisis, human-generated seismic noise dropped by an average of fifty percent between March and May due to reduced travel, industry, and general moving about. The most significant drops were seen in urban areas, but remote locations, including German’s Black Forest, also saw dramatic reductions in sound. 

Anthropause

This period in time is being called the “anthropause” by some researchers, thanks to both the reduction in global pollution and noise.

Although man-made vibrations typically drop during quiet periods like holidays, the scientists say that there has never been such a major quieting for such an extended period in recorded history. They add that the break gave them a chance to listen more closely to the sounds of our planet without all our noise added on top—a result which could lead to a better understanding of human versus natural sonic signals and better predictions of natural disasters.

“With increasing urbanization and growing global populations, more people will be living in geologically hazardous areas,” said lead author Dr. Thomas Lecocq from the Royal Observatory of Belgium. “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.”


The research, which included an analysis of a global network of 268 seismic stations in 117 countries, has been published in the journal Science.