Origin of Mysterious Hum Identified, Almost

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Since 2011 a mysterious hum has plagued residents in Windsor, Ontario. It’s only one of several mystery hums around the world (New Mexico’s Taos Hum being another famous example), and no one was sure of its origin — or even if it really exists.

Several investigations have been undertaken; the first report was inconclusive, but part of the mystery has now been solved.

Last week a Canadian study confirmed for the first time that the hum is real (and not, for example, an auditory illusion), and identified the source of the hum: Michigan’s Zug Island, across the Detroit River, the site of heavy manufacturing including a U.S. Steel plant.

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The CBC News reported last week that “The source of the mysterious Windsor Hum in the southwestern Ontario city is on Zug Island — in River Rouge, Mich. — according to a federally funded report released today.

Residents in west and south Windsor and the neighboring town of LaSalle started complaining about the rumbling and humming noise more than three years ago. It has been described as sounding like an idling locomotive, a transport truck and running refrigerator. People have complained about "sleepless nights, rattling windows and headaches.”

No one knows where on the island the sound is coming from. Why is it so hard to find the hum? For one thing the sound is not constant, but instead comes and goes, making tracking it difficult. Identifying the source of a sound can be problematic in urban areas where concrete, glass and buildings can reflect, change and amplify sound waves. Sources of outdoor sounds are nearly endless, including traffic, trains, power plants and factories.

It’s also possible that no specific source of the hum will be found for the simple reason that there is no single identifiable source — instead, it may be that the vibrations are the result of several factors (mechanical, geological, acoustic, etc.) which don’t create the hum individually but only collectively and under certain conditions. So, for example, if you have a dozen pieces of machinery that are suspected of contributing to the hum, turning one or more of them off at a time may stem the sound, but those machines may only be part of the answer, and the hum may return even if steps are taken to muffle those machines.

Solving the Problem — If Not the Mystery

Canadian officials have handed the new report to their American counterparts and requested that the investigation continue until the precise origin of the Windsor hum is identified and the sound stopped.

As a practical matter that may be a very difficult task, and of course companies with manufacturing plants on Zug Island are unlikely to voluntarily shut down operations for weeks (thus costing millions of dollars) simply to locate a hum.

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When and if a definitive origin of the sound is located, it may take months or years to figure out how to stop the hum. It might be as simple as placing some industrial machinery on a specialized vibration-dampening platform, or it may be as complex as overhauling an entire factory or assembly line at a cost of tens of millions of dollars.

In the end it may not matter where exactly the sound is coming from, since identifying the hum’s origin may not solve the problem. Part of the reason that the Windsor community hears the hum is that sound carries well over water (in this case the Detroit River), so one possible (and relatively inexpensive) way to stem the infernal Windsor hum might be to simply build a sound baffling wall around the one-square-mile area of Zug Island that confines the vibrations to the island.

In the end, stopping the hum is more important to local communities than spending more taxpayer dollars identifying which specific machine (or machines) created it.

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