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October 18, 2019

If You Hear a Strange Humming Sound, You’re Not Alone

There is a noise that is known worldwide as simply “The Hum.” A small number of people from a community will report the sudden arrival of an incessant industrial sound, something akin to the low growl of an idling diesel engine.

Illustration by Christian Rosekat.

Tim Miller hears a strange noise on his property just west of Stettler in central Alberta.The sound started before Christmas last year and hasn’t stopped. It’s relentless. Omnipresent. He describes the persistent hum as sounding like tennis shoes in a dryer or the rumbling engine of a locomotive. He doesn’t sleep much these days — two hours most nights.

The noise that surfaced on Miller’s property at the end of 2018 fits the description of what’s known worldwide as simply “The Hum.” A small number of people from a community will report the sudden arrival of an incessant industrial sound, something akin to the low growl of an idling diesel engine. High-profile hums have been investigated in such places as Wellington, New Zealand; Taos, New Mexico and Windsor, Ontario. Glen Macpherson, a high school teacher from Gibsons, B.C., set up the World Hum Map and Database Project (thehum.info) in 2012 to track the location and specific characteristics of hums around the globe. It has over 9,000 self-reported entries of sounds with unknown origins, dozens of which are spread across Alberta.

I visited Miller this past July. He lives with his wife, Dawn, on 15 acres of land at the end of a winding gravel road in a lush and hilly part of the province — exactly the kind of place you go to escape from noise. Dana Negrey drove down from Edmonton and Richard Patching came up from Calgary. The pair have worked together off and on for the past 11 years, recording and investigating a variety of mysterious noises like the one afflicting Miller on their own time. They’re part of a small team that includes university professors and noise specialists researching the cause and impacts of hums across Alberta.

“Everything I have is invested right here,” Miller said. He looked worn out, but still had the firm handshake of a no-nonsense rural Albertan. “I don’t want to leave so I have to stand and fight.” The four of us were at the bottom of a wooded valley next to his bungalow. The tall trees helped buffer the wind. Every so often we stopped talking, tilted our heads to one side, and listened. I heard leaves rustle. Birds chirped. One of the horses neighed. No unnerving mechanical drone pricked my ears.

“The hum I hear here is identical to what I heard in Ranchlands, my house in Edmonton and at Miquelon Lake,” Negrey said. “It’s the same noise that is here — exactly.” Negrey is 51 and works as a voiceover artist for clients all over the world. He doesn’t have much technical expertise when it comes to the physics of sound, but considers himself a human divining rod for the hum. Negrey first heard the hum in 2008 in his house in the northwest Calgary community of Ranchlands. The sound followed when he moved to Edmonton in 2012. He has also heard a hum in Red Deer, Lethbridge, St. Paul and even Jasper National Park.

“We can start to triangulate it,” Patching said. He is 67 and wore black suspenders over a short sleeve dress shirt with a pocket jam packed with pens. “Then we can nail it down.” Patching brought his laptop and a sound recorder. As an acoustic engineer, he has decades of experience tracking and mitigating the effects of noise, particularly when it comes to the sundry sounds generated by the oil and gas industry, as well as traffic. He suggested that Miller start recording the hum at specific points on a pre-established grid so they could zero in on the culprit. Several big industrial sites are within a few kilometres of Miller’s property: A gas plant to the south, a petrochemical plant to the east and natural gas wells and pipelines everywhere in between.

Before Miller reached out to Negrey, who runs a blog called Unidentified Noise in Alberta, he had contacted manifold public services, including Alberta Environment, Alberta Health Services and peace officers from the County of Stettler. No one had answers. The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) sent two specialists to his property in January with sound meters. They didn’t measure anything above provincial regulations.

“Unfortunately the low-frequency stuff, which Dana has problems with and you have had problems with, they don’t do a good job,” Patching said of the province’s noise limits. He explained that he gets why it’s necessary for industry to set specific thresholds for acceptable noise, but that low-frequency noise (any sound below 250 Hz) is tricky because it can travel vast distances without dissipating, because longer wavelengths lose less energy to air molecules.

Normal human hearing picks up frequencies between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz, but Patching explained how five to 10 per cent of people have much more sensitive hearing for some frequencies. A few of Miller’s neighbours hear something, but it’s intermittent and not all that bothersome. Dawn, his wife, hears the hum but has no trouble tuning it out. She sleeps fine through the night. A sense of isolation gnaws at people who hear a hum that’s impossible to ignore while the person next to them remains blissfully unaware.

People who hear hums are often dismissed as having a hearing impairment or experiencing delusions. It’s a struggle to be taken seriously. Jon Dziadyk, councillor for Ward 3, has been in email contact with Negrey for the past year or so. He’s sympathetic to Negrey’s situation, but said not much can be done unless either more people from the community complain or Negrey can narrow down the source. “That’s the problem — we’re in the realm of debating if it exists or not,” Dziadyk says. Negrey explains that his next step would be to go to door-to-door, dropping off pamphlets and polling his neighbours on if they hear a hum.

And sometimes these puzzling sounds do get solved. Several residents in Mill Woods complained about a late-night hum that began in early 2018. It was traced to a back-up generator for a new solar-powered streetlight, which TransEd then replaced. The Windsor Hum was eventually attributed to blast furnaces on Zug Island, a heavy industrial site on the Detroit River, with the help of a grant from the federal government. A hum heard in Sausalito, California in the 1980s was found to be the result of the mating calls of a fish called the plainfin midshipman.

The phenomenon of a mysterious hum heard by a select few is prime fodder for outlandish theories: It’s caused by solar flares reflecting off the Pyramids, a network of global surveillance satellites or, inevitably, aliens. But the sound near Stettler is no mere curiosity for Miller. He’s not a conspiracy theorist and has no axe to grind with industry — in fact he is pro oil and gas — but his life has been turned upside down by the impromptu emergence of an intense industrial drone. He wants someone to take responsibility. He wants to know if such an interminable, low frequency noise is making him sick. Most of all, he wants it to stop.

“Imagine this place,” Miller said, as he raised his hands and gestured at the landscape. “This is everything I have in my life right here. I just want some peace and quiet.”

This article appears in the October 2019 issue of Avenue Edmonton.

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