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How Loud Is a Sonic Boom In Decibels (dB)?

Military plane sound barier

Many curious children were once told by their parents and teachers that sonic booms were the loudest sounds in the world. These massive sounds occur when something breaks the sound barrier and causes a large area to shake with impressive noise. How loud is a sonic boom exactly? According to NASA, the typical sonic boom comes in at 110 decibels (dB), which is far louder than almost anything an average person hears. However, it is not the loudest sound in the world. There are a few things louder than a sonic boom.

This article will go over exactly what causes a sonic boom, how the sound of one compares to other typical sounds, and provide the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about sonic booms.

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What Causes a Sonic Boom?

A sonic boom happens when an object breaks the sound barrier. When a physical object travels faster than the speed of sound, it creates pressure waves in the air as it flies. These waves then collide to create the loud and mystifying sound we know as a sonic boom. Sonic booms are very loud and materialize either as explosion-like booming sounds or sharp cracking sounds.

The largest sonic booms are generated by aircraft and spacecraft, but those aren’t the only things that can create sonic booms. Anything that breaks the sound barrier has the potential to create a sonic boom, even a small one. Bullets break the sound barrier when they are shot out of a gun. Whips also break the sound barrier which is what creates the tell-tale cracking sound when they are used.

military jet
Image Credit: Piqsels

Sonic Boom Intensity Comparison

How loud is a sonic boom compared to other typical sounds? Pretty dang loud. Sonic booms rank near the very top of the list of sounds most likely to cause hearing damage. The only things louder than a sonic boom that people are capable of coming into contact with are gunshots, jet engines, and extremely close thunder.

Since decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale, each decibel in volume is ten times louder than the previous level. That means that sonic booms are hundreds of times louder than typical sounds that we hear every day. Sonic booms are more than loud enough to cause hearing damage. Anyone that fires a gun or works at an airport is urged to wear ear protection to prevent hearing damage. A sonic boom ranks right alongside those loud sounds in terms of raw decibel output.

Sound Volume (dB)
Whisper 30
Regular Voice 60
Vacuum 70
Heavy Traffic 85
Train Platform 95
Rock Concert 110
Sonic Boom 110
Thunderclap 120
Jet Plane Taking Off 140
Gunshot 140–165

What Other Sounds Are As Loud As a Sonic Boom?

The sound most similar to a sonic boom both in terms of loudness and how it forms is a thunderclap. Thunder is also produced when air is separated and then brought back together again but instead of being separated by a plane, the air is separated by a bolt of lightning. A loud thunderclap caused by a lightning strike that hits the ground can get as loud as 120 dB which puts it in the same range as a sonic boom.

Thunder is also similar to a sonic boom in that it can be heard for miles, it drops off in intensity the farther you get from the source, and the nature of the sound is the same. They both sound like loud explosions that can be extremely intense if it happens close by or sounds like a distant rumble.

If you’ve never heard a sonic boom and are wondering what it sounds like, think of a particularly intense thunderstorm with a lot of loud thunder, and you’ll get a pretty good idea.

woman near window watching thunder storms
Image Credit: Irina Kozorog, Shutterstock

Are Sonic Booms Illegal?

Yes. According to regulations created and enforced by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), creating a sonic boom is illegal. Commercial aircraft were banned from creating sonic booms over residential areas in the 1970s. Even the US Air Force was banned from producing sonic booms in areas where it could affect local populations. Before the regulations, commercial, scientific and military aircraft flew around without regard to the people on the ground. Sonic booms were much more common, and they were a nuisance.

There are some exceptions that can be granted by the government, but they are rare. The most common source of sonic booms in the United States used to be the landing of the space shuttles in Florida before the program was shut down. Today, hearing sonic booms out of the blue is extremely rare and that is because of these rules.

Do Pilots Hear Sonic Booms?

No, pilots do not hear sonic booms. Sonic booms are created when something travels faster than the speed of sound and displaces the air. Since the pilot creating the sonic boom is traveling faster than the sound, they will not hear it. Sonic booms also fan out behind the plane as it travels. The sonic boom disperses in a conical shape that is similar to the wake left behind by a ship in the ocean. For all these reasons, a pilot will never hear the ear-splitting booms that they are producing from inside the cockpit.

Image Credit: Zorgist, Pixabay

Are Sonic Booms Dangerous?

Sonic booms are not dangerous to people. There are documented cases of people experiencing a sonic boom from an aircraft at extremely low altitudes without suffering any injuries. However, sonic booms can be dangerous to people’s hearing. Sonic booms are extremely loud, and hearing a nearby boom without ear protection could damage your hearing. Certain pressure waves and intense sounds have even been found to damage the eardrum itself.

Sonic booms are also damaging to certain building materials. Single-pane glass, some windows, and old plaster have all cracked or shattered due to a nearby sonic boom. This kind of damage is what prompted the government to outlaw most sonic booms over residential areas in the United States.

Hearing a sonic boom or even being in close proximity to a sonic boom is not dangerous to your health. Just make sure you have ear protection if you plan on being close to one.

cracked window glass
Image Credit: Lina Mo, Shutterstock

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Sonic booms are extremely loud, but they are very rarely heard in today’s world. A typical sonic boom measures around 110 decibels. That is not the loudest thing people can hear but it is an extremely wide range noise when it happens. Sonic booms are similar to thunderclaps and loud concerts in terms of raw decibels, but they have the potential to be heard for miles when they happen.

Featured Image Credit: Katerina S., Shutterstock


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