Can you tell the difference between earthquakes and sonic booms?

Local News

Courtesy: UUSS

(ABC4 News) — Over the past several months, people across Utah have heard loud booms or explosive noises. No need to worry, they are only sonic booms.

According to the United States Air Force, a sonic boom is an impulsive noise that can sound like really loud thunder or an explosion. It is caused by an object moving faster than sound, about 750 miles per hour at sea level.

“An aircraft traveling through the atmosphere continuously produces air-pressure waves similar to the water waves caused by a ship’s bow. When the aircraft exceeds the speed of sound, these pressure waves combine and form shock waves which travel forward from the generation or “release” point,” explains the Air Force.

The Air Force adds that, as an aircraft flies at supersonic speeds, it is continually generating shock waves, dropping a sonic boom along its flight path. From the aircraft, the boom appears to be swept backward as it travels away from the aircraft.

On the ground, the sound is heard as a “sonic boom,” the sudden onset and release of pressure after the buildup by the shock wave or “peak overpressure,” the United States Air Force shares.

The loud noises are often thought to be earthquakes and while the booms are loud and startling, they won’t cause any damages.

Katherine Whidden, Research Scientist at the University of Utah Seismograph Stations, UUSS, tells ABC4, in Utah, “sonic booms are often caused by military aircraft flying at supersonic speeds.”

Sonic booms in Utah often come from Hill Airforce Base when large aircrafts like F-35s take off, their sonic booms can be felt counties away.

In Utah, when sonic booms occur, reports circulate claiming that the “booms” were accompanied by shaking, which could lead some to believe that it was an earthquake.

After Utah’s 5.7 magnitude earthquake that rattled the Wasatch Front on March 18, 2020, can you blame them?

Sonic boom on seismometers

Officials with the University of Utah Seismograph Stations say the booms are energetic enough to be recorded by seismometers but the waves produced by sonic booms travel too slowly to be seismic.

“When they break the sound barrier, a boom can sometimes be heard or felt as shaking on the ground, and our seismometers can record the shaking,” shares Katherine Whidden with UUSS.  “Certain atmospheric conditions, such as inversions, can trap the energy and make it more likely to be widely felt on the ground.”

Whidden says one-way seismologists can tell the difference between sonic booms and earthquakes is that earthquakes travel at much faster speeds. Thankfully, most earthquakes felt in Utah do no cause damages. Though loud, sonic booms are not dangerous and are unlikely to cause any damage.

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