Why the UK's streets have turned silent during coronavirus lockdown


Experts at the British Geological Survey (BGS) used seismometers to track the vibrations in the Earth’s upper crust from road traffic and industrial work.

The study found that noise generated by everyday events has dropped between 20 and 50 percent during the last five weeks.

They compare these seismic noise levels to ones before the restrictions came into effect.

The biggest falls in seismic noise were recorded at airports, train stations, busy roads and construction sites, as well as schools and universities.

Under lockdown measures, travel has reduced massively due to non-essential journeys being penalised by fines.

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Dr Brian Baptie, head of seismology at the British Geological Survey in Nottingham, explained the major shift to Sky News.

He said: “We have got a network of around 100 sensors all across the UK measuring seismic activity.

“What we have since lockdown is that noise levels at nearly all of our stations have gone down by somewhere between 20 percent to 50 percent.”

Dr Paula Koelemeijer, a global seismologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, said a seismometer located near King’s Cross station in the capital recorded a 30 percent drop in seismic noise.

She also reported a 25 percent fall recorded by a device at her home in Twickenham.

She said: “This suggests more people are in their houses, there is less car traffic, and fewer trains are running.”

Dr David Cornwell, a geophysicist at the University of Aberdeen, said noise levels at his university campus have dropped by 65% since students were sent home in the middle of March.

This meant some of his seismometers are able to pick up natural noises, like the wind and the sea.

He said to Sky News: “Globally, other seismologists have reported noise levels in cities to be between 20 percent and 50 percent lower compared to the noise levels recorded before lockdown, but there have been a few cases, such as one in Nepal, where the reduction has been as large as 80 percent.

“If a minor earthquake happened in Japan, I would be able to record it in my office or in our instruments across the UK.”

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Though scientists have noted a definite drop in human activity, it’s tough to draw conclusions about how well social distancing is working from seismic data alone.

The magnitude of the change depends on many factors, including population density and nearby industrial activity.

Even the position of a seismometer within a city can influence the size of the lull. In Brussels, seismic activity since the advent of COVID-19 is about 30 to 50 percent lower than average—similar to declines during the Christmas holidays.

The seismological experiments began with Thomas Lecocq, a seismologist at the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels.

He wanted to see what happened to his city’s anthropogenic hiss after its lockdown began in mid-March.

His finding, that it had declined precipitously, was shared on Twitter and via news organizations, prompting seismologists elsewhere to look at their own city’s lack of shakes.

Many used Dr Lecocq’s bespoke coding to eke out the human noise in their seismic data.



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