Infrasound detection may also be useful for predicting volcanic events. Certain low-frequency activity may signal that a volcano is likely to spout an ash cloud, a column of jagged volcanic sand that can reach as high as 30,000 feet. An early warning would be tremendously useful, says University of Hawaii geophysicist Milton Garces, because pilots could divert their flights around the threat. Similar infrasound monitoring is already under way to detect avalanches in Utah and Wyoming. Garces has also analyzed the low-frequency sound waves accompanying the seafloor earthquake that caused the 2004 Indonesian tsunami for premonitory clues.
Crashing waves, volcanoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, avalanches—if it’s a powerful enough event, Bass says, it will have an infrasonic signature. Infrasound would therefore seem to be a possible explanation for the folk wisdom that animals have a sixth sense attuned to impending natural disasters. After the 2004 tsunami, for instance, rumors spread of dogs that refused to go outside, zoo animals that wouldn’t leave their shelters, and elephants that burst their chains and rushed to higher ground.
Katy Payne, a bioacoustics expert at Cornell University, has found that some animals tune in to infrasonic rumblings. While observing elephants at the Oregon Zoo a couple of decades ago, she experienced a familiar shuddering around her. As a youth, Payne had sung in a choir in a massive church with a pipe organ that pumped out extremely deep bass sounds. Sitting near those elephants, she felt the same sensation. “I was feeling a throbbing in the air,” she says. “I guessed that the elephants were making sounds below the frequency humans can hear, and I turned out to be right. There was a whole frequency down there that nobody was paying attention to.”
Subsequent studies have shown that elephants generate infrasound calls to communicate over long distances. The elephants’ calls would be deafening—around 110 decibels, as loud as a rock concert—but we cannot hear a note because the waves are so lengthy, as long as 225 feet. This part of the sound spectrum travels especially well through water, so alligators, hippos, and whales use infrasound calls as well. The cries of blue whales may reach thousands of miles undersea.
But can infrasound-using animals actually sense a tsunami or other impending disasters? Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, who studies elephants at Etosha National Park in Namibia, sees evidence that elephants can sense the approach of major storms, but she is not convinced by the tsunami story. There is just not much hard evidence that animals really did sense the danger. In fact, a herd of collared, satellite-tracked elephants in Yala National Park in Sri Lanka did not move at all. “There really is no short, easy answer,” O’Connell-Rodwell says.
This sixth sense is not the only infrasound-related conspiracy theory. Rumors persist that a low-frequency buzz pervades certain locations, allegedly inspiring foul moods or even suicides. In 2003, English artist Sarah Angliss built an enormous pipe capable of producing sounds below 17 hertz, then put on two concerts back to back. Two pieces in each concert included an infrasonic hum. After the infrasound-enhanced performances, she says, some listeners cited a feeling of coldness, anxiety, and shivers down the spine. Yet Bedard, who once carted his equipment over to Taos, New Mexico, to test persistent rumors that the town was haunted by an almost inaudible noise, says there is no scientific consensus on this issue: “It’s a conundrum. There’s literature that says there’s no effect, that people aren’t bothered by infrasound, and yet there’s another body of literature that says they are.”
To Bass, these unknowns are what make the study of infrasound so exciting. “You hear things all the time, and 95, 98 percent of the time you haven’t a clue what they are,” he says. “They’re going to be equally cool once you figure them out.”