The Bell Island Boom – 41 Years Later

After listening to an episode of the Nighttime Podcast about the Bell Island Boom from April 23, 2016, I went perusing the YouTube for an old CBC news broadcast from 1978 about mysterious booms and a massive unexplained explosion that damaged property and made a substantial impact on the residents of Bell Island

A 1978 CBC news broadcast about the event, available on YouTube as of this writing, begins with tales of phantom booming noises heard along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. from South Carolina to New Jersey. Mysterious booms are heard by people all over the place, even to this day, but I don’t think the booms heard along the east coast of the US were related to the event on Bell Island

After listening to the reports given in the CBCs news piece I did some research, and to me the event sounds an awful lot like a massive lightning strike, with other associated electromagnetic effects. Let’s take a look at what those folks reported, and see what we can make of them.

First of all, these were down to earth folks who witnessed something way out of the ordinary and had physical evidence to prove it. Everyone interviewed heard a sound they described as an explosion, or at least a big boom. A few witnesses described a massive concussion that rattled their homes. One woman exclaimed it was as if her house had been broken in two.

One gentleman witnessed “fire” as he called it, likely an electrical arc, blast about 18 inches out of an outlet above his kitchen table. Immediately after this discharge he heard a loud boom.

Other witnesses described similar events, some more extreme including TVs utterly destroyed by electrical overloads, burned out electric motors, and a report of a “ball of fire” flaring up in an oven, apparently passing through the glass.

So, what the hell can cause such strangeness and destruction? The electrical arc shooting out of the outlet and the fried TV set are telling. Having researched a huge lightning strike my wife and I experienced during an electrical storm which set off our smoke detector for a few seconds, it seems likely or at least possible that these particular disturbances were cause by something known as an EMP, or electromagnetic pulse.

In the case of the Bell Islanders it was most likely a massive electromagnetic pulse because by comparison our smoke detector was intact and functioning after the incident we witnessed. And let me tell you, the crack of thunder we heard made us jump out of our socks.

Elsewhere in the village a blast of some kind shot through buildings from one end to the other, a barn was essentially blown apart, and chickens on that same property were killed and had blood coming from their eyes and beaks. No scortching or burns were seen on the barn or chickens, so it was not a direct hit by lightning. Still, lightning could be the culprit, especially if it was a super bolt that found it’s way to Bell Island from a strong winter storm in the Labrador Sea.

Accoring to this article, How far away from a thunderstorm can lightning strike? at anvil lightning can strike more than 100 miles from a storm. That means it can appear to come out of nowhere, a so-called “bolt from the blue”. Indeed the longest recorded lightning distance was nearly 200 miles, as recorded in Oklahoma in 2007. Maybe that’s what happened here; a record breaking, long distance super bolt that was not recorded by weather monitoring stations at the time.

A Possible Explanation: Super Lightning
I did some serious poking around on the interwebs, because obvi I didn’t have anything else to do this weekend, but I could find no specific data on actual weather events on Bell Island or the surrounding area. However, according to this study published by the Journal of Physical Oceanography, typical storms that form in the Labrador Sea “occur more frequently in winter and spring, about one every 3 to 5 days…” and have a diameter of 500km, 310-ish miles.

Based on that information it is very possible, unbeknownst to Bell Islanders and others nearby, that a strong storm was churning somewhere in the sea north of Newfoundland and a rogue lightning bolt from said storm found its way to Bell Island, blasting holes in the ground and generating an EMP strong enough to shoot electrical arcs out of wall outlets and fry TVs as well as other equipment. A witness across the bay claims to have seen a “white streak” come down from the sky and strike on the island which, if her report is reliable, could have been the only visual confirmation of a super lightning bolt on that day. I’m not sure why the CBC reporter deemed that report unreliable.

Near the end of the news report, Geophysicist Dr. Thomas Gold had this to say to the CBC reporter, “It was a very strange phenomenon alright…” but added that there was “no hint of anything other than electrical phenomenon.” He concluded that it was an electrical discharge, stating, “a very unusual one, and enormous one.” What occurred on Bell Island is probably the most incredible example of a clear air super bolt of lightning from a powerful, distant winter storm.

A strike from super-lightning would also have created an incredible shockwave with potential to blow through buildings, rattle a barn apart and kill chickens within close proximity to the impact. Primary injuries associated with a blast event include ruptured eardrums, and damage to soft tissue and internal organs like the lungs, which could be the reason for the blood evidence on the chickens. So those poor chickens were too close to ground zero.

Holes in the ground? I was curious about that too, but yes, lightning can actually blast a hole in the ground. Here is photographic evidence of a 3 foot diameter hole in a golf course made by a lightning strike and a hole in runway tarmac. Lightning can cause some interesting patterns in grass too.

Ball Lightning
Now what about the glowing ball of energy? Youngster Darrin Bickford was riding his bike when the blast occurred on Bell Island. He commented that he thought something was happening “with the world,” like a bomb attack or something. But after that he witnessed something very strange. He described seeing a ball of light, three feet in diameter, glowing mostly blue with orange around the edge, with sparks.

Ball lightning, though relatively rare, is an unexplained phenomenon associated with electrical storms or other electromagnetic disturbances. For example, ball lightning has been reported in association with seismic activity. Known as earthquake lights there are many theories but the exact mechanism that causes them is unknown.

The electrifying orbs sometimes seen in relation to lightning strikes or in the vicinity of electrical storms are more well known but, like earthquake lights, they aren’t well understood though many theories have been presented to explain them. They happen though, and they appear in various sizes and colors, sometimes with noisy pops or static sounds, sometimes completely silent. In the case of Bell Island that seems like the kind of phenomenon Darrin witnessed. A somehow charged ball of electricity glowing and sparking, floating in the air before him. It happens. There are a lot of things about nature that we don’t understand, but we’re learning.

Back in the late 80’s I saw something I’d describe as ball lightning. Two balls of light actually, late in the evening, floating slowly and silently, side by side just above the power lines. I watched them drift along, above the utility poles until they followed the guy wire on the last pole to ground and disappeared. One of the craziest things I had ever witnessed. I don’t recall any storm activity in my general vicinity, but I can’t say for sure that there wasn’t one in the area. Also, this was in New Jersey and there is very little seismic activity there.

The fact that they rode along the power lines could explain it. Maybe they were just some form of static discharge, like the old tale of the “Hooker Man” I used to hear as a kid. You’d see his lantern drifting down the railroad tracks late a night, apparently the result of some static electricity generated in the metal of the railway escaping into the air. Who knows?

Like the folks on Bell Island back in 1978, I know I saw something weird that I don’t completely understand. If a blast of lightning struck down, on a clear day, and no one saw it except for some lady across the bay, what would you think in that moment? Your just hanging out at your kitchen table and electricity shoots 18 inches out of the wall socket and you hear a massive boom, eh? Your TV burns up. A barn is blasted apart clean of any telltale burn marks. Your chickens are killed by some unseen force, and a kid down the street sees a floating, glowing ball of sparking light. Not to mention the huge holes and marks blasted into the snowy ground nearby.

Lightning is crazy stuff, we know it happens, but happens mostly when there’s a storm around. No storm? No lightning, right? Nope. It can happen and has happened. As I mentioned lightning has struck nearly 200 miles from it’s origin in a storm. Make it a super lightning bolt, 100 times more powerful than your run-of-the-mill lightning, and you have a massively crazy thing happening right there.

So I agree with Dr. Gold on this one: basically a ginormous, freak bolt of lightning from a storm far away. It caught everyone off guard. Nature will continue to play tricks on us, so stay alert my friends. It’s been forty-one years, maybe we’re due. You never know when or where that next super bolt-from-the blue is going to strike.