“Mystery Booms” and Frost Quakes

An increasing number of reports of “mystery booms” heard around the world, particularly in the United States during the winter of 2014-2015, has led to a surge in interest regarding the geological phenomenon known as cryoseisms or “frost quakes.” 

Descriptions of the loud noises frost quakes sometimes produce have been compared to the sounds of explosions occurring nearby, or even the likeness of large objects colliding with the homes of those who experience the phenomenon. (1) Many reports have indicated fear and confusion among those who experience the quakes, while others complained that the loud booms have even kept them awake at night. (2)

Some reports, however, have incorrectly referred to sounds occurring from within buildings themselves as frost quakes. These noises, which are also caused by temperatures dropping in the evening and early morning hours, are the result of expansion and contraction of wood and other materials within homes or other structures, which sometimes produce loud popping sounds. Hence, they are not “true” frost quakes. (1)

Regional Names for “Mystery Booms”

Throughout history, noises that appear to be of “mysterious” origin have been reported all around the world, with as many different names attributed to the phenomenon as there are locations laying claim to them. BBC News reported in December 2014 that, “In Italian they are called brontidi (thunder-like); in Bangladesh they are ‘Barisal guns’. US citizens call them ‘skyquakes’, ‘moodus noises’ and in North and South Carolina, ‘Seneca guns’. The writer Washington Irving even wrote a story about the mystery booms, which he playfully attributed to ghosts playing nine-pin bowling in the mountains.” (3) Other colloquial names include mistpouffers (which translates to mean “fog belches”), a term originating in coastal Belgium; in the Bay of Bengal and the Ganges delta, they are known as “Bansal guns”. Elsewhere, people near Shikoku, Japan, have dubbed them “yan.” (4)

Possible Explanations

David P. Hill, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, suggests that some of the mystery booms reported around the world may have other causes, ranging from earthquakes, to meteors, and even a little-known and still mysterious phenomenon called “booming sands” that results from “loosely packed, quasispherical sand grains with high surface smoothness” that occur in arid, low-humidity environments, which have been known to cause dull droning noises over distances, occasionally culminating in sudden, loud crashes. (4)

Other explanations on a case-for-case basis have included sounds produced by aircraft, military weapons tests, and fireworks as possible explanations for mystery booms heard around the world. For more information about unexplained sounds that may not be related to cryoseisms, visit this link.


  1. “Homeowners hearing strange sounds during frigid cold weather.” http://www.wcvb.com/news/homeowners-hearing-strange-sounds-during-frigid-cold-weather/31449010
  2. “Frost quakes startle residents in Southern NE.” http://wpri.com/2015/02/25/frost-quakes-startle-residents-in-southern-ne/
  3. “Mystery booms: What’s the cause?” http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20141202-mystery-booms-whats-the-cause
  4. Hill, David. “What is That Mysterious Booming Sound?” Seismological Society of America Journal, October 2011. http://www.seismosoc.org/publications/SRL/SRL_82/srl_82-5_op/hill_op.html
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