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Strange seismic waves were picked up around the globe on November 11. Now seismologists are trying to figure out why



Seismic sensors first picked up the event originating near an island between Madagascar and Africa. Then, alarm bells started ringing as far away as Chile, New Zealand and Canada.

Hawaii, almost exactly on the other side of the planet, also picked up the 'event'.

Nobody knows what it was.

Meteorite? Submarine volcano? Nuclear test?

"I do not think I've seen anything like it," National Geographic reports Colombia University seismologist Göran Ekström as saying. "It does not mean that, in the end, the cause of them is that exotic."

At the center of the mystery is the tiny island of Mayotte, located about halfway between Africa and Madigascar. It's been subjected to a swarm of earthquakes since May. Most were minor, but the largest – on May 8 – was the largest in the record's history, topping magnitude 5.8.

But the earthquake swarm had been in decline before the mysterious ringing was detected earlier this month.

Ekström, who specialises in unusual earthquakes, points out much about the November 11 event was weird. It was as though the planet rang like a bell, maintaining a low-frequency monotone as it spread.

Earthquakes, by their very nature, usually register as short-sharp 'cracks'. As tensions in Earth's crust suddenly release, pulses of clearly identifiable seismic waves radiate outwards from where the slippage occurs.

The first signal is called a primary wave: high-frequency compression waves that radiate in bunches.

Then comes a second wave: these high-frequency waves tend to 'wiggle' somewhat more.

Only then comes the surface waves: these slow, deep rumbles tend to linger, and can circle Earth several times.

The November 11 event is notable in that no primary or secondary waves were detected.

All that was recorded was the deep, resonating surface wave. And it did not 'rumble' as a earthquake's surface wave tends to. Instead, it kept a lot of cleaner – almost musical – frequency.

National Geographic reports the French Geological Survey suspects and a new volcano may be developing off the coast of Mayotte. While the island was created by volcanic activity, it has been dormant for over 4000 years.

The French believe the weird ringing may have been generated by a magma movement some 50km off the coast and under deep water. This is supported by GPS sensors detecting Mayotte has moved some 5cm to the southeast in less than five months.

But it's a poorly mapped region. Exactly what's below the ocean can only be guessed at.

Ekström believes the unusually pure signal could have been caused by magma sloshing about inside a chamber, or being forced through a gap in the underground rocks.

But he's not sure.


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