It started with a big bang. No, we’re not referring to the Dawn of the Universe — but rather a recent mapping venture that’s turned a rare but largely harmless winter oddity into a phenomenon. Cryoseisms, or “frost quakes,” can produce loud cracks of noise that some startled people have likened to distant bombing. They usually happen in the middle of the night, during the quick temperature drops that have characterized this winter’s “polar vortex.”

Ashley King thought someone should record them. The Toronto graphic designer had been fascinated with weather and natural phenomena since a string of tornadoes tore through southern Ontario in August 2009.

“The power of it excited me,” she says.

So she opened a public Google Map that people could use to record their experiences with these frost quakes. She began on January 4, and within a few days her map had 150 different entries. Now there are entries recorded from as far as Illinois and Maine — complete with descriptions of houses shaking from top to bottom or vice versa.

The popularity of King’s map reflects a growing trend toward the ‘personalization’ of maps.

“The map user has now become the map creator,” says Fraser Taylor, the director of the Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre at Carleton University.

Taylor recently spoke in a Canadian Geographic online panel about his experience working with citizen cartographers in Canada’s north.

“Communities are now deciding what they want to map… we’re very much in the process of giving people a voice, both metaphorically and literally.”

While Toronto may be far removed from Taylor’s arctic communities, the enthusiasm for participatory mapping is no less tangible. King believes the data she’s gathered is important for the public record, and can help people validate their strange experiences. It was clear from the sudden onslaught of quake-related tweets being sent in the early mornings after particularly cold nights that many wanted to know if others were hearing the same “thunder-like” bangs.

Frost quakes occur when water trapped in the ground freezes. As it turns to ice, it expands and can cause the ground to crack explosively — causing bangs or ground vibrations.

“It was more intriguing and fascinating than scary,” King says. “I didn’t expect people to like [my mapping hobby] as much as they did.”

Hobby or not, the rise of mobile GIS and openly available mapping tools will likely produce more citizen cartography experiments like King’s that drive public discussion.

Heard a frost quake in your area? Record it in the Frost Quake Map or tweet Ashley King at @lovethinkplay with #frostquake