The Bell Island Boom
Today we're going to go back in time about a third of a century to 1978, when something strange happened on remote Bell Island in Newfoundland. It was a quiet community, some fishermen and scattered families on small farms and in a smattering of hamlets. It was the last place on Earth you'd expect to be rocked by a sudden, shattering explosion. But it wasn't just an explosion. On what should have been a sleepy Sunday morning, electrical appliances on the island burst apart. Animals fell over dead. Buildings were rent asunder. Though the explosion was the loudest anyone there had ever heard, it seemed to have no precise epicenter. To this day, the cause remains unknown, but hypotheses and conspiracy theories abound. The Bell Island Boom has become, to some people, proof of government tests of secret superweapons.
Newfoundland is a large island off the east coast of Canada, and within Conception Bay at its eastern end is Bell Island. It's a pretty small island, only about 9 kilometers long and 3 kilometers wide. The significant part of its history began in the 1890's when rich iron deposits were discovered and mining began. Tiny Bell Island actually became one of the world's major producers of iron ore, and even saw action in World War II when it was attacked by a German submarine. The mine prospered until the 1960's when pressure from cheaper competition finally forced a closure. Bell Island is low lying with its highest point only a hair above 100 meters, so its deep mines were almost entirely below sea level, requiring constant pumping to keep the water out. So while it was productive, it was always expensive and dangerous. Since the mines closed, they have been filled with water. The island is now laced with tunnels and entrances and passages that lead to underground lakes marking the top of the water table. It's now a site of interest to cave diving adventurers.
With its mine closed and its small economy in shambles, the communities on Bell Island had been largely emptied out for more than a decade when the Bell Island Boom struck on Sunday, April 2, 1978. Without warning, a sudden BANG rocked the island, like a giant electric shock. By some reports, it was heard as far as 100 kilometers away. There was extensive damage to electrical wiring. One property, that of the Bickford family, reported physical damage to their buildings. There were holes in the roof; their television set and fuse boxes actually exploded; and the roof of their chicken coop was destroyed and five chickens inside were killed. Near the shed were two or three holes in the snow which looked like some buried explosives had gone off. Digging in these holes found nothing of interest.
And then the strangest of the stories began trickling in. The Bickford's young grandson reported a hovering ball of light after the blast. One woman on Newfoundland reported a beam of light slanting up into the sky from Bell Island. And several people on the island said they heard a ringing, like a tone, just before the boom struck.
A 2004 documentary film called The Invisible Machine postulated that the Bell Island Boom was a test of an electromagnetic pulse weapon. This particular theory was deeply flawed, and depended upon a hypothesized beam weapon being attracted to the iron ore from Bell Island's old mines. These filmmakers were apparently pretty confused to think that natural iron ore is a terrifically powerful magnet, which of course it's not. Although iron is magnetic and can be magnetized, natural iron ore has its molecules jumbled in every direction and rarely happens to have a significant magnetic field, certainly not strong enough to divert or attract a particle beam.
Fueling the fires of conspiracy theories about weapons testing was the mysterious presence of John Warren and Robert Freyman from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (then called the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory) in New Mexico, who happened to show up right after the boom struck. To many, this was confirmation enough that the Bell Island Boom was indeed a weapons test.
But to understand what the boom really was, we first have to understand the context in which it took place. For about four months before the boom struck, the entire eastern seaboard had been plagued by a series of unexplained booms. Beginning in late 1977 and fading out in mid 1978, some 600 of these so-called "Mystery Booms" left reporters and the public scratching their heads from South Carolina up to Canada. The same conspiracy theories surrounding the Bell Island Boom had been proposed to explain the Mystery Booms. Everything from tests of some kind of superweapon by the United States or the Soviet Union, to an atmospheric doomsday device inspired by Nikola Tesla, or even a massive nuclear device like Convair's proposed Sky Scorcher.
As it turns out, the majority of the Mystery Booms were solved, but with disappointingly mundane explanations that paled beside the much more intriguing conspiracy theories. Many witnesses noted that the Mystery Booms seemed to politely follow a predictable schedule. There was a good reason for this, according to Dr. Gordon MacDonald, who spent seven months compiling an authoritative report on the Mystery Booms for the Mitre Corporation. Of the nearly 600 booms recorded, over 2/3 of them could be positively attributed to sonic booms from aircraft, most notably the Concorde. The Concorde began its flights between New York and Europe only a few days before the first recorded Mystery Boom on December 2, 1977. Because of sonic boom concerns, the Concorde was required to take a wider path out to sea; but on particularly hot days, fuel expansion required the pilots to shortcut over Nova Scotia in order to retain the required fuel reserve. On some days, these booms would propagate up to 100 kilometers by bouncing between two main refracting layers of the stratosphere.
But eliminating the booms that could be traced to supersonic aircraft still left nearly 200 of MacDonald's Mystery Booms unexplained. He attributed them to natural phenomena, but of exactly what nature he did not know. As it turns out, the reason the guys from Los Alamos were there is that they did know. Warren and Freyman had been monitoring imagery from the Vela satellites. This fleet of four satellites kept the globe under constant surveillance, looking for the distinct signatures of nuclear bomb detonations. They also picked up large lightning flashes, and it was in part from the Vela satellites that we learned about lightning superbolts. About five of every ten million bolts of lightning is classified as a superbolt, which is just what it sounds like: An unusually large bolt of lightning, lasting an unusually long time: About a thousandth of a second. Superbolts are almost always in the upper atmosphere, and usually over the oceans. Often these upper atmosphere storms can occur with people on the ground being completely unaware, perceiving nothing other than a clear sunny day. Dr. William Donn, chief atmospheric scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Observatory, compiled reports from airline pilots of extremely high-altitude flashes that corresponded with nighttime Mystery Booms. He said the daylight booms may have high-altitude flashes as well, but if they do we wouldn't be able to see them from below because of the daylight.
Although versions of this story on the Internet often claim that Warren and Freyman snooped around and went back to Los Alamos without a word to anyone, the truth is that they spoke quite openly with the media and with other scientists investigating Bell Island. According to Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reporter Rick Cera who spoke with Freyman off-camera, Warren and Freyman had been tracking superbolts over the east coast since December 1977. When they learned of the Bell Island Boom and saw that it correlated with a rare overland superbolt, they were asked to go check it out to see what kind of damage it might have caused. They were surprised the damage to the Bickfords' property was not worse. Warren's specialty was in plasma physics, and Freyman was an expert in RF and its propagation in the upper atmosphere. He's best known as a co-developer of RFID technology. They certainly had a professional interest in observing the aftermath of a superbolt. There's no evidence to support the hypothesis that the Bell Island Boom was the result of a manmade weapon, and all the pieces are in place that support its characterization as a freak lightning superbolt.
Popular tellings of the Bell Island story refer to Warren and Freyman as "military attaches", including The Invisible Machine authors. I suppose you could call them this if you're so inclined. Los Alamos is a government facility, but Warren and Freyman were both well established scientists with publications and legitimate credentials. Whether this qualifies them as "men in black" is, I suppose, a matter of personal language choice. Their visit to Bell Island could reasonably be argued to be consistent with a government weapons plot, but in the same way that my ownership of a toothbrush is consistent with a government plot to keep my breath minty fresh. Imagination is the only evidence supporting either plot.
All the evidence that does exist, however, is consistent with a lightning superbolt. The destruction of electrical appliances was due to the staggering voltage propagating throughout Bell Island's copper power grid. The damage to the chicken shed roof and the electrocuted chickens inside are also consistent with lightning, as were the holes in the snow outside. The angled beam striking the island reported by a witness on Newfoundland could have been a lightning bolt; it's anecdotal and the CBC reporter dismissed it as unreliable. The high-pitched tone preceding the boom reported by witnesses on Bell Island is interesting, but anecdotal; it could have been anything, we can't know, and there's nothing concrete that indicates it was related to the subsequent boom.
The Bickfords' grandson's story of the hovering ball of light is also interesting, and unfortunately anecdotal. Even if we take the his story at face value — which stretches the limits of a responsible scientific investigation — we still learn nothing. Hovering balls of light are not consistent with any known phenomenon, certainly not any military weapons, not an electromagnetic pulse, and not lightning either. However, undoubtedly something extraordinary did happen on the Bickfords' property and any report coming from the boy is not surprising. This may constitute an intriguing footnote to the Bell Island Boom, but by no logic can it invalidate the prevailing theory to explain the evidence we have: That a lightning superbolt struck the Bickfords' property.
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