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Stop, hey, what’s that sound? Explore some of the world’s unexplained noises

Science cannot determine the origin or nature of the bleeps, the sweeps, or the creeps. (Screenshot: Spaceballs)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: List of unexplained sounds

What it’s about: No one knows! In recent history, as our ability to monitor our surroundings has improved, humanity has come across several sounds whose source cannot be determined. But Wikipedia has actual recordings of many of these sounds, and the prevalent theories behind them, for your speculating pleasure.


Strangest fact: Water is inexplicably noisy. The majority of the list involves undersea sounds, and bodies of water themselves might be responsible for skyquakes. These noises resemble thunder, but appear on cloudless days, near bodies of water. The noise also resembles cannon fire and has been heard around the world—Bangladeshis call them “Barisal guns”; the Japanese, “uminari” (cries from the sea); and in America, “guns of the Seneca,” as James Fenimore Cooper wrote in a short story, “The Lake Gun,” regarding noises heard at Seneca Lake in upstate New York. Of the possible explanations listed, many are implausible (UFOs! The continental shelf breaking up, and being heard hundreds of miles inland! Military aircraft, despite reports of the sounds predating flight by centuries!). The likeliest one seems to be gas, either from undersea vents or from decaying plant matter at the bottom of deep lakes. There’s also the possibility that the sounds occur everywhere, but it’s noisier inland, so we don’t notice.

It’s possible, though unlikely, the noise is caused by an undersea, unexplained mass sponge migration. (Screenshot: Ghostbusters)

Biggest controversy: An Egyptian statue was thought to have oracular powers because of the unexplained sounds it made. The Colossi Of Memnon are not statues of Memnon, a Trojan War hero who was killed by Achilles. They’re two massive, 3,400-year-old statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, which were named after Memnon when they began to make noises at dawn. (According to myth, Memnon was the son of Eos, the goddess of the dawn.) The noises didn’t start until 27 B.C., when an earthquake destroyed the top half of one statue. Henceforth, it would “sing” within an hour or two of sunrise, a phenomenon recorded by several Roman contemporaries and historians, including Pliny The Elder.

The Colossi Of Memnon (Photo: Prisma/UIG/Getty Images)

The singing statue became a hot tourist attraction, and was visited by several Roman emperors, until Septimius Severus had sandstone added to the damaged statue in an attempt to please the oracle. The noises stopped, leading modern observers to speculate that the noise was somehow made by morning dew evaporating from the porous rock.

Thing we were happiest to learn: The new World Trade Center (probably) isn’t haunted. While One World Trade was under construction, wailing noises were heard coming from the building. But the fact that they were more pronounced during Hurricane Sandy led observers to conclude the noise was just the wind.


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Most of the undersea noises have the same explanations. The four sounds here recorded by the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that have since been identified are all icebergs running aground. And the two that remain unknown were both recorded in areas of undersea volcanic activity, so that seems to be the likely cause.


“Bloop,” at 16x the original speed (Source: NOAA)

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: One whale out there is singing soprano. The 52-hertz whale is an unidentified whale of unknown species, identified only because its whale song is much higher than any other whale on record (blue whales tend to sing in the 10-to-40 hertz range, and smaller whales at 20). Oceanographers call the animal “the world’s loneliest whale,” as no one else in the ocean is singing in the same key. (We’re pretty sure there’s a Pixar movie in this story somewhere.) Of course, high is relative—52 hertz is roughly the lowest note on a tuba.


The 52-Hz whale, at 10x the original speed, raising the pitch to 520 Hz (Source: Wikipedia)


Further down the Wormhole: The NOAA doesn’t just record strange undersea noises. It’s also been closely involved with the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change. That organization’s chair, Susan Solomon, had previously worked with NOAA to identify the cause of the ozone layer’s depletion, and her work led directly to the ban on chlorofluorocarbons and subsequent gradual restoration of the ozone (which her later work has examined).

Solomon has earned a place in the Colorado Women’s Hall Of Fame, alongside former Secretary Of State Madeleine Albright, animal behavior specialist and autism activist Temple Grandin, pioneering actress Hattie McDaniel, and philanthropist Margaret Brown. While known to her friends as Maggie, the larger world knew her as the Unsinkable Molly Brown, for her role in surviving the Titanic. We’ll hear her story before and after the ship sank, next week.


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