Steve Pfaff, Warning Coordinator Meteorologist at the Wilmington office of the National Weather Service, provided some insight and information to help answer this question at the History Center’s April 18, 2016 open meeting.
He first showed some short video clips on the Seneca Guns from a segment of The Unexplained Files, a TV series produced by the Science Channel. The clips included an audio recording of the “boom” most of the audience recognized as the sound of the Seneca Guns, as well as interviews with locals who described their experiences hearing the Guns.
Steve was featured on the video as the down-to-earth scientist who explained some possible causes of the Seneca Guns and served as an antidote to the show’s sensationalist presentation of the Seneca Guns as both terrifying and earth-shattering. (Two representative episodes of The Unexplained Files are “Voodoo Zombies” and “UFO Meets Missiles at Malstrom Air Force Base,” so the Seneca Guns were up against some stiff competition for high drama.)
The Seneca Guns got their name from James Fenimore Cooper’s short story, “The Lake Gun,” that featured similar sounds heard near New York’s Seneca Lake. Most occurrences are near water, as sound travels better through water than through air. They seem to be more common during temperature inversions, when cool, dense air near the ground creates a sound channel that sounds can reverberate against, creating the booms we hear at ground level.
Steve described some of the possible causes for the Seneca Guns, such as the collapse of underwater caves, distant thunderstorms, shallow offshore earthquakes, sub-marine landslides, undersea methane release, and offshore military operations—and then gave us scientific evidence and data that seemed to disprove most of these theories.
Captain Skippy Winner spoke from the audience about his own experiences in the past as a boat captain sending his observations and readings of sub-marine landslides and turbulence to the Weather Service to add to their data compilation.
Steve acknowledged the importance of input such as Skippy’s in documenting and understanding the realities of weather activity.
Did Steve ever give us the definitive answer as to what causes the Seneca Guns? Not really, but offshore military operations seemed the most plausible to me.
James Fenimore Cooper had his own explanation for the phenomenon:
“Tis a chief of the Senecas, thrown into the lake by the Great Spirit, for his bad conduct. Whenever he tries to get upon the land, the Spirit speaks to him from the caves below, and he obeys.”
“THAT must mean the ‘Lake Gun?’ ”
“So the pale-faces call it.”