The phenomenon of mystery booms – that is, unexpected explosive noises heard over a wide area that can’t be traced to an immediate source – are not that rare. They happen regularly across the world and are reported in the news, to police and emergency services, and on social media. Mystery booms of modern times are frequently grouped together by the more metaphysically-inclined followers of natural anomalies who are prone to suggest scary causes relating to approaching natural catastrophes, alien visitations, or religious End Times.
Strange sounds have been reported for centuries. Their descriptions span a huge range – hums, whistles, long rumbling, musical sounds, booms, and, starting around 2011, mechanical and groaning noises. After watching the evolution of reports about noises from the sky for 13 years, I’ve concluded that their recent popularity began as a reaction to the 2012 “end of the world” predictions and were sustained to the present because, quite simply, the modern world is a very noisy place. And, now we pay attention to weird events and share them via social media,
The Kiev video kicked off the hype
In 2011 I was tracking news, videos, and writings about anomalous natural phenomenon when reports of mysterious sky noises took off in conjunction with the proposed, and bogus, Mayan “end of the world” prediction of 2012. At that time, any weird observation, such a mass mortality event, lights in the sky, and various sky noises, were connected together by many superstitious-minded folk as a “sign of the times” and signaling coming doom. As part of my writing on the now defunct daily weird news site, Doubtful News, I followed the reports that were showing up on YouTube, on “odd news” aggregator sites, and in the local news media.
The mainstreaming of sky noises began in earnest in August 2011 based on a video said to have been taken in Kiev, Ukraine. Mechanical-type noises were heard in an urban area. The video, which is likely legitimate, is distinct in that the strange sounds are clearly heard in addition to the normal neighborhood noises in the background. Faking does not seem likely. The unusual sounds had not been adequately explained, partially due to the language barrier. The sounds struck a spooky chord on the Internet.
Copycat videos from various other places appeared on YouTube using the audio taken from this original video. In particular, the Kiev sounds were reproduced on a faked video labeled as being from Conklin. Alberta, Canada. It was obvious to anyone with a bit of critical thinking skills that the Alberta video and the many that followed were faked by dubbing the audio of the Kiev noises.
See also Skeptoid: Sky Trumpets (with sound clips)
Expectant attention and rampant speculation
Though the fakery was obvious to many, there was no end to the rampant speculation regarding what might be the cause of actual strange sounds from the sky. In January 2012, people in Costa Rica heard a strange mechanical sound (different than the Kiev event, and most definitely real but mundane) that made the local news. Every weird news story like this was circulated on Facebook and on End Times and paranormal news sites. Often, these stories were then picked up by syndicated news outlets and the story was read worldwide. A “flap” was manufactured due to the expectant attention to strange sounds. At that time, a portion of the population was seriously considering that the misinterpretation of the Mayan calendar meant the world was ending. Reports of rare or seemingly unexplainable events appearing in the news worried people. The anxiety and the exaggerated claims got clicks, thus generating more elevated attention for extreme opinions and conspiracy nonsense. Now that the idea sky noises were in mainstream, real or faked, unusual or normal, people suddenly heard them everywhere simply because they were paying attention.
Mechanical “sky” noises were subsequently explained as industrial malfunctions from factories, construction work, train yards, and snow plows. Urban noises are ubiquitous and can be distorted by weather conditions and reflection/refraction of sound off of surfaces. It was difficult, however, to make an immediate connection to a cause, particularly because sound could travel so far. So, people assumed it was unexplainable and framed these incidents as such on social media. Commenters suggested, without any rational or scientific basis, that the causes were related to shifting magnetic poles, secret underground construction, HAARP experiments, atmospheric or inner earth stresses, alien visitation, and most creatively, the trumpets of angels.
In 2012, I saw news coming from a website called “Geochange” run by Dr. Elchin Khalilov. He suggested that “strange sounds” were the result of some sciencey-sounding causes: 1. acoustic gravity waves in the atmosphere generated by volcanoes and earthquakes or powerful solar flares impacting the earth, 2, energy releases from the earth’s core, or 3. sudden gravitational impulses. His mish-mash of speculation was a messy concoction of real phenomena that he connected to the strange sounds reports but it was unsupported by any evidence. No legitimate work was published except via conference proceedings run by Khalilov’s own “scientific” organization. Even though “acoustic gravity waves” are real phenomenon, they don’t behave as he stated and don’t generate the kinds of sounds described. The purpose of the Geochange site was to convince people that earth changes (volcanoes, earthquakes, etc.) were intensifying and that these mystery sounds were associated with those changes. The specious idea of gravity waves generated by solar flares was subsequently reposted all over the web as being from an “acclaimed”, “credentialed” and “renowned” professor – all trumped up hype. The Geochange concepts were a prime example of pseudoscience, some of which continues to circulate to this day as an attention-grabbing insert in articles about mystery booms.
After 2012 passed and the world didn’t end, the sky noise craze died down a bit. However, it didn’t go away completely. The prospects of earth changes, End Times, and alien visitation remained in the forefront of people’s minds due to current events.
Even though it appeared that strange sounds seemed to be occurring regularly around the world, this was a function of the availability heuristic: we had been hearing about the phenomenon, so when something similar was experienced in our own environment, we were far more likely to become aware of it, to remark upon it, and to place that event in the same context. Loud sounds from planes, trains, heavy equipment and trucks, often amplified by low cloud cover or other weather conditions, were now noticed and deemed concerning. There are countless examples of people living near airports, train yards and industrial/construction sites experiencing nuisance sounds (including myself). Normal noises were elevated to being abnormal.
Listening for the booms
In the summer of 2013, talk of sky noises was still prevalent in social media and would remain fodder for news and websites. Mystery booms, in particular, were reported frequently all over the world. Those who heard the unexpected booms feared explosions, terrorism, or earthquakes. But most often, there was no immediate and obvious explanation for these incidents, leaving rattled residents feeling unsettled. This lack of closure enhanced the concern and the mysteriousness.
Mystery boom regularly reports appeared on local news sites and broadcasts. With my focus on North American news sources, I notice several incidents per month. When a boom rattles residents across part of a region, some people will call emergency services to report it. The police investigate and check the obvious potential causes, but almost never find anything. Sometimes, a homeowner records the sound or even a flash from a security camera, providing some extra details. Unless authorities can confirm a meteor, an earthquake, or a supersonic jet flyover, the cause is almost never pinpointed.
In 2021, I started noting reported mystery booms appearing in the news from around the world and paid more attention to the speculation over their possible causes – perhaps a pattern would emerge. This closer examination of instances of fleeting “mystery booms” revealed some tangible characteristics that probably reflected upon their origins. When considering the potential causes, I look for notable characteristics such as season, weather, and the report of an associated flash. Was it a weekend, or a holiday that might indicate celebratory explosives? Also important is whether the sound is singular or multiple booms. Booms were more likely to be reported in the cold months. There may be solid reasons for this. People are in their homes during the winter. Sound from various sources travels farther in cold air, when there is less vegetative cover on trees. A structure with closed windows will make the sound waves more noticeable. Low cloud cover can reflect sound waves back to the ground.
In 2022, I kept a spreadsheet of incidents and of what authorities and/or the media noted as the suspected causes of the booms. Some causes are easy to pinpoint if they are associated with other evidence – such as a visual report of a meteor or ground evidence of an explosion. Other events have strong circumstantial evidence due to location or timing – such as military aircraft testing, explosive materials/fireworks, lightning storms, or shallow earthquakes. The main causes determined either by official sources or through the contextual evidence provided were as follows:
Aircraft-created sonic booms or noise. (Military jets, rocket launch or spaceplane) Reporters often call local military bases to ask if they will confirm a supersonic jet flyover. However, it’s reasonable to assume that a spokesperson will not know or will not reveal this happened. We are left with insufficient information to be certain.
Meteor airburst or sonic booms. It is now possible to confirm meteors entering the atmosphere and exploding. Security cameras captured streaks across the sky. Weather satellites sometimes catch the bright flash. People across the world report their visual sightings to databases on the internet. A check on websites can confirm if a meteor was noted where its demise may have resulted in a loud boom. A tiny meteor can make a big noise. But if atmospheric entry occurs in the daytime, it is less likely to be spotted.
Shallow small earthquakes. Much of the US is covered by an array of seismic detection equipment. Small, shallow quakes, however, may not register unless the seismograph is very close-by. Seismic signals are distinct from surface blasts (from mines/quarries or explosives) and from airborne explosions. Shallow quakes will be noticed only in a very localized area may account for some of the booming sounds. However, with increased local seismic arrays, even tiny quakes can be recorded.
Frost quakes. Sudden drops in temperatures can create frost quakes. This natural phenomenon is not that familiar even to those in northern areas where they may occur each year. The freezing of water inside rock fractures can break the rock with force, creating a sound and sometimes visible physical damage. But it may go unnoticed. Identification of frost quakes is slowly becoming more common.
Explosives. Exploding fireworks or tannerite (used for exploding targets) are easily available and readily used, particularly in rural areas. They are legal means to make a big noise, and some people love to dramatically blow things up (recall the several gender reveal stunts using explosives with pink or blue additives). Unfortunately, a few also experiment with homemade explosives. These may or may not have an associated flash when they detonate. Unless the event is directly witnessed, people who hear the noise may not see any obvious source and, because explosions may have occurred on private property, no evidence may be available to definitively point to the source. Controlled explosives, such as mine or construction blasting, military testing, and artilliary practice sound different – that is, more or less annoying – under different atmospheric conditions.
Lightning storms. Severe thunderstorms can produce sound waves that travel very far and may sound like an unnerving constant rumble for many minutes. Without the ability to connect these to lightning flashes (which may be too far away), observers may be confused. The potential for atmospheric ducting, where sound gets transmitted for long distances and is experienced in far away areas (but maybe not in between), means that thunder or explosive booms are felt unevenly across the geographic areas.
Industrial noise/malfunction. As I mentioned earlier, construction and industrial facilities produce disruptive sounds, particularly related to wind direction, cloud cover, or during temperature inversions.
Many mystery booms remained of unknown origin because of insufficient information. A residual number of mystery booms remain mysterious because observations may have been missed or lost. It is very difficult to locate the origin of an unexpected and low-frequency sound. Atmospheric and physical conditions can amplify, transmit, or distort the sound. Therefore, unexplainable events are inevitable but, with all the potential reasonable explanations, there is no justification to promote an extraordinary cause.
In 2021, I wrote a piece for Spooky Geology (now moved onto this website) on mystery booms and sky quakes. “Sky quake” is a dramatic term associated with the noise that people often assume might be from a distant earthquake, but no seismicity is registered in their area. This piece was a look at all the potential causes listed above with a special focus on brontides and noisy earthquakes, which are discussed in Fortean circles. I rather like the term sky quake (or skyquake) even though it’s a bit over the top for some of these events.
I still watch for daily news about mystery booms. Make no mistake, the world is a very noisy place! It’s surprising that news reporters still treat these events as confounding, even though they are so common with several potential causes. We now have better tools that can help us figure out the origin of so-called sky quakes. In the past few months, an early morning boom in New York City was later identified as a localized small earthquake. And mystery booms in Pennsylvania and Iowa were almost certainly tannerite/home grown explosions. Unfortunately, the suspected conclusions come days after the excitement. There is a portion of the population who refuse to accept mundane explanations and prefer to express belief in fabulous and sensationalized ideas instead.
Experienced a mystery boom? Write to me: Sharon@sharonahill.com