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Ice Yowling and Other Geological Sounds

By January 21, 2012

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lake tenayaThe mountains of California have been bare of snow until just yesterday, allowing people to drive all over Yosemite seeing places that are inaccessible in the winter. My sister, an old Yosemite hand, visited Tenaya Lake above Yosemite Valley and reported that the ice-covered lake was making loud sounds "like the sounds of whales." There's a name for that, according to the AGI Glossary of Geology: ice yowling.

It turns out that Henry David Thoreau described the phenomenon in detail in Walden—not at Walden Pond, but at Flint's Pond on 24 February 1850: "The pond began to boom about an hour after sunrise, when it felt the influence of the sun's rays upon it from over the hills; it stretched itself and yawned like a waking man with a gradually increasing tumult, which was kept up three or four hours. It took a short siesta at noon, and boomed once more toward night, as the sun was withdrawing his influence. . . . The pond does not thunder every evening, and I cannot tell surely when to expect its thundering; but though I may perceive no difference in the weather, it does. Who would have suspected so large and cold and thick-skinned a thing to be so sensitive? Yet it has its law to which it thunders obedience when it should as surely as the buds expand in the spring."

Ice yowling has been on my geologic life list for a long time. Three other sounds are on it: the audible report of an earthquake, the booming sounds of large sand dunes and the cracking sounds of cooling basalt lava. I've checked off the first two, but it may be a while before I witness the third.

What other geologic sounds should be on a life list?
Tenaya Lake — courtesy Bruce Fincham


January 21, 2012 at 9:42 pm
(1) Jim says:

A landslide or avalanche would be decent sound although I would not want to be too near.

January 22, 2012 at 12:11 am
(2) Hannah Hinchman says:

In the midst of an earthquake I wonder what kind of sound the creation of a fault scarp would make. I,ve heard the ice yowling many times, and boomin doesn’t fit it. Whale, yes. But then Thoreau could never have heard that. Not exactly geological, but I’ve heard that the aurora borealis creates a sound.

January 23, 2012 at 3:02 am
(3) Leslie Stewart says:

Hannah is right–”booming” doesn’t fit the sound, but I am glad the phenomenon has a name! Several weeks ago, I was walking along Lake Pepin, which is really a widening of the Mississippi River between Wisconsin and Minnesota. It was after dark and I nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard what sounded like a giant metal spring releasing and reverberating all down the river, followed then by more sounds akin to the whale songs. Truly magical. I wondered if our lack of snow cover at the time along with warm days, cold nights, and the surrounding bluffs contributed to the effect.

January 23, 2012 at 3:40 am
(4) td says:

yes The aurora borealis makes a very distinct hiss like grains of rice sliding on a teflon cutting board. It’s very faint and requires a still night and a fairly active display to hear but it is awe-inspiring . Was relatively common to hear on still cold clear nights mid Jan – mid Feb when I was in the far north 280 KM north of Old Crow ….in NWT. Mind you there was no noise or light pollution up there as it was a fly in camp of 4 trailers. The light show was spectacular!!!!
I would like to put forth the sound of boulders and stones in the river beds during flood times as a geological sound to hear if you get the chance. Especially in areas where the main rocks are young granite. They can ring like bells ,loud enough to hear over a raging stream and the grinding of the stones as they are washed downstream by excessive water flow. I was always amazed by the sheer power of moving water!

January 23, 2012 at 10:06 am
(5) Barry says:

Try the sonic boom like noise occasioanally emitting from Vulcan Pinacate in Mexico.

January 23, 2012 at 12:06 pm
(6) Pete Modreski says:

And, the sound of a sonic boom from a fireball meteor, moving through or exploding in the atmosphere; I’d count that as (sort of) geological, and it’s one I’ve sure not ever heard myself, but would like to. I’ve heard ice crack and creak, though maybe not quite “yowling”. You mentioned cracking of cooling basalt, but I would add, the roaring sound of a lava fountain (I’ve had the pleasure of hearing that!).

January 24, 2012 at 1:00 am
(7) Hannah Hinchman says:

Thanks for such good additions and descriptions! Delighted to hear about the aurora sound…maybe a bit like a rain-stick? And yes, boulders moving in a fast river, that is one I’ve heard though it took awhile to deduce what it was. Yes! On the metal spring releasing and reverberating, that’s almost exactly right for the ice. I had once written that it was like a big bridge cable thrumming, but yours is better. I would like to be close enough to hear the sound of a vigorous seedling breaking through the ground.

January 24, 2012 at 1:44 pm
(8) Howard says:

How about the sound of a good old explosive volcanic eruption? I was lucky enough to hear Mount St. Helens’ “big one” on May 18, 1980, but didn’t realize it at the time. I was doing geological field work near the top of a mountain in southern British Columbia when I and my colleagues were startled–and puzzled–by really deep, explosive “thunder” coming from the southwest on a clear, sunny morning. It wasn’t until we saw news reports that evening that we figured out what we had heard.

Another one is the different sounds you can hear when walking across scree. Some flaggy, siliceous limestones sound just like broken china underfoot.

May 20, 2014 at 7:47 pm
(9) Andrew Alden says:

A few months after this post, I wrote another one with more detail about aurora sound:

One thing that has puzzled me about auroral sound is that while the lights are far up in the atmosphere, around 100 kilometers, the sounds match the lights. It’s not like lightning and thunder, which are clearly separated in time because of the difference between the speeds of light and sound. One explanation I always entertained is that the sounds are generated inside the ear or the brain by the aurora’s electromagnetic fields. But a Finnish team set out microphones on a night of strong auroras and recorded soft sounds that they triangulated to about 70 meters above the ground. They presented their results this week at the 19th International Congress on Sound and Vibration in Vilnius (read the press release). A video presents a sound like a whipcrack. I love this stuff.

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