William R. Corliss and Anomalous Sounds in Nature

With the present interest in mystery “booms” or “crashes” reported worldwide, a wide variety of lesser-known mystery sounds have tended to remain overshadowed, despite their presence in various scientific literature. Obscure though they are, such reports would likely fall under the interests of any student of purported “mystery noises”, and the reasons underlying such anomalous sounds and their appearance in nature.

William R. Corliss was an American physicist known for his interest in anomalous phenomenon pertaining to various scientific disciplines. In the 1970s, he began his Sourcebook Project, which featured literature almost exclusively from scientific journals documenting mysterious phenomenon. Many of the subjects in Corliss’s work had been previously documented by Charles Hoy Fort, one of Corliss’s chief inspirations. The obvious similarity between Corliss and Fort’s interests had inspired Arthur C. Clarke (also a scientist fascinated with anomalous phenomenon) to refer to Corliss as, “[Charles] Fort’s latter-day–and much more scientific–successor.” (1)

Writing in 1993, Corliss summarized his views toward such anomalies thusly:

“My view is that anomaly research, while not science per se, has the potential to destabilize paradigms and accelerate scientific change. Anomalies reveal nature as it really is: complex, chaotic, possibly even unplumbable. Anomalies also encourage the framing of rogue paradigms, such as morphic re-sonance and the steady-state universe. Anomaly research also transcends current scientific currency by celebrating bizarre and incongruous facets of nature, such as coincidence and seriality. However iconoclastic the pages of this book, the history of science tells us that future students of nature will laugh at our conservatism and lack of vision… and the end is not in sight. To wax Whitmanesque, when presently recognized anomalies are duly interred under an overburden of theory, more will arise. And this, dear reader, is as philosophical as I can afford to get.” (2)

Among the varieties of anomalous phenomena written about by Corliss, there were many different kinds of anomalous sounds in nature that he documented in parts of the world, sometimes described as being similar to “music” emanating from bodies of water, or from beneath the earth. Below is a brief overview of reports that describe such phenomena, as related in the book Earthquakes, Tides, Unidentified Sounds and Related Phenomena: A Catalogue of Geophysical Phenomena. (3) Please note that, for sake of simplicity, all information documented henceforth will be sourced from the aforementioned publication, unless otherwise noted.

Underwater Musical Sounds

Sounds emanating from bodies of water have occasionally been reported from various parts of the world. These have often been likened to music, or sometimes rumbling sounds that are reminiscent of a locomotive engine. One such example is drawn from an account that appeared in the journal Nature in 1870, which describes a reverberating noise likened to the singing of cicadas heard from aboard a vessel while navigating the Tavoy river:

“One moonlit night in 1854, on board a steamer anchored near the Tavoy river (Tenasserim) we were struck by an extraordinary noise which appeared to proceed from the shore about a quarter of a mile off, or from the water in that direction. It was something like the sound of a stocking loom, but shriller, and lasted perhaps five or six seconds, producing a sensible concussion on the ear like the piercing scream of the cicada; and this gave an impression as if the vessel itself were trembling, or reverberating from the sound.” One of two Burmans on board said simply, the noise was produced by ‘fishes,’ but of what kind they did not describe. It was repeated two or three times.”

This similar description describes a deep, musical droning, which had similarly been attributed to the movement of fish below a sailing vessel, as reported in Popular Science Monthly in 1883:

“Lieutenant White, of our Navy, relates that, when at the mouth of a river in Cambodia in 1824, he and the crew of his vessel were struck by hearing extraordinary sounds, like a mixture of the bass of an organ, the ringing of bells, the guttural cries of a frog, and the tones of an enormous harp, which they heard around the bottom of their vessel. The interpreter said they were produced by a troop of a kind of fish.”

Subterranean Organ-Like and Horn-Like Sounds

Sounds resembling organ-like or horn-like sounds issuing from within rock and ice formations were also catalogued by Corliss (perhaps bearing some resemblance to cryoseisms or frost quakes). Among the more reliable instances of such phenomenon were a series of reports collected by an M. von Humboldt that appeared in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal in 1819, which described reports of organ-like sounds emanating from rocks along the banks of the Orinoco river.

Perhaps of greater interest, however, is a sound that was recorded in Greenland as being called “Ton der Dove-Bai”, reported in August of 1932 by a French Expedition exploring the Scoresby Sound. This sound resembled a massive foghorn, and had previously been reported by an expedition group who heard it eight times, spanning five different locations, both during the day and after the polar nightfall. This sound may very well be a description of a variety of cryoseism that occurs in relation to glacial movements; some scientific data suggests that the frequency of these “ice quakes” may have been shown to increase in conjunction with rising temperatures reported over the last several decades. (3)

Musical Sand, or “Desert Song”

The apparent ice-quaking phenomenon described above was documented by commentator A. Dauviller in his 1934 Nature article, “Strange Sounds from Inland Ice, Greenland”, who at that time, compared it with a similar phenomenon:

“Is this vibrating sound really caused by the detachment of icebergs or is it similar to the ‘desert song’, that strange musical note produced by the sand? In fact, there is a close analogy between the fields of powdery dry snow of the inland ice and the fields of sand of the Arabian Desert.”

Corliss covered this phenomenon also, which is famously reported at such locales as the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where the popular name “Seneca Guns” is used, borrowed from similar reports of booms documented around Lake Seneca, New York, for centuries.

Similar to Corliss’s discussions of the “Musical Sand” phenomenon, Geologist David P. Hill with the U.S. Geological Survey notes the following with regard to whether strong winds could stimulate local sand dunes in a way conducive to the production of “booming” sounds:

“Under proper circumstances, sand dunes are capable of producing a variety of low-level whispering, whistling, singing, humming, or squeaking sounds, and less commonly, loud booming sounds… The so-called “booming sands” appear to be limited to large sand dunes with steep leeward faces in arid climates. The booming sounds produced by such dunes can grow to levels comparable to rumbling thunder and, under the right conditions, can be heard to distances of 10 km with durations as long as 15 minutes, and they can couple into seismic waves that produce locally perceptible shaking… To produce booming sounds evidently requires very low humidity and loosely packed, quasispherical sand grains with high surface smoothness, although details of the process by which the acoustic emissions are produced remain poorly understood. (5)

Natural Melody

Corliss described what he labeled “natural melody” as “the production of musical notes and combinations thereof by the action of wind upon passive natural and artificial structures.” Drawn mostly from the stories of world travelers, Corliss complained about the lacking data in scientific literature that documented such phenomenon. “It is difficult to separate some of the music-makers in this category from musical echoes or analyzed sound… the initial sounds may be nonmusical in the case of analyzed sound, but small reflecting surfaces nearby quickly convert it into more pleasing tones.”

Sounds reminiscent of musical tones were reported in nature dating as far back as the 2nd century AD, as described in the writings of Pausanias and his descriptions of the “tuneful waves” of the Aegean sea. Other localities where musical sounds have been reported include Germany’s Black Forest and Mount Renalux,the Spanish Pyrenees, and the communes within Haute Saône along the Saône River in France.

The Mystery Booms

When it came to reports of “Mystery Booms,” Corliss made no exceptions with is extensive cataloguing of scientific data. In his Science Frontiers: Some Anomalies and Curiosities of Nature, Corliss documented the scads of boom reports along the east coast between 1977 and 1978, as well as other reports such as this one, titled “The Booms Along the Beach,” originally appearing in the Asheville Citizen in 1990:

Just because we don’t report them don’t think that unexplained detonations are no longer heard along the world’s seacoasts.  These “waterguns” are still booming away,  as they have for centuries. Take the Carolina Beaches for example.

Residents who are now  grandparents say their own grandparents remembered the rumbles,  so they predate the sonic booms of jets breaking the sound barrier.

The noises clearly emanate from the sea,  she said… “it’s not a land phenomenon.”

The  sounds occur most often in the fall and spring,  though they occasionally shiver across the beaches in other seasons. Sometimes they shake the coast more than once a day. Sometimes they happen a few days in a row.

Another report, filed under “Lightningless Thunder”, presents a case similar to the Bell Island Boom incident in 1978 (though of much lesser severity). From Corliss’s entry on “Lightningless Thunder”:

“There had been thunder about , but the clouds were high, and there was intermittent sunshine. I was at work with a friend of mine, sawing logs, in one part of the garden. My wife was picking beans, about 80 yards away. Without any kind of warning, there was a violent detonation overhead, at what might have been tree-height. Service in war enables one to describe an explosion better than those whose experience is 
limited to Guy Fawkes’ Day. This seemed to me about the same as an air-burst from a German 88 mm high velocity gun. My friend and I took it to be lightning; but neither of us saw any flash–perhaps because we were both looking downwards at the time.

“Shortly afterwards , my wife appeared, dazed and shaken. The explosion had evidently been closer to her for she (having served in the WRNS) was reminded of an. ammunition ship blowing up ‘whoosh,’ suggestive of a very high speed aircraft flying very low.
That is what she momentarily thought it was , coming from the ridge of the Cotswold escarpment, under which this house lies ; and she instinctively ducked. Immediately before the detonation , there seemed to her to be a sound not unlike machine-gun fire; and 
there was a movement of the air which disturbed the surface of the soil where she was working. She also saw no flash.For some hours afterwards she had a massive headache.

“Two near neighbors of ours observed the explosion , which they too assumed to be lightning. One of them, about a quarter of a mile away, says he saw a flash. The other saw none.

(Carter, G.; “Two Unusual Lightning Events on 22 August, 1987,” Weather, 43:58, 1988.)

Interesting that there had, in fact, been a flash associated with the case above, as reported by the neighbors nearby. Let’s return again to the Bell Island case, which directly followed a rash of mystery boom reports along the U.S. eastern coast; while Jeremy Stone of the Federation of American Scientists had felt that sonic booms from aircraft were a more likely solution, meteorologist William Don’s catalogue of reports involving upper atmospheric flashes seemed to support the idea of booms heard at ground-level, for which, on occasion, no reports of accompanying lightning existed.

In the case of the August 1987 lightning events described above, the fact that the “thunder” was so shocking to those nearby who heard it, and that a flash had only been seen from some distance away, does bear some similarity to reports of upper atmospheric storms and related meteorological phenomenon.



  1. Clarke, Arthur C. Astounding Days: A Science Fictional Autobiography. Gollancz, 1990. (Page 110)
  2. Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project. http://www.science-frontiers.com/thebook.htm
  3. Corliss, William R. Earthquakes, Tides, Unidentified Sounds and Related Phenomena: A Catalogue of Geophysical Phenomena. Sourcebook Project, November 1983.
  4. Tom Irvine. “Ice Quakes.” Vibrationdata Newsletter, June 2006.http://www.vibrationdata.com/Newsletters/June2006_NL.pdf
  5. Hill, David. “What is That Mysterious Booming Sound?” Seismological Society of America Journal, September/October, 2011.http://www.seismosoc.org/publications/SRL/SRL_82/srl_82-5_op/hill_op.html