Superbolts and Upper Atmosphere Storms

A large number of “mystery boom” incidents were reported along the eastern United States beginning in the winter of 1977, and continuing through 1978. During this same period, satellite data, along with research by scientists with the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (later renamed the Los Alamos National Laboratory), led to new understanding of a variety of atmospheric phenomenon called “Lightning Superbolts”, which may in fact be related to some reports of mystery booms.


Project Vela was a satellite monitoring program instituted by the United States in 1963. It was launched in response to the Limited Test Ban Treaty issued that same year, a treaty which aimed to limit nuclear weapons tests in the upper atmosphere or outer space, as well as underwater (however, subterranean tests were not prohibited under this treaty). The first of the Vela satellites were launched into orbit on October 17, 1963, with purpose of monitoring the atmosphere as a nuclear detection system; however, the Vela satellites also were able to collect scientific data on natural phenomena as well, such as naturally-occurring sources of space radiation and certain meteorological phenomenon.

On September 22, 1979, a unique “double flash” was detected by the Vela satellites, emanating from over Antarctica’s Prince Edward Islands. These flashes were consistent with those of a nuclear explosion, and debate ensued as to whether a weapons test had been carried out; perhaps as a joint effort between South Africa and Israel, or possibly even by Russia, as reflected in an interagency intelligence memorandum released some years later. (1)

Previously, the Vela satellites had actually detected similar phenomenon on a few occasions; one of the most memorable occurred on April 2 of the previous year, in an explosive event on Bell Island, off Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. The incident was investigated by two scientists, Robert Freyman and plasma physicist John Warren with the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. The investigation led to speculation that the two men had been exploring the possibility that some experimental technology or a super-weapons test had caused the blast. However, a more likely explanation for their visit involves the fact that the Vela satellites had detected a rare, natural phenomenon, which may have had some relation to various reports of mystery booms in the months prior to the incident.

During the early months of 1978, Dr. William Donn, the chief atmospheric scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Observatory, had begun to collect data on flashes of light seen in the sky that accompanied some of the “mystery booms” being discussed in the media. “[The Navy] initially said that special atmospheric conditions allowed the booms to be channeled from great distances,” Donn said during a CBC television interview that year. “I disagree with this because the conditions were not that special, and there was nothing new about the conditions this year.” (2)

Donn went on to note that many airline pilots also reported the phenomenon:

“There are some events that have not yet been explained. For example, during the main boom season in this country, there have been many observations of nocturnal glows of light in the sky associated with booms. Some were seen by respectable and responsible authorities, like airplane pilots, who are usually good observers.

“I know of only about a dozen such observations, and there have been scores to hundreds of the normal daytime booms. Since most of the booms occurred in the daytime, we don’t know if they would have had flashes with them or not.” (2)

Returning to Freyman and Warren’s investigation of what became known as “The Bell Island Boom,” there had indeed been speculation that the Los Alamos scientists might have suspected a weapons test at the time. However, researcher Brian Dunning notes that, “According to Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reporter Rick Cera who spoke with Freyman off-camera, Warren and Freyman had been tracking superbolts over the east coast since December 1977.” (3) As it turns out, the Vela satellites had, in fact, supplied the men with the lead, and during their investigation, all available evidence seemed to agree with the lightning superbolt theory.

Further supporting the notion that Warren and Freyman had been monitoring superbolt activity beforehand, earlier in 1977, B.N. Turman, writing in the Jorunal of Geophysical Research had documented that the Vela satellites were used in the detection and study of flashes associated with lightning superbolts:

“The Vela satellites carry optical sensors for the detection of terrestrial nuclear explosions. Four Vela satellites keep the entire earth under constant surveillance. In addition to nuclear explosions, these satellites register many intense lightning flashes. Some of the flashes are over 100 times more brilliant than average. Only about five of these “superbolts” occur for every 10 million flashes registered.

“Superbolt flashes have relatively long durations (about one thousandth of a second) and do not appear to be confined to the upper levels of the clouds. A large fraction of the superbolts are recorded over Japan and the northeast Pacific during intense winter storms. Ground observations during these storms reveal occasional very powerful discharges of long duration from positively charged regions near the cloud tops to the ground. In contrast, typical lightning arises from negatively charged regions of clouds. (4)

The idea that some “mystery boom” reports are actually crashes associated with weather phenomena in the upper regions of the atmosphere might explain why the phenomenon are often described as being thunder-like, but in the absence of the normal features associated with a thunderstorm. Furthermore, this might explain why flashes of light in the sky often accompany the noises; this has been the case even with more recent reports, the likes of which occurred around Port Douglas, Australia, in early April, 2015. (5)


  1. Clarke, Bruce C. (December 1979). “The 22 September 1979 Event”. Interagency Intelligence Memorandum. National Security Archive.
  2. Seaward, Rick. “The Bell Island Boom.” CBC Broadcast, 1978.
  3. Dunning, B. “The Bell Island Boom.” Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 26 Jan 2010. Web. 14 Apr 2015.
  4. Turman, B.N.; “Detection of Lightning Superbolts,” Journal of Geophysical Research, 82:2566, 1977.
  5. “Big Bang: mysterious noise in Port Douglas shocks residents, stumps cops”. Newsport, April 8, 2015.