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Anomalous sounds

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Here’s an actual news story: “Loud booms heard across Southern New Hampshire: Source of the noise still unclear.”

Nashua police say they don’t know what caused several loud “booms” Saturday afternoon that were heard across Southern New Hampshire. Many reports came from Nashua and surrounding towns, but the sounds were reported as far north as Manchester and as far south as Westford, Massachusetts. Some who heard it in Nashua said they felt their houses shake. Police and fire departments said they have not been alerted to any incidents related to the noise in the area. The cause is still unclear.
– WMUR 9 News. (An ABC affiliated TV station) 2/10/18

How is it possible that such loud, possibly building shaking sounds could be heard in some parts of this town – yet in other parts of the city other residents reported no sound? Also, in a town next door no reports have yet surfaced of anyone hearing them – yet in a town after that, some residents also reported these booming sound.

The answer? It’s complicated, but basically:

(a) there are a wide variety of ways that sounds are produced – including some bizarre ways that most people have never heard of

(b) Sound waves don’t always move in a straight path like many people imagine; changing temperature/density of the air can cause sound waves to bend and diffract, so:

(b1) sound can sometimes travel much further distances than one would expect

(b2) sound can come from a location very different from what “seems obvious” just by listening

(b3) local wind can mask sound, so the same loud sound might be heard in one neighborhood, yet be undetectable by people just a mile away.

Basic physics idea:

Right off the bat, let’s realize that sound doesn’t move in a straight line: It spreads out radially from it’s source, and then – because of a phenomenon known as diffraction – it can even bend around obstacles.

Diffraction of sound Hyperphysics

Source: Hyperphysics, Diffraction of sound, http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/


“If the air above the earth is warmer than that at the surface, sound will be bent back downward toward the surface by refraction.” – Hyperphysics

sound refraction Hyperphysics 2


Normally, only sound initially directed toward the listener can be heard, but refraction can bend sound downward – effectively amplifying the sound. This can occur over cool lakes.

sound refraction Hyperphysics 3

Sounds also can bounce off of objects, and come to our ears from a direction totally different than the original source.


ABD Engineering writes:

…wind alters sound propagation by the mechanism of refraction; that is, wind bends sound waves. Wind nearer to the ground moves more slowly than wind at higher altitudes, due to surface characteristics such as hills, trees, and man-made structures that interfere with the wind.

This wind gradient, with faster wind at higher elevation and slower wind at lower elevation causes sound waves to bend downward when they are traveling to a location downwind of the source and to bend upward when traveling toward a location upwind of the source.

Waves bending downward means that a listener standing downwind of the source will hear louder noise levels than the listener standing upwind of the source.

Temperature gradients in the atmosphere. On a typical sunny afternoon, air is warmest near the ground and temperature decreases at higher altitudes. This temperature gradient causes sound waves to refract upward, away from the ground and results in lower noise levels being heard at the listener’s position.

In the evening, this temperature gradient will reverse, resulting in cooler temperatures near the ground. This condition, often referred to is a temperature inversion will cause sound to bend downward toward the ground and results in louder noise levels at the listener position.


How Weather Affects an Outdoor Noise Study by ABD Engineering and Design

Cheung Kai-chung, from Physics World (Hong Kong), (Translation by Janny Leung) offers this explanation

Sound wave will be refracted to the ground when traveling with the wind.

Sound waves refracted 1

Sound wave will be refracted upwards when traveling against the wind.

sound waves refracted 2

Source:   Why can a distant sound be heard easier when it travels with the wind? Why does it become weaker if it travels against the wind?

Can wind mask even loud sounds?

A discussion to consider, from Physics forums, includes this phenomenon: “Yes. I have a freeway about 10 blocks South of my house. I can hear the traffic very clearly with no wind, or a South wind. If there is even a slight North wind, the traffic noise becomes almost inaudible. If there is a brisk North wind (over 15 MPH), the sound is completely gone.”



Sound refraction due to cold air:

Also this “…if the air close to the ground is colder than the air above it then sound waves traveling upwards will be bent downwards. This is called Refraction. These refracted sound waves can act to amplify the sound to someone standing far away.”


Sound seems amplified when traveling over water.

In School-for-Champions we read

“If you are sitting in a boat, a sound coming from the shore will seem louder than the same sound heard by a person on land. Sound seems to be amplified when it travels over water. The reason is that the water cools the air above its surface, which then slows down the sound waves near the surface. This causes refraction or bending of the sound wave, such that more sound reaches the boat passenger. Sound waves skimming the surface of the water can add to the amplification effect, if the water is calm.”


See their full lesson here School-for-champions.com: Sound_amplified_over_water

Can snow on the ground affect sound?

“When the ground has a thick layer of fresh, fluffy snow, sound waves are readily absorbed at the surface of the snow. However, the snow surface can become smooth and hard as it ages or if there have been strong winds. Then the snow surface will actually help reflect sound waves. Sounds seem clearer and travel farther under these circumstances.” – Colorado State Climatologist Nolan Doesken

Related topic: The Hum is a phenomenon, or collection of phenomena, involving widespread reports of a persistent and invasive low-frequency humming,rumbling, or droning noise not audible to all people. Hums have been widely reported by national media in the UK and the United States. The Hum is sometimes prefixed with the name of a locality where the problem has been particularly publicized: e.g., the “Bristol Hum” or the “Taos Hum”. It is unclear whether it is a single phenomenon; different causes have been attributed. ”

Human reactions to infrasound – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infrasound#Human_reactions

Skyquakes or mystery booms are unexplained reports of a phenomenon that sounds like a cannon or a sonic boom coming from the sky. They have been heard in several locations around the world. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skyquake

And: The microwave auditory effect, also known as the microwave hearing effect or the Frey effect, consists of audible clicks (or, with speech modulation, spoken words[citation needed]) induced by pulsed/modulated microwave frequencies. The clicks are generated directly inside the human head without the need of any receiving electronic device. The effect was first reported by persons working in the vicinity of radar transponders during World War II. (Wikipedia)

Find  The Guns of Barisal and Anomalous Sound Propagation


Learning Standards


In this topic we are engaging in skeptical analysis of what some term ‘unexplained phenomenon’.

The Massachusetts STEM Curriculum Framework addresses “Understandings about the Nature of Science”

Scientific inquiry is characterized by a common set of values that include: logical thinking, precision, open-mindedness, objectivity, skepticism, replicability of results, and honest and ethical reporting of findings.

Science disciplines share common rules of evidence used to evaluate explanations about
natural systems. Science includes the process of coordinating patterns of evidence with current theory.

Most scientific knowledge is quite durable but is, in principle, subject to change based on new evidence and/or reinterpretation of existing evidence.

The “College Board Standards for College Success: Science” addresses these same skeptical inquiry methods in Standard SP.1: Scientific Questions and Predictions. Asking scientific questions that can be tested empirically and structuring these questions in the form of testable predictions.

Students recognize, formulate, justify and revise scientific questions that can be addressed by science in order to construct explanations.

Students make and justify predictions concerning natural phenomena. Predictions and justifications are based on observations of the world, on knowledge of the discipline and on empirical evidence.

Students determine which data from a specific investigation can be used as evidence to address a scientific question or to support a prediction or an explanation, and distinguish credible data from noncredible data in terms of quality.

Students construct explanations that are based on observations and measurements of the world, on empirical evidence and on reasoning grounded in the theories, principles and concepts of the discipline.

The “Benchmarks for Science Literacy” (AAAS) addresses these same skeptical inquiry methods:

In science, a new theory rarely gains widespread acceptance until its advocates can show that it is borne out by the evidence, is logically consistent with other principles that are not in question, explains more than its rival theories, and has the potential to lead to new knowledge. 12A/H3** (SFAA)

Scientists value evidence that can be verified, hypotheses that can be tested, and theories that can be used to make predictions. 12A/H4** (SFAA)

Curiosity motivates scientists to ask questions about the world around them and seek answers to those questions. Being open to new ideas motivates scientists to consider ideas that they had not previously considered. Skepticism motivates scientists to question and test their own ideas and those that others propose. 12A/H5*

SAT subject test in Physics: Waves and optics

• General wave properties, such as wave speed, frequency, wavelength, superposition, standing wave diffraction, and Doppler effect



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