Are Skyquakes Real? Science of the Mystery Boom

Learn What Skyquakes Are and How They Work

Sky quakes are loud booms heard in a clear sky that have no identifiable source.
Sky quakes are loud booms heard in a clear sky that have no identifiable source. Suntorn Suwannasri, Getty Images

A skyquake or mystery boom is like an earthquake in the sky. If you've ever heard a sonic boom or cannonfire then you'll have a good idea what a skyquake sounds like. It's a stupendously loud, window-rattling noise. While a sonic boom is caused by an object breaking the sound barrier, a skyquake is when a boom occurs with no apparent cause.

Are Skyquakes Real?

You can search YouTube for videos of skyquakes to hear what they sound like, but be warned: many of these videos are hoaxes (e.g., skyquake2012's channel).

However, the phenomenon is real and has been reported for centuries. Locations reporting skyquakes include the Ganges river in India, the East Coast and Finger Lakes of the United States, the North Sea of Japan, the Bay of Fundy in Canada, and parts of Australia, Belgium, Scotland, Italy and Ireland. Skyquakes have their own names in various parts of the world:

  • In Bangladesh, their are called "Barisal guns" (regerring to the Barisal region of East Bengal).
  • Italians have several names for skyquakes, including "balza," "brontidi," "lagoni," and "marine."
  • The Japanese name the sounds "umimari" (cries from the sea).
  • In Belgium and the Netherlands, skyquakes are called "mistpoeffers."
  • In Iran and the Philippines, they are "retumbos."
  • In the United States, some recurring skyquakes are the "Seneca guns" (near Seneca Lake, New York) and "Moodus noises" in Connecticut.

Possible Causes

While sonic booms from aircraft might explain some skyquakes, the explanation doesn't account for reports predating the invention of supersonic flight.

The Iroquois of North America believed the booms were the sound of the Great Spirit continuing creation of the world. Some people believe the sounds are produced by UFOs. Most scientists propose other possible explanations:

  • Some modern skyquakes may be sonic booms from meteors or military aircraft.
  • Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions may produce sounds that are heard far from their point of origin. There are well-documented accounts of booming sounds associated with earthquakes, particularly those with a shallow origin. For example the quakes in Spokane, Washington in 2001 and New Madrid, Missouri in 1811-1812 were accompanied by reports resembling artillery fire.
  • The sound may be distant thunder, with the sound focused by atmosphere. Some skyquakes may also result from clear-sky lightning (the "bolt from the blue"). which occurs near mountain ranges or large open areas, such as plains, sounds, or lakes.
  • Some skyquakes may be produced by coronal mass ejections (CMEs). A CME is a solar radiation storm that can accelerate protons to 40 percent of the speed of light, potentially generating shock waves that break the speed of sound and produce sonic booms.
  • A related explanation is that the Earth's magnetic field produces the sounds, either by accelerating particles or from resonance.

While skyquakes occur all over the world, most of them have been reported near a coast. Some explanations focus on the possible relationship between proximity to water and skyquakes. One disputed hypothesis is that the sounds may be produced when parts of the continental shelf fall into the Atlantic abyss. Problems with this hypothesis are the extreme distance from the ridge to the site of reported sounds and the lack of modern evidence. Another water-related explanation is that the sounds are produced when underwater caves collapse, releasing trapped air, or that trapped gas escapes from vents or from beneath decaying aquatic vegetation.

Experts disagree about whether the sudden release of gas could produce a loud report.

Scientists believe there are several occurrences which are not likely causes of skyquakes. There is no evidence booming sounds are associated with global warming, industrial disasters, tectonic plate shifts, the hole in the ozone layer, or ghosts revisiting past battles.

Other Strange Sky Sounds

The booming sound of a skyquake isn't the only incompletely explained atmospheric noise. Strange hums, trumpeting, vibrations, and wailing have also been reported and recorded. Sometimes these phenomena are called skyquakes, although the origin of the boom is likely quite different from that of the other eerie noises.

Fast Facts

  • A skyquake is a loud boom that has no apparent cause.
  • While some videos of skyquakes are hoaxes, the phenomenon is real and has been reported all over the world.
  • Scientists believe skyquakes have a variety of causes, including meteors, coronal mass ejections, escaping gas, and collapsing land masses.

References and Further Reading

  • Dimitar Ouzounov; Sergey Pulinets; Alexey Romanov; Alexander Romanov; Konstantin Tsybulya; Dimitri Davidenko; Menas Kafatos; Patrick Taylor (2011). "Atmosphere-Ionosphere Response to the M9 Tohoku Earthquake Revealed by Joined Satellite and Ground Observations. Preliminary results".
  • K., Krehl, Peter O. (2008). History of shock waves, explosions and impact a chronological and biographical reference. Springer. p. 350.
  • T.D. LaTouche, "On the Sounds Known as Barisal Guns", Report (1890-8) of the annual meeting By British Association for the Advancement of Science, Issue 60, pp. 800.
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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Are Skyquakes Real? Science of the Mystery Boom." ThoughtCo, Jun. 13, 2018, thoughtco.com/science-of-skyquakes-4158737. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2018, June 13). Are Skyquakes Real? Science of the Mystery Boom. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/science-of-skyquakes-4158737 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Are Skyquakes Real? Science of the Mystery Boom." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/science-of-skyquakes-4158737 (accessed June 18, 2018).