The Banjawarn Bang
Evidence suggests a doomsday cult may have successfully tested a nuclear bomb in Australia in 1993.
by Brian Dunning
August 9, 2016
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Some believe that on a dark night in 1993, all our fears came true on a remote scrap of the vast Australian outback. There was a flash, and a streak through the sky, and a tumultuous rumble. Seismometers rattled, and the members of an apocalyptic doomsday cult swelled with pride. For the seismic and eyewitness evidence is said to tell a sobering story: that a murderous faction of extremists successfully detonated a nuclear weapon, and international intelligence agencies have been scrambling ever since. Today we're going to look at the Banjawarn Bang, and see how much of this incredible tale is fact, and how much (if any) is urban legend.
The story took place about as far from the prying eyes of civilization as it's possible to get, 700 kilometers northeast of Perth in barren Western Australia; a half million acre sheep ranch called Banjawarn Station. It's a land of heat and red dirt, where scattered commercial mines and livestock stations harbor about the only living beings. It's a great place to do something that you don't want anyone to know ever happened.
It is true that an earthquake of magnitude 3.6 jiggled western Australia late at night, 11:03pm in the hot outback, on May 28, 1993. It was odd because of what is said to have come along with the quake: a great explosive boom and a mighty flash of light, reported by scattered people in the vicinity such as long-haul truck drivers, prospectors, and aboriginal people. Speculations were made, like a mining blast or a meteor strike, but none stood up to scrutiny. The reports also included light effects that couldn't be correlated with any known phenomenon, such as a strange red hemisphere of light that rose slowly for two hours before suddenly winking out, and other strange light shows. The mystery was intriguing but not well known; reports scarcely reached anyone, and were soon forgotten.
But in 2000, this idea of a nuclear weapon having been detonated suddenly exploded upon the world. It came from the publication of the book In a Sunburned Country, a travelogue written by Bill Bryson. Although Bryson devoted barely a single page to the story, it was shocking enough to make it into pop culture. He said the explosion took place on Banjawarn Station which had been recently purchased by a Japanese doomsday cult, the Aum Shinrikyō, the same group responsible for sarin and VX gas attacks in Japan throughout the mid 1990s. Aum is the sanskrit word often chanted in Buddhism, and Shinrikyō is taken to mean "teaching of supreme truth".
Bryson's source was a 1997 New York Times article by William Broad, "Seismic Mystery in Australia: Quake, Meteor or Nuclear Blast?" Broad went into considerably greater depth, detailing an investigation done by the US Senate Governmental Affairs Subcommittee. They had found that Aum Shinrikyō had successfully tested poison nerve gases on their Australian property, but more shockingly, that they had an extensive history of dealings with Russia in an effort to acquire a nuclear weapon.
We're tempted to wonder why the New York Times story didn't trigger a massive panic. The reason is that Broad's article, though stunning in its implications, was a bit late to the party. By the time it was published, Aum Shinrikyō was no more. 19 months earlier, the cult's leaders were arrested, its assets seized worldwide, its existence outlawed, and its members disbanded and splintered off. By the time Broad got on the story, the American authorities had already had ample time to investigate the possibility that a nuclear weapon had been used. But since nobody around Banjawarn had seemed to think much of the event at the time, what tipped off the Americans to investigate such a ho-hum event?
Let's have a look at the pattern. Something interesting may (or may not) take place. Not much notice is taken for a time. Then, a few years later, suddenly there's tremendous notice. Based on all the stories we've studied on this show, what seems like it might have triggered the sudden attention, so long after the fact? One such trigger that we've seen many times is the involvement of an imaginative author. And as it turns out, that's not so far off of what created the legend of the Banjawarn Bang.
He was a geologist by trade, not a professional author. His name was Harry Mason, employed in the mining industry in Western Australia. He was also an amateur UFOlogist, conspiracy theorist, and enthusiast of fanciful notions like superweapons said to have been invented by Nikola Tesla. In early 1995, a local newspaper called the Kalgoorlie Miner happened to report the 1993 earthquake preceded by a meteor fireball. Mason and a friend decided to see if they could track it down and perhaps find a meteor crater, and become celebrated and wealthy. Mason interviewed every witness to the more-than-a-year-old event he could track down. He hired a small plane and searched (unsuccessfully) for a crater.
During this investigation, Mason became convinced that this had been no ordinary meteor fireball. He began collecting reports of other similar fireballs from Western Australia and concluded that this had been a superweapon test, which he described as an "E/M (electromagnetic) weapon", inspired by a far-out interpretation of the work of Nikola Tesla that Mason shared with many of today's Internet conspiracy theorists.
In March of 1995, Mason was only a few weeks into his investigation when news broke of Aum Shinrikyō's sarin gas attack in Tokyo. The news was especially shocking to residents of Western Australia, because it was revealed that the cult had owned the Banjawarn property, and used it to develop their biological weapons. Mason quickly learned all he could about the doomsday cult, and developed a frightening theory: Aum Shinrikyō had successfully tested either a nuclear weapon, or "Tesla E/M weapon". Mason alerted authorities to the 1993 bang, including the US Senate subcommittee.
It turned out that the subcommittee was already a few steps ahead of Mason. Aum Shinrikyō had been conducting smaller scale attacks in Japan for a year and a half, and were already on the radar of antiterrorism authorities worldwide. Even so, Mason's report rang alarm bells in the subcommittee. They knew that Aum Shinrikyō representatives (who had over a billion dollars in cash) had been traveling to Russia for some time trying to acquire nuclear weapons, but this was the first anyone had heard that a seismic event, possibly nuclear in origin, was tied to their Australia property. The subcommittee referred Mason's report to the IRIS Consortium (Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology), a sort of worldwide university clearinghouse for seismology data. IRIS researchers immediately went into the data archives, seeking to characterize the Banjawarn seismic event to see if it might possibly have been consistent with a nuclear weapon test.
Well, great story that this had promised to be, IRIS was able to rule out a nuclear test in short order. The waveforms of nuclear seismic events have a very sharp attack which gradually fades, and a fine example for comparison are the semi-successful North Korean tests from 2006, 2009, 2013, and 2016, for all of which we have excellent seismic recordings. Banjawarn's, however, was much smoother, far more like a natural earthquake.
But the subcommittee investigators had also found another hole in Mason's theory. When the bang happened, Aum Shinrikyō had not yet moved onto the property. In fact, they didn't even pay for it until June 1, three days after the bang. They'd signed an agreement a month before, but they didn't move people or equipment there until September. There doesn't seem to be any way to reconcile the timeline with Mason's theory. Anyway, if the doomsday cultists had successfully become a nuclear power to destroy humanity, why did they only use sarin and small weapons for all their attacks in Japan?
Other parts of Mason's theory also began to fall apart, and these had to do with his belief that an electromagnetic superweapon, inexplicably producing bizarre optical effects, was to blame. At the time of the Kalgoorlie Miner's article, the only visual phenomenon that was part of the narrative was a bright meteoric fireball. The other more fanciful additions to the story, such as the giant orange hemispheres of light, came from anecdotal statements collected by Mason almost two years after the fact. There's no verifiable evidence these lights happened at all, they are dubious and were reported long after the fact; so to the responsible researcher, these reports lead nowhere.
And that's where the story sat for a long time. It was probably a meteoric fireball, and probably a rare earthquake, since nobody ever found an impact crater. But then in 2013, something happened in Russia that suggested a near-perfect solution to tie together all the Banjawarn Bang reports.
On February 15, a superbolide entered the Earth's atmosphere at Mach 55. It exploded 30 kilometers above Chelyabinsk with 30 times the explosive force of the Hiroshima bomb, shattering glass throughout the entire city. The blast triggered seismographs at magnitude 4.2, according to IRIS. There was no impact crater, since the meteor exploded and small bits of meteorite fell over an extensive area, slowed to terminal velocity by wind resistance. From all the available evidence, it appears that the Banjawarn Bang was an event almost identical to, though a bit smaller than, the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor. Why wasn't video of it all over the news? Because it was in a part of Western Australia that had a population density of 1 person per 13 square kilometers. It's actually surprising that anyone saw it, heard it, or felt it at all.
I'm not calling this a certain explanation, because while the Banjawarn seismic event does appear in the IRIS database, it's listed with a depth of 10 kilometers. The Chelyabinsk event is listed with a depth of 0 kilometers, suggesting that Banjawarn was a natural earthquake, coincidentally accompanied by a fireball, which is a perfectly rational explanation. However, Banjawarn's IRIS listing is incomplete and it doesn't appear in most databases; but this is common for quakes and doesn't represent a coverup conspiracy.
Today, Shoko Asahara, the founder of Aum Shinrikyō, sits on Japan's death row with twelve of his fellow conspirators. Sheep still graze on the hot red dirt of Banjawarn Station. Somewhere, scattered among them, may be meteorite fragments from a day in 1993 when a bolide streaked through the night sky and triggered tall tales of Armageddon and nuclear fire. Harry Mason has since passed away, but his conjecture and imagination constructed a legend as hardy as the souls who populate this sunburned country.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Banjawarn Bang." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
9 Aug 2016. Web.
25 Jul 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4531>
References & Further Reading
Adams, C. "Did the Aum Shinrikyo cult detonate an atom bomb in Australia?" The Straight Dope. Sun-Times Media, LLC, 17 Aug. 2001. Web. 5 Aug. 2016. <http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2285/did-the-aum-shinrikyo-cult-detonate-an-atom-bomb-in-australia>
Broad, W. "Seismic Mystery in Australia: Quake, Meteor or Nuclear Blast?" New York Times. 21 Jan. 1997, Newspaper.
Bryson, B. In a Sunburned Country. New York: Broadway Books, 2000.
Hennet, C., Van der Link, G., Harvey, D., Chyba, C. "IRIS Assists Senate in Investigation of International Terrorist Group." IRIS Newsletter. The IRIS Consortium, 1 Apr. 1996. Web. 10 Aug. 2016. <http://www.iris.iris.edu/newsletter/fallnews/senate.html>
Lifton, R. Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999. 204.
Mason, H. "Bright Skies." NEXUS Magazine. 1 Apr. 1997, April - May 1997.
Sopko, J., Edelman, A. Global Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Case Study on the Aum Shinrikyo. Washington, DC: Senate Government Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, 1995.
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