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SEPTEMBER 29, 2016

By Felicia Luna Lemus
Photographs by Sean McFarland

A RAUCOUS BOOM. A sci- phaser. High-frequency buzzing. "ese sounds are barely audible in Andrew J.
Michaels oce at the Earthquake Science Center in Menlo Park, the seismology center for the United
States Geological Survey (USGS) on the West Coast. Scientists tend to like quiet, he says, as we hunch over
a speaker hes set up on the oor.
One could be forgiven for expecting that Michael, one of the nations leading seismologists, might also
prefer quiet. Unassuming with a quick laugh, shirt tucked in, gold wire-rimmed glasses, he has dedicated
his life to earthquakes since the day a geology professor visited his junior-high school. His interest led him
to MIT, Stanford, two post-doctoral positions, and the USGS, where hes served as a research geophysicist
for the past 28 years.
Ill turn it up a bit more, he says and cranks up the volume. Clicks, knocks, and crackles reverberate o
the walls. I think of the earthquakes being very much like percussion, Michael says. "eyre not
Describing earthquake sounds is subjective, compromised by experience and the limits of language.
"at said, theyre ominous. Intuitively, physiologically, we know they embody danger.
Michael points to a seismogramone of those scraggly
EKG charts of the Earthas he plays the 1992 7.3-
magnitude Landers, California, earthquake. When it
struck, Landers was the largest earthquake in the
contiguous U.S. in 33 years. "e recording begins with a
rumble so thunderous it overwhelms the other activity
captured by the seismogram. What well hear, he says, is
that some of these other thingsthese pulses here in the
middleactually turn out to be small earthquakes. Each
sound reects the earthquakes size and depth, the type of
fault, the soil conditionsan array of variables.
Michaels eyes brighten when we listen to the Landers
earthquake, this time recorded at Parkeld, a notably
active section of the San Andreas Fault. One thing to
listen for thats interesting, he says, that Ive never really
chased down: As it gets out toward the end of the !e San Andreas Fault running through the Mojave
seismogram, youll hear a little whistling. On the third
play, I hear the whistle, metallic and hollow, like a subway
departing at high speed. Its a thrilling moment, like
!e recording begins with a
learning Morse code or a secret language. rumble so thunderous it
We listen to two recordings of a smaller 1994 overwhelms the other activity
earthquake near the Parkeld monitoring station, captured by the seismogram.
which captured it, as did another station about 70 miles
away, near Hollister. By comparison, the sounds are more attenuated, more individually clear than in
the closer recording. With the Hollister recording, Michael turns to his computer and points out a blip of
relative calm on the seismogram between the P waves, the rst vibrations detected in a seismic event, and
the S waves, the second vibrations to arrive. "is is 20 seconds here, he says. "e farther you get away
from an earthquake, the more warning you get, but the less you need it. "eres a sweet spot where you get
enough warning to do something.
"eres just one catch, though. Almost all earthquake sounds are inaudible to humans. On a rare
occasion, an earthquake might be big enough and shallow enough that the vibrations will reach the
surface at a frequency so high it overlaps with the lower ranges of what we can hear. Most of the time, the
sounds we associate with earthquakes are caused by the impact of earthquake activity on man-made
materials. Even in the catalogs of sounds we have, Michael says, most of it is not the earth itselfits
stu in buildings, around it.
However, if you have a digital seismogram, which
Michael and USGS have in abundance, theres a x: STORY ADVERTISEMENT

Convert the seismogram into an audio le, speed up the

le so it runs at a higher frequency, and press play. Youve
got your audible earthquake. "is is the purest way to hear
an earthquake, Michael says. From a scientic perspective,
he emphasizes, these earthquake sounds are considered
articial. "eir value is as an educational tool, a way to
engage the public about earthquake preparedness and
safety. As he says, Seismologists dont usually sit around THE THREAD: TODD
listening to earthquake sounds. MASONIS WITH MARTIN
But sometimes they do. Shortly after the 1992 Landers STARR
A conversation series by MailChimp
earthquake struck, USGS Menlo Park held one of its regular
open houses. Michael converted Landers seismograms
into audio and played them on a boombox. Visitors could adjust the bass and treble to isolate the specic
sounds of the earthquake. "e sample played over and over, every 30 seconds, annoying some of Michaels
colleagues but captivating everyone else.
A trained trombonist, Michael then took the sounds a step further and composed Earthquake Quartet
No. 1, which features the Landers and Parkeld earthquakes along with parts for voice, trombone, and
cello. "e piece is about the relationship of society to earthquakes. Since its rst performance in 1999,
following a lecture Michael gave on "e Music of Earthquakes at a conference, a rotating crew of noted
scientists has performed the quartet, piquing the interest of experimental musicians worldwide with its
haunting discordant tones.
Its probably a good thing we cant hear the earth shifting under our feet. Our nervous systems would
be in constant ght-or-ight overload. But listening to earthquake sounds in a controlled and edied
manneras music? Pure puckish thrill.

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