The 'Vashon Hum' can be explained

The story in The Beachcomber about the “Vashon Hum” is both a first-class example of cutting-edge journalism and a reminder that we exist at the discretion of the natural world.

Being a scientist, I gave consideration to this subject for some time, literally minutes, and discovered more theories regarding the source of the hum.

It is possible to separate causes into two categories: natural and man-made. I include as natural those that originate with humans but are not intentional. Sources of noise like rap music and Sarah Palin clearly fall into the man-made category (subcategory irritating whines).

Natural causes also include those sounds made by extraterrestrials, but I do not list them here because it has been weeks since I’ve seen one. And unlike many on the Island, I do not find the presence of large subterranean worms credible, despite the discovery of huge burrows on the west side.

There are plenty of other potential natural causes; some that I wish to address include:

• Cosmic radiation: We all know that our Sun emits massive amounts of radiation, which in space would fry us like corn dogs. “The atmosphere is our friend,” but as the atmosphere warms because of carbon dioxide, it also thins, and more radiation reaches the Earth’s surface, causing changes to the soil and rocks. This could include aural effects, particularly just before critical thinning is reached and we cook in a natural microwave oven. Try not to think about this.

• Already mentioned were low-frequency waves used in marine communication, but there are also low-frequency sounds that emanate from seismic zones. All those rocks grinding against each other make a low rumble, and here we are sitting on top of a convergent margin. Duh.

• I’m quoted as saying it’s not geologic, but the reporter caught me without my coffee. Another geologic source could be because we are pumping ground water at rates never before seen (everywhere on the planet) and the reservoirs are slowly collapsing. The hum could be the rumble of shrinking aquifers. If you worry about this, drink beer instead. I’m having one as I write this just in case.

• James Thurber highlighted the danger of electricity leaking from unused outlets in his story, “The Car We Had To Push.” With the advent of compact fluorescents and increased environmental awareness, more and more outlets and light sockets are going wanting, leading to a 60-cycle hum that is common around buildings. My suggestion is that you wear rubber-soled shoes.

• A legacy of ASARCO … arsenic can combine in audiotropic reactions with silica and other common rock-forming compounds. What you are hearing is the slow march of arsenic down toward our water supply.

• Lastly, consider the aging demographics of our Island. More people are suffering from buildups of ear wax, leading to low-frequency ringing in the ears. It’s a form of tinnitus. Look it up.

None of these effects is very dangerous, except maybe the cosmic radiation that could destroy all life in the solar system, and the buildup of ear wax that has already taken the lives of two Islanders (I’ve been told). One guy had his ear blown completely off.

But I don’t worry about that; instead, I’m more concerned about that tapping noise coming from the woods near our house, usually around midnight. Has anyone else heard that?

— Greg Wessel is a geologist and curator of Two Wall Gallery. This piece was written with help from Margaret Wessel.

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