On the morning of November 11, just before 9:30 UT, a mysterious rumble rolled around the world.
The seismic waves began roughly 15 miles off the shores of Mayotte, a French island sandwiched between Africa and the northern tip of Madagascar. The waves buzzed across Africa, ringing sensors in Zambia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. They traversed vast oceans, humming across Chile, New Zealand, Canada, and even Hawaii nearly 11,000 miles away.
These waves didn't just zip by; they rang for more than 20 minutes. And yet, it seems, no human felt them.
Only one person noticed the odd signal on the U.S. Geological Survey's real-time seismogram displays. An earthquake enthusiast who uses the handle @matarikipax saw the curious zigzags and posted images of them to Twitter. That small action kicked off another ripple of sorts, as researchers around the world attempted to suss out the source of the waves. Was it a meteor strike? A submarine volcano eruption? An ancient sea monster rising from the deep?
“I don't think I've seen anything like it,” says Göran Ekström, a seismologist at Columbia University who specializes in unusual earthquakes.
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 don’t think I’ve seen anything like it,” National Geographic reports Columbia University seismologist Göran Ekström as saying. “It doesn’t mean that, in the end, the cause of them is that exotic.”
At the center of the mystery is the tiny island of Mayotte, positioned about halfway between Africa and Madagascar. It’s been subjected to a swarm of earthquakes since May. Most have been minor, but the biggest — on May 8 — was the largest in the island’s recorded history, topping at a magnitude of 5.8.
But the earthquake swarm had been in decline before the mysterious ringing was detected earlier this month.
Ekström, who specializes in unusual earthquakes, points out much about the Nov. 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 the Earth’s crust suddenly release, pulses of clearly identifiable seismic waves radiate outward from where the slippage occurs.
The first signal is called a primary wave: high-frequency compression waves that radiate in bunches.
Then comes a Secondary wave: These high-frequency waves tend to “wiggle” more.
Only then comes the surface waves: These slow, deep rumbles tend to linger, and can circle the Earth several times.
The Nov. 11 event is notable in that no primary or secondary waves were detected.
All that registered was the deep, resonant surface wave. And it didn’t rumble as an earthquake’s surface wave tends to. Instead, it maintained a much cleaner — almost musical — frequency.
National Geographic reports the French Geological Survey suspects a new volcano may be developing off the coast of Mayotte. While the island was created by volcanic activity, it’s been dormant for more than 4,000 years.
The French believe the weird ringing may have been generated by a movement of magma some 30 miles off the coast and deep underwater. This is supported by GPS sensors detecting that Mayotte has moved some 2 inches to the southeast in less than five months.But it’s a poorly mapped region. Exactly what’s beneath 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 subsurface rocks.
But he’s not certain.