An acquaintance of ours who lives a few country roads over from us called a couple of weeks ago. He wanted to know if we had been noticing any new sounds recently. Sound travels in mysterious ways in this mountain valley: there are always new noises arriving on the shifting winds. I can, for example, hear a cannon’s sonic booms on stormy days in the summer coming from a neighbouring village which is a famous apple growing region. The cannon’s booms are thought to protect the trees from hail that might be forming in the clouds. And I hear the “beep, beep” backup sound of a truck early in the morning that we have traced to an industrial dairy farm just south of us in the United States. But, no, I have not been hearing a hum.
The hum he described was as if a truck were parked outside with its engine idling. (Some people have described the sound as an idling diesel engine with a pulsating sound pattern.) He has been hearing this sound at his home and in the surrounding area since May of 2016. It is constant and disconcerting and he is trying to discover its source both anecdotally, from asking and talking to people, and scientifically.
And herein begins the mystery. It seems that some people are able to hear low frequency sounds without being able to identify the source. My acquaintance, for instance, hears the sound but his wife doesn’t. And this is not a new phenomenon that has befallen just him. Over the past twenty years reports of this hum have surfaced around the world, most often in rural areas and small urban centres. There have been a concentration of people affected in such places as: Windsor, Ontario; Auckland, New Zealand; Taos, New Mexico; and Bristol, England. The two largest funded studies of this phenomenon were carried out in Kokomo, Indiana and Taos, New Mexico and all of the results have been inconclusive. The Windsor Hum which was investigated by the Canadian government was thought to originate on Zug Island across the Detroit River in Michigan. Even when there is a likely source, as in this Windsor study, it seems to be hard to prove conclusively.
My neighbour reports that he hears the hum inside his home and outside as well. It seems stronger in enclosed spaces like a parked car and in his home. Here is where it gets interesting. He hears the sound in and around his home but not in some of the neighbouring villages. This would seem to point to an outside source.
There have been all kinds of theories that have been put forward to explain what seems to be a mostly unexplainable phenomenon. They range from conspiracy theories to cellphone towers to VLF (very low frequency radio waves). It has even been suggested that these people are sensitive to certain vibrations that their ears interpret as sound. Tinnitus, a disturbance of the auditory system, has also widely been considered as a possible cause of the hum. It doesn’t explain, however, why the hum would not be heard in certain places.
This we do know, people who are affected have had to learn to live with this constant humming sound. My neighbour reports hearing the hum 24 hours a day. It is invasive and frustrating and he is not sleeping well. He is doing all he can to try and trace the source of the hum and is looking to the scientific community and universities for help.
My one hope is that he and all the other sufferers find some kind of relief. I’ll keep you posted.