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Mysterious 'hum' keeping West Seattle up at night

Jake Ellison

The West Seattle “hum,” a loud noise of unknown origins that enveloped the neighborhood several years ago, has returned with “a vengeance.”

The resurgent thrumming humming sound has people talking and guessing what’s causing it. According to the editor of West Seattle’s popular news blog, its origins remain a mystery.

“After a few years of it only coming up once in a while, a few days ago, over the Labor Day weekend, it came up with a vengeance,” said Tracy Record, the editor of the West Seattle Blog. “It’s a little cringing to notice that people want to make a joke out of this because I don’t believe this is people hallucinating. There is something out there. There is a noise out there. It’s not the theory that there is an inter-planetary hum that we’ve been hearing in England for twenty years and it’s frustrating that you can’t necessarily pinpoint it.”

So far, Record said, theories about the sound’s origins center on the “industrial zone around the Duwamish River.”

Theories abound

Residents think the sound could be coming from the nearby industrial cement plant, the slightly more distant Boeing Field, or big ships reverberating in the waters of the Duwamish, a heavy industrial waterway leading to Puget Sound.

“A reputable source from Highland Park emailed us,” Record said, “and told us that she and her spouse had driven eastward toward (the noise) a few nights ago and felt that it was coming from a ship parked on the Duwamish River.”

Record said she herself heard the “oscillating” sound on the west side of the neighborhood, but it didn’t seem to reach the “deafening” levels that witnesses on the east side of the neighborhood claim.

“I could still hear it through my earplugs,” one commenter wrote on the blog’s story. “Hard to fall asleep with it.”

Update 09/07/12: A new theory has been proposed by KING 5: It's fish!

A number of tips led us to the University of Washington's Marine Biology program. Yes, the Midshipman fish, an ugly creature with an odd mating call, could indeed be the sound. Nearby buildings or the hulls of ships could be acting as giant sub-woofers carrying the low frequency sound for miles.

Not an illusion

The sound has been recorded on a smartphone, proving too that it isn’t just a bit of mass hysteria.

… something people in the Northwest are no stranger to. Of particular note was the “Windshield Pitting Incident” that had everyone in the region going crazy.

We covered that anomaly in our “I Wonder Why …?” series:

Police were called, road blocks set up.
It’s 1954, early spring, and tiny chips, pits and dings are popping up on car windshields throughout the Puget Sound region at an alarming rate. Suddenly, communities from Anacortes to Tacoma are in the grip of a textbook case of mass hysteria.

We’re also not alone in experiencing a environmental “hum.”

New Zealand’s Massey University computer scientists are investigating a similar “hum.” Dr. Tom Moir of Massey told Boing Boing that they don’t have a concrete answer yet. But…

“At this stage we believe there are two possible explanations. The hum could be a very low frequency sound that only some people can hear. Or, it could be that microwaves in the atmosphere trigger a hum like sound in the heads of some people that would not necessarily be heard by others or picked up by recording equipment.”

BBC News reported in 2009 on “strange low-frequency hums that have annoyed people” and stimulated conspiracy theories. The most famous unexplained noises in the UK are the Bristol Hum and the Largs Hum.

Audiologist Dr. David Baguley and Researchers from the University of Salford have been studying the sounds and the reactions of those who hear it. One theory proposed by Baguley can simply be seen as fixation. When one becomes fixated on an innocuous background sound their concentration becomes obsessive raising the volume of the body’s “internal gain.”

City has been notified

Residents have complained to the city, and Record said in an update to her blog post, that Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development is looking into the matter.

Bryan Stevens said in a note to the blog:

“We’ve received a few more complaints which will help to narrow down the search for our inspectors. We have two noise inspectors for the entire city, so we really don’t have resources to hunt down a noise source. But with the recent complaints and the noise clip in the blog, our inspectors now know what people are hearing and what area may be causing it.”

However, the source still has yet to be identified.

"... The city has this rule where they say that they can only investigate if you tell them exactly where it’s coming from," Record said, "and people are saying ‘no’ you’re the city you need to find out for us because we can’t tell, its not as easy as reporting a chronic barking dog.”

Junior Communication major at Pacific Lutheran University.