Spread of Coronavirus May Have Seismic Implications

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The Coronavirus pandemic has led to a dramatic shift to how people live their lives in almost every corner of the world. From lockdowns to social distancing, reduced road traffic to empty airports, Coronavirus is not only impacting peoples’ personal lives, but the very Earth itself.

People are hearing birds chirping in urban areas as traffic noise diminishes. Animals native to the area find themselves grazing on otherwise unoccupied lawns. Pollution is dissipating in some densely populated areas, giving residents a view for the first time in decades. Researchers in a variety of fields are seeing the Earth respond to these changes, too.

A Seismic Shift

Scientists who record and observe seismic activity around the globe are detecting major decreases in activity as the effects of the Coronavirus continue. Seismologists working at seismic detection centers not only detect earthquakes, volcano eruptions, and other natural activities, but have to account for Earth’s ‘background noise’ as well. This noise is the natural shifting of Earth’s crust, in addition to a seismic hum caused by human activities.

These activities range from vehicles on the road to industrial equipment, human movement, and the many forms of transportation that are used to transport people and cargo around the world. As these activities have slowed down or stopped altogether, the cumulative background seismic activity has also dropped.

Geoscientists with the Royal Observatory of Belgium reported that anthropogenic noise had dropped by a third after the lockdown was initiated on March 18, 2020.
Geoscientists with the Royal Observatory of Belgium reported that anthropogenic noise had dropped by a third in Brussels after the lockdown was initiated on March 18, 2020. The green line is the average noise level, darker bands indicate weekends. Source: Royal Observatory of Belgium, CC BY 2.0

Seismologists in Belgium, the UK, and the US have all reported that this seismic activity is about ⅓ of what it usually is. Some locations are seeing half the usual seismic activity as compared to what we consider ‘normal’. 

Median noise levels per weekday hour in Brussels comparing pre and post-lockdown noise levels.  Source: Royal Observatory of Belgium, CC BY 2.0
Median noise levels per weekday hour in Brussels comparing pre and post-lockdown noise levels. Source: Royal Observatory of Belgium, CC BY 2.0

Implications of Seismic Data

This decrease in background seismic noise allows seismologists working in urban detection centers the ability to detect natural seismic activity as well as their counterparts in more remote locations. Typically, seismic detection centers are placed in locations where they won’t pick up as much background noise from a big city, and thus can ‘hear’ natural seismic activity much more clearly.

The drop in background noise allows seismologists to detect earthquakes, volcanic activity, and other seismic shifts more easily. This could lead to better detection abilities as seismologists learn how to read the data regarding these events, both large and small. 


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Resources

Gibney, E. (2020, March 31). Coronavirus lockdowns have changed the way Earth moves. Nature.com. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00965-x

Osborne, Hannah. Coronavirus May Have Caused The Earth To Stop Vibrating So Much. 1 April 2020. Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/coronavirus-may-have-caused-earth-stop-vibrating-so-much-1495492

Kaur, Harmeet. The Coronavirus Pandemic is Making the Earth Shake Less. 3 April 2020. Retrieved from https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/04/03/the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-making-earth-shake-less/


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