Are Skyquakes Real?

iStock
iStock

by Alex Carter

In 2012 YouTube was inundated with videos of a very rare atmospheric phenomenon—the skyquake. Skyquakes are characterized by unexplained noises coming from the sky, often in remote areas with no obvious explanation as to the source of the sound. Skyquakes have been recorded all over the world, and in every case, the sky suddenly takes on a creepy hue and emits unsettling, unnatural noises.

The reason it’s easy to say that it was 2012 is because they were all uploaded to the same YouTube channel, skyquake2012, a channel that specialized in taking shaking, amateur phone footage and adding the creepy trumpet sound from Kevin Smith’s Red State movie. In other words, they were all hoaxes.

But the phenomenon itself is no hoax. A skyquake is a real event that has been documented for centuries.

It’s difficult to distinguish between fakes, videos of unexplained noises that are of human origin, and genuine skyquakes, but the real examples of this phenomenon are all described the same way by those who experience them: a loud boom that sounds like distant cannon fire. Weirdly, the genuine ones all occur near coastal areas.

No one has been able to fully explain why certain areas experience periodic skyquakes, but enough evidence exists to suggest these are real phenomena and that the residents of these areas aren't making up stories. The fact that there are words to describe the event in different languages lends further credibility. In Japan they are called uminari (海鳴り, "the rumbling of the sea"); in Dutch, "mistpoeffers"; and in parts of the U.S., "Seneca Guns."

Some skyquakes are said to have human origins, like when a military aircraft breaks the sound barrier—by the time the sonic boom is heard, the plane is no longer in sight. But that doesn’t explain any that were recorded before the invention of aircraft, which means there must be other explanations. One popular theory is that the sound is due to meteorites exploding in the upper atmosphere, although that raises the question as to why the bright flash accompanying the explosion isn’t more visible. Others suggest the noise may be due to thunder from storms over the horizon, which is plausible only if you don’t know what thunder sounds like.

The most likely explanation is that the Earth is passing gas. (Really!) The sound of gas escaping from underground vents would resemble a quiet volcano, or distant explosions, which would explain not only the sound, but why the sounds are pretty much only heard in coastal areas. Many of the vents weak enough to allow gas out would be underwater, and in many cases the gas may be due to decaying biomatter at the bottom of the lake. The gas could also be escaping from underwater caves that are collapsing.

All of this is to say, if you ever hear an unexplained explosion, rest assured that it was only the Earth. But for fun, you can still blame it on the dog.

Storm Leaves Homes Along Lake Erie Covered in Up To Three Feet of Ice

Houses along Lake Erie's shoreline were pummeled with sheets of icy water during a storm last week.
Houses along Lake Erie's shoreline were pummeled with sheets of icy water during a storm last week.
John Normile/Getty Images

This past weekend, lakeside residents of Hamburg, New York, awoke to find their neighborhood transformed into a full-scale replica of Frozen’s ice-covered kingdom, Arendelle.

According to CNN, gale force winds produced giant waves that sprayed the houses along Lake Erie with sheets of water for two days straight, covering them in layers of ice up to three feet thick.

“It looks fake, it looks surreal,” Hamburg resident Ed Mis told CNN. “It’s dark on the inside of my house. It can be a little eerie, a little frightening.”

While the homeowners are anxious for the ice to melt, they’re also concerned about what could happen when it does.

“We’re worried about the integrity, of structure failure when it starts to melt, because of the weight on the roof,” Mis said.

He added that this is the worst ice coating he’s seen since he moved to the area eight years ago—but it’s not because they’ve had a particularly harsh winter. In fact, just the opposite is true. According to The Detroit News, warm winter temperatures have caused ice cover on the Great Lakes to drop from 67 percent in 2019 to less than 20 percent this year.

“Lake Erie typically has significant ice cover by this time of the year, and that protects the shoreline from these battering storms,” The Weather Channel’s winter weather expert Tom Niziol explained in a video.

The phenomenon has created another unforeseen issue for Hamburg’s coast, too: Tourism. The local police department posted a message on Facebook on Sunday, March 1, asking people to keep off both the “extremely unsafe and unstable” ice and people's private property.

[h/t CNN]

What is Lake-Effect Snow?

Tainar/iStock via Getty Images
Tainar/iStock via Getty Images

As you probably guessed, you need a lake to experience lake-effect snow. The primary factor in creating lake-effect snow is a temperature difference between the lake and the air above it. Because water has a high specific heat, it warms and cools much more slowly than the air around it. All summer, the sun heats the lake, which stays warm deep into autumn. When air temperatures dip, we get the necessary temperature difference for lake-effect snow.

As the cool air passes over the lake, moisture from the water evaporates and the air directly above the surface heats up. This warm, wet air rises and condenses, quickly forming heavy clouds. The rate of change in temperature as you move up through the air is known as the "lapse rate"; the greater the lapse rate, the more unstable a system is—and the more prone it is to create weather events.

Encountering the shore only exacerbates the situation. Increased friction causes the wind to slow down and clouds to "pile up" while hills and variable topography push air up even more dramatically, causing more cooling and more condensation.

The other major factors that determine the particulars of a lake-effect snowstorm are the orientation of the wind and the specific lake. Winds blowing along the length of a lake create greater "fetch," the area of water over which the wind blows, and thus more extreme storms like the one currently pummeling the Buffalo area. The constraints of the lake itself create stark boundaries between heavy snow and just a few flurries and literal walls of snow that advance onto the shore. The southern and eastern shores of the Great Lakes are considered "snow belts" because, with winds prevailing from the northwest, these areas tend to get hit the hardest.

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