What was that sound and why did it shake my house? It was probably just Seneca Guns

“It sounds like that deep thud that you can feel in your chest…thud!” said Martin.
Published: Jul. 18, 2022 at 8:01 AM EDT
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BOLIVIA, N.C. (WECT) - The phenomenon called “Seneca Guns” is a relatively common occurrence for longtime residents of Southeastern North Carolina. But for newcomers like Christopher Martin, hearing a loud boom and feeling their house shake may be concerning.

“It sounds like that deep thud that you can feel in your chest…thud!” said Martin.

Having just moved to Bolivia, Martin was ready for some quiet coastal living—until he heard a sudden loud noise that rattled him. And his house.

“As I’m looking out the window, ‘Boom!’ and the whole house shook. And it just scared the heck outta me. It wasn’t like somebody had dropped something really heavy in a room or even downstairs. It literally felt like somebody shook the whole house,” said Martin.

What Martin experienced has a name: Seneca Guns.

The term comes from Lake Seneca in upstate New York, where mysterious booms have been documented for hundreds of years. In 1850, famed writer James Fenimore Cooper compared the sounds to artillery fire, giving the phenomenon a name that’s still used today.

But what exactly is Seneca Guns?

Roger Shew, a Lecturer of Geology at University of North Carolina Wilmington, says the most probable cause is atmospheric pressure changes that amplify a smaller sound—making it more intense and capable of causing vibrations.

“What’ll happen is if you generate a sound, it’s actually kind of trapped,” said Shew. “It’ll refract off the base of the warm [air] and be carried further and louder.”

Seneca Guns are most commonly heard near large bodies of water—where the flat surface can help sound travel. This may explain why Cape Fear residents experience Seneca Guns frequently.

But atmospheric conditions don’t explain where the smaller sound originates from. Distant thunder may be one possibility, according to Shew.

The truth is that, even though there are many theories, scientists aren’t 100% sure what causes Seneca Guns. According to Shew, some scientists believe it could be caused by offshore landslides, methane gas eruptions from the seafloor, tectonic plate movements or earthquakes.

“I love a good mystery, as do most people. And being able to have some mysteries that we don’t know everything in life, maybe that’s a good thing,” Shew said.

Seneca Guns aren’t considered dangerous or capable of causing property damage. They are most commonly reported in the fall, during the early morning or in the evening.

These booming sounds, also called skyquakes in the US, can be heard in other parts of the world, but they’ve been given different names. In Italy, the sounds are known as Brontidi, and in India they’re referred to as Barisal Guns.

Despite the mystery of the Seneca Guns, people from Southeastern N.C. seem to be used to the noises. And eventually, newcomers like Martin learn to adjust.

“I think next time I hear it, I’ll ‘Okay it’s just Seneca Guns. No big deal,’” Martin said. “But for folks like me that had no idea, it would probably startle them.”

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