For centuries, reports of mysterious sounds of unexplained origin have been documented around the world. Among these reports of various mystery sounds, many reports of what are frequently described as “mystery booms” have been documented throughout history, particularly along the eastern coast of the United States.
However, such noises, as well as phenomena that may be related to them, are not exclusive to this region. Dr. Gordon J. F. MacDonald, an American geophysicist and former charter member of the president’s three-man Council on Environmental Quality, uncovered a letter from 1906 which documented reports of booms that occurred seemingly in conjunction with foreshocks that preceded the Great San Francisco Earthquake of that same year; similar reports were documented in Charleston, S.C. in 1883, as well as in Turkey. (1) Also in 1883, reports of loud noises were documented along with the rain of a strange, ash-like substance over Queenstown, South Africa, in November of that year. (2)
Reports of mystery booms have continued over the years, with occasional “waves” of activity that have garnered attention from the media. Between 1977 and 1978, more than 600 reports of mystery booms were documented along the east coast of the United States, with a number of the incidents centered around southern New Jersey. (3) The frequency of reports around that time led to speculation about whether aircraft or weapons tests might be underway. Some even considered whether the booms had been precursors to an explosion that occurred on Bell Island off the Newfoundland coast on April 2, 1978, as explored by Canadian journalist Rick Seaward in a CBC television documentary later that year. (4)
It was the opinion of Jeremy Stone, former president of the Federation of American Scientists, that many of the booms reported during the late 1970s were, in fact, sonic booms. The sudden cause of these booms had been due to flight paths made by the Concorde, a turbojet-powered supersonic passenger jet airliner, which remained in service between 1976 and 2003. Expounding on this theory, some argued that combining the sonic booms with unusual jet stream configurations occurring at the time of the booms could explain the rash of reports.For more information on supersonic aircraft as an explanation for mystery booms, visit our page on supersonic aircraft.
The “sonic boom” theory didn’t find favor with all the experts who examined the 1977 “mystery boom” wave. Dr. Gordon MacDonald, contrary to his colleagues who supported the manmade origin of the booms, maintained that as many as 181 of the incidents had likely been caused by some other natural phenomenon. (1)
A similar wave of “mystery booms” occurred in southern California between 1991 and 1993, prompting investigations by MIT’s Lincoln Labs and researchers at Caltech. A paper by researchers Joseph E. Cates and Bradford Sturtevant examined the incidents in relation to seismic data, and determined that the source of the mystery booms had been due to sonic booms propagated from offshore operations, similar in nature to the East Coast booms of the late 1970s. However, the Caltech researchers were unsuccessful at correlating the specific source of the booms with any known military or other aircraft activity in the region. (5)
Reports of mystery booms continue into the present, and discussion surrounding the various underlying causes is as hotly debated now as in the past. A summary of the more recent reports over the last few years can be found here, and for more information about the theories underlying various occurrences of mystery booms, visit our resource page on proposed explanations.
- Stone, Jeremy. Every Man Should Try: Adventures of a Public Interest Activist. Public Affairs, Perseus Books Group. 1999. Chapter 17, “Booms and Earthquakes: Saving the East Coast a Scare”: http://catalytic-diplomacy.org/everymanPDFs/Ch17.pdf
- Nature, January 10, 1884.
- Dunning, Brian. “The Bell Island Boom.” Skeptoid, January 26, 2010. http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4190
- Seaward, Rick. “The Bell Island Boom.” CBC Broadcast, 1978. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-T3Y7HfGzEk
- Cates, Joseph E. and Sturtevant, Bradford. “Seismic detection of sonic booms.”Graduate Aeronautical Laboratories, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California. 30 August 2001. http://authors.library.caltech.edu/3348/1/CATjasa02.pdf