Infrasound, sometimes referred to as low-frequency sound, is sound that is lower in frequency than 20 Hz (Hertz) or cycles per second, the "normal" limit of human hearing. Hearing becomes gradually less sensitive as frequency decreases, so for humans to perceive infrasound, the sound pressure must be sufficiently high. The ear is the primary organ for sensing infrasound, but at higher intensities it is possible to feel infrasound vibrations in various parts of the body.

The study of such sound waves is referred to sometimes as infrasonics, covering sounds beneath 20 Hz down to 0.001 Hz. This frequency range is utilized for monitoring earthquakes, charting rock and petroleum formations below the earth, and also in ballistocardiography and seismocardiography to study the mechanics of the heart. Infrasound is characterized by an ability to cover long distances and get around obstacles with little dissipation.

History and study

Infrasound was used by the Allies of World War I to locate artillery.[1] One of the pioneers in infrasonic research was French scientist, Vladimir Gavreau, who was born in Russia as Vladimir Gavronsky.[2] His interest in infrasonic waves first came about in his laboratory during the 1960s, when he and his laboratory assistants experienced pain in the ear drums and shaking laboratory equipment, but no audible sound was picked up on his microphones. He concluded it was infrasound caused by a large fan and duct system and soon got to work preparing tests in the laboratories. One of his experiments was an infrasonic whistle, an oversized organ pipe.[3][4][5]


Infrasound sometimes results naturally from severe weather, surf,[6] lee waves, avalanches, earthquakes, volcanoes, bolides,[7] waterfalls, calving of icebergs, aurorae, meteors, lightning and upper-atmospheric lightning.[8] Nonlinear ocean wave interactions in ocean storms produce pervasive infrasound vibrations around 0.2 Hz, known as microbaroms.[9] According to the Infrasonics Program at the NOAA, infrasonic arrays can be used to locate avalanches in the Rocky Mountains, and to detect tornadoes on the high plains several minutes before they touch down.[10]

Infrasound also can be generated by human-made processes such as sonic booms and explosions (both chemical and nuclear), by machinery such as diesel engines and older designs of down tower wind turbines and by specially designed mechanical transducers (industrial vibration tables) and large-scale subwoofer loudspeakers [11] such as rotary woofers. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization Preparatory Commission uses infrasound as one of its monitoring technologies, along with seismic, hydroacoustic, and atmospheric radionuclide monitoring. The largest infrasound ever recorded by the monitoring system was generated by the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor.[12]

Whales, elephants,[13] hippopotamuses,[14] rhinoceros,[15][16] giraffes,[17] okapi,[18] and alligators are known to use infrasound to communicate over distances—up to hundreds of miles in the case of whales. In particular, the Sumatran Rhinoceros has been shown to produce sounds with frequencies as low as 3 Hz which have similarities with the song of the humpback whale.[16] The roar of the tiger contains infrasound of 18 Hz and lower,[19] and the purr of felines is reported to cover a range of 20 to 50 Hz.[20][21][22] It has also been suggested that migrating birds use naturally generated infrasound, from sources such as turbulent airflow over mountain ranges, as a navigational aid.[23] Elephants, in particular, produce infrasound waves that travel through solid ground and are sensed by other herds using their feet, although they may be separated by hundreds of kilometres.

Animal reactions to infrasound

Animals have been known to perceive the infrasonic waves going through the earth by natural disasters and can use these as an early warning. A recent example of this is the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Animals were reported to flee the area hours before the actual tsunami hit the shores of Asia.[24][25] It is not known for sure if this is the exact reason, as some have suggested that it may have been the influence of electromagnetic waves, and not of infrasonic waves, that prompted these animals to flee.[26]

Infrasound also may be used for long-distance communication in African elephants.[27] These calls range from 15–35 Hz and can be as loud as 117 dB, allowing communication for many kilometres, with a possible maximum range of around 10 km (6 mi).[28] These calls may be used to coordinate the movement of herds and allow mating elephants to find each other.

Recent research by Jon Hagstrum of the US Geological Survey suggests that homing pigeons use low frequency infrasound to navigate. [29]

Human reactions to infrasound

20 Hz is considered the normal low-frequency limit of human hearing. When pure sine waves are reproduced under ideal conditions and at very high volume, a human listener will be able to identify tones as low as 12 Hz.[30] Below 10 Hz it is possible to perceive the single cycles of the sound, along with a sensation of pressure at the eardrums.

The dynamic range of the auditory system decreases with decreasing frequency. This compression can be seen in the equal-loudness-level contours, and it implies that a slight increase in level can change the perceived loudness from barely audible, to loud. Combined with the natural spread in thresholds within a population, it may have the effect that a very low-frequency sound which is inaudible to some people may be loud to others.

One study has suggested that infrasound may cause feelings of awe or fear in humans. It also was suggested that since it is not consciously perceived, it may make people feel vaguely that odd or supernatural events are taking place.[31]

Infrasonic 17 Hz tone experiment

On 31 May 2003, a group of UK researchers held a mass experiment where they exposed some 700 people to music laced with soft 17 Hz sine waves played at a level described as "near the edge of hearing", produced by an extra-long-stroke subwoofer mounted two-thirds of the way from the end of a seven-meter-long plastic sewer pipe. The experimental concert (entitled Infrasonic) took place in the Purcell Room over the course of two performances, each consisting of four musical pieces. Two of the pieces in each concert had 17 Hz tones played underneath. In the second concert, the pieces that were to carry a 17 Hz undertone were swapped so that test results would not focus on any specific musical piece. The participants were not told which pieces included the low-level 17 Hz near-infrasonic tone. The presence of the tone resulted in a significant number (22%) of respondents reporting anxiety, uneasiness, extreme sorrow, nervous feelings of revulsion or fear, chills down the spine, and feelings of pressure on the chest.[32][33] In presenting the evidence to British Association for the Advancement of Science, Professor Richard Wiseman said, "These results suggest that low frequency sound can cause people to have unusual experiences even though they cannot consciously detect infrasound. Some scientists have suggested that this level of sound may be present at some allegedly haunted sites and so cause people to have odd sensations that they attribute to a ghost—our findings support these ideas."[31]

Suggested relationship to ghost sightings

Research by Vic Tandy, a lecturer at Coventry University, suggested that an infrasonic signal of 19 Hz might be responsible for some ghost sightings. Tandy was working late one night alone in a supposedly haunted laboratory at Warwick, when he felt very anxious and could detect a grey blob out of the corner of his eye. When Tandy turned to face the grey blob, there was nothing.

The following day, Tandy was working on his fencing foil, with the handle held in a vise. Although there was nothing touching it, the blade started to vibrate wildly. Further investigation led Tandy to discover that the extractor fan in the lab was emitting a frequency of 18.98 Hz, very close to the resonant frequency of the eye given as 18 Hz by NASA.[34] This was why Tandy had seen a ghostly figure—it was an optical illusion caused by his eyeballs resonating. The room was exactly half a wavelength in length, and the desk was in the centre, thus causing a standing wave which caused the vibration of the foil.[35]

Tandy investigated this phenomenon further and wrote a paper entitled The Ghost in the Machine.[36] Tandy carried out a number of investigations at various sites believed to be haunted, including the basement of the Tourist Information Bureau next to Coventry Cathedral[37][38] and Edinburgh Castle.[39][40]

See also


  • "infrasound".
  • Gundersen, P. Erik. The Handy Physics Answer Book. Visible Ink Press, 2003.
  • Chedd, Graham. Sound; From Communications to Noise Pollution. Doubleday & Company, 1970.
  • O'Keefe, Ciaran, and Sarah Angliss. Graz, Austria: Graz UP, 2004. 132–133.
  • Discovery's Biggest Shows aired at 8:00 pm (Indian Standard Time) on The Discovery Channel, India on Sunday, 7 October 2007

External links

  • Inframatics, an international infrasound monitoring organization
  • NOAA Infrasonics Program
  • US Army Space and Missile Defense Command Monitoring Research Program
  • Los Alamos Infrasound Monitoring Laboratory
  • Infrasonic and Acoustic-Gravity Waves Generated by the Mount Pinatubo Eruption of 15 June 1991, Makoto Tahira, Masahiro Nomura, Yosihiro Sawada and Kosuke Kamo


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