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Seven years of earthquakes in Japan turned into a 52-second video

7 years of earthquakes in Japan from seismicsoundlab on Vimeo.


We definitely know that an earthquake involves movement – but what if you could capture these seismic tremors in sounds too? Or even in images? This thought experiment proved to be the catalyst for the Seismic Sound Lab, a project by geophysicist Ben Holtzman and sound engineer Jason Candler that translates seismic data into a variety of new forms. They’ve been working on various ideas since their initial brainstorm back in 2005, and have recently released a few of their works online, many of which in collaboration with other scientists. Unsurprisingly, Japan features heavily, with two separate videos highlighting the earthquakes in Tohoku and earthquakes in the country over the past seven years in sound and form.

The different videos are all based on real seismological data from around the world. Depending on the project, the seismic waves picked up by seismometers and accelerometers (used when the waves are too strong to be registered by the former) have been converted into specific sounds or images. The '7 years of earthquakes in Japan' version (above), for example, takes the magnitude and depth of the tremors and converts each into a specific rumble, which increases in intensity with the strength of the earthquake, whereas the Tohoku video (below) focuses on visualising the rippling effect of the tectonic plates’ movements. The 1993 – 2013 world overview video, on the other hand, codes specific magnitudes as different pitches of instruments, which creates the feeling of listening to a symphony – but of seismic waves.

Holtzman and Candler's project started off at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, and has since been exhibited temporarily at the Hayden Planetarium, part of the American Museum of National History in New York City. (They’re looking for a more permanent home – museums in Japan, we’re looking at you.) The entire experience is rather immersive, as if you’re standing at the middle of the earth during an earthquake, and both hearing and feeling it rumble around you. The videos emanate this experience: we’d definitely recommend watching them with headphones in and in full screen mode.  

Head over to their Vimeo page, which provides 'The Key to Earthquake Catalogue Movies', and then discover more of their videos from there.

2011 Tohoku Earthquake, Mag. 9.0. Body and Surface Waves from seismicsoundlab on Vimeo.


– By Kirsty Bouwers

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Richard P
Richard P

Much less well known are the "Jishin Gumo", or "Earthquake Clouds". My Japanese boss explained to me in 1995 that before a particularly large quake, some people have seen a perfect "L" formation in the sky. Wondering what he was on, I politely expressed amazement at his statement. Fast forward to late October 2004 and a few minutes before the Niigata earthquake, my daughter and I saw a perfect "L" with the moon shining through from behind in the early evening sky. I joked to my daughter that we will have an earthquake in 15 minutes or so. True enough, after about 25 minutes had passed, the mother of all quakes started. I had just parked my car and the force of the rocking motion felt like 2 sumo wrestlers were shaking the car. After what felt like 30 seconds or so, the tremors had subsided enough for me to get out and check on the rest of my family. Thank goodness for the strict earthquake building standards that the house was still there ! To emphasise it wasn't just me, the local radio station had numerous people calling in the following day to say that they, too, had seen this same perfect "L".

Does anyone have any ideas how and / or why these events occur?