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Mystery lingers over shaking, loud booms reported in NJ

A view Atlantic City's skyline in 2010. (John Munson | The Star-Ledger/TNS)

Officials have been unable to confirm the source of the mysterious booms and vibrations that were reported by many people across southern and central New Jersey Tuesday afternoon.

No earthquakes were detected in or near the Garden State, no thunderstorms were in the area, and nearby military bases say they had no planes flying at supersonic speeds when the booms were heard.

Joint Base McGuire Dix Lakehurst was scheduled to conduct weapons tests at its base in Burlington County Tuesday, according to the agency’s Facebook page. However, the base’s public affairs office has not yet responded to questions about whether the testing may have caused the widespread booms and shaking that was reported from Mercer and Middlesex counties down to Salem and Cape May.

A “noise calendar” on the base’s Facebook page indicates the Rotary Wing Aerial Gunnery unit was scheduled to conduct tests that may include .50-caliber weapons, rocket fire or rotary cannons Tuesday, and those could create “moderate noise.”

But the calendar doesn’t indicate the times of the testing.

Update (2:10 p.m. Wednesday): A spokeswoman for Joint Base McGuire said she checked with a base coordinator “and he did not see anything on the training schedule that would generate (a) loud booming noise” Tuesday afternoon. She noted that the training dates listed on the Facebook calendar are general projections and aren’t set in stone.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the New Jersey Air National Guard said the 177th fighter wing, based near Atlantic City, said no planes from that unit were flying over the Garden State when people heard and felt the booms.

“None of our jets were in the air at that time,” Senior Master Sgt. Andrew Moseley told NJ Advance Media on Wednesday. “They didn’t take off until after 2 p.m. that afternoon.”

On Tuesday, a spokesman for the Naval Air Station Patuxent River in southern Maryland, said his station had some military jets flying in air space about 3 miles off the eastern seaboard Tuesday afternoon, but they weren’t traveling fast enough to create a sonic boom.

A sonic boom would occur if a plane was flying fast enough to break the sound barrier.

Could temperature inversion play a role?

Some weather experts noted that a process called temperature inversion could cause sound waves to travel farther than usual, so theoretically if there was a sonic boom miles off the coast it could be heard many miles away.

Temperature inversion occurs when a layer of warm air sits over a layer of cooler air, said Dean Iovino, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s regional forecast office in New Jersey.

“The warm air wants to rise and the cold air wants to sink,” he said, adding that sound waves from loud noises occurring at the same level of the colder air would get trapped and could spread out for far distances.

“The atmospheric conditions do come into play with how sonic booms work their way through the atmosphere,” Iovino said.

However, he stressed that the National Weather Service has not confirmed if any sonic booms occurred Tuesday afternoon or if any loud jets were flying over New Jersey at the time.

So for now, the source of Tuesday’s booms and shaking remain a mystery.

Among the New Jerseyans who felt the vibrations Tuesday was John Sharpe of Monmouth County.

“I felt it here in Holmdel” at about 1:45 or 1:46 p.m., Sharpe said in an email. “My garage door was down but shaking like crazy for 2 minutes. I thought an animal was trying to get in.”

Twitter user from Atlantic County said she “felt it in Mays Landing. (The) whole house shook and I felt momentarily off balance.”

The Picatinny Arsenal in northern Morris County has been conducting munitions testing this week, but police in Jefferson Township, one of the towns that borders the arsenal, said it is unlikely the sound would carry down to central or southern New Jersey.

“If you’re up in this area of New Jersey, you can hear it,” said Jefferson Township Police Capt. Robert Bush. “If the cloud cover is low, you can hear it.”

But the noise, he said, is typically heard in Morris and Sussex counties, not many miles farther south.

“Up here they’re used to it, because it does happen pretty frequently,” Bush said. “The residents are up here are used to it.”

A spokesperson for Picatinny Arsenal could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

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