The Clintonville thump


The town of Clintonville, Wisconsin, population 4600, is booming, and not just in the economic sense.  For the past week, weird booming noises have been coming from beneath the ground, almost every night.  They seem to have no fixed source, but all have occurred in a small area at the north end of the town.

The New York Times reports residents describing the noise as “like someone banging on the pipes in the basement, while at other times it was so loud that windows rattled and the ground jolted.”  Others compared the sounds to fireworks, or car doors slamming.  Hundreds of calls have been made to the local police.

No one is entirely certain what is causing the Clintonville Thump.  The best anyone can offer is that it’s a “geological anomaly,” perhaps related in some way to a rare micro-earthquake in the region, which happened two days after the sounds began:

“Microearthquakes in general happen all the time, all over the world, but we’ve never had one specifically detected in Wisconsin, especially a whole series of them like what we have been seeing going on Clintonville,” said Harold J. Tobin, a professor of geoscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has been helping to diagnose the mysterious pounding.

“But people haven’t necessarily looked very hard for them,” he added. “It’s only because of the publicity that seismologists went looking for such a small needle in a haystack.”

Unexplained earthly noises, though odd, are not entirely, well, unheard of. Dr. Tobin has been flooded with e-mails from across the country. But rarely does such thumping reoccur on multiple nights.

Other obvious sources for the thumps have been ruled out, including gas in the sewers, peculiarities in the water pipes, methane at the landfill, malfunctions at the local electric substation, mining activities, industrial machinery, and military weapons testing.  Of course, all sorts of other theories have been floated.  I wonder how Tremors is renting at the Clintonville DVD kiosks.

“I think somebody is drilling holes and planting dynamite,” said Gary Nielson, 60. Other hypotheses include meth labs, sinkholes, underground rivers and even a corporate conspiracy to drive home prices down.

On Wednesday night, to help ease anxiety, the city held a public meeting in its high school auditorium, where about 400 residents turned out.

Standing at the dais, Ms. Kuss, the city administrator, said her best guess was that the unusually warm winter and early spring weather might have something to do with the phenomenon.

“It is possible,” she said, “that we will never have a definitive answer.”

(Emphasis mine.)  It’s just not a proper mystery until someone proposes the culprits are greedy villains trying to scare folks off of their land.  Clintonville residents, be on the lookout for a green van covered with flowers, driven by a blonde youth wearing an ascot.  Passengers may include a talking dog, and a perpetually hungry kid who looks like he might have wandered away from an “Occupy Wall Street” rally.

It always fires up the imagination to consider that we might never “have a definitive answer” for something that happens in the midst of thousands of people, equipped with 21st-century technology.  It should also refresh our humility in the face of nature, and our appreciation for the boundaries of scientific inquiry.  They expand ever outward, but can still be measured.  Exhilarating, isn’t it?