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Unidentified Atmospheric Phenomena
Seeing the light

In the light of the recently revealed Condign Report – with its talk of unidentified atmospheric phenomena – Paul Devereux celebrates the ‘Cinderella’ of UFO research, and traces the evolution in our understanding of ‘earth lights’ and other luminous mysteries.

The heroic investigative efforts of Dr David Clarke and colleagues have revealed the Condign Report, a weighty internal document prepared for the British Ministry of Defence in 2000 (FT211:4–6). It concludes that, though UFOs are not alien spaceships, some sightings do relate to “Unidentified Atmospheric Phenomena” (UAPs), a term first coined by UFO researcher Jenny Randles. It also cites the term “earth lights”, which I coined to describe the same range of phenomena.
He found reports describing ‘a great blaze’ in the sky

The report gives cause for modest celebration, in that non-mainstream research has been officially acknowledged, and potentially encourages us to start removing the intellectual logjam that the “Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis” (ETH) has constituted for over half a century. It is an opportune moment, then, for a historical stocktaking of earth lights research – very much the ‘Cinderella’ of the field formerly known as ufology – and for hazarding a few ideas as to what the phenomena involved might be.

First Glimpses

One of the earliest modern investigators to raise awareness of earth lights was, of course, Charles Fort. In assembling his compendious record of unusual events, Fort began to spy possible connections that virtually no one before him had the range of data or wit to perceive. He linked strange aerial lights with earthquakes, predating modern geological ideas of “earthquake lights” (EQLs). For example, he drew attention (New Lands, 1923) to the December 1896 earthquake in the Hereford – Worcester region of Britain. He found reports describing such effects as “a great blaze” in the sky and a flying “luminous object” coincident with the quake. Fort acidly commented that “the conventional scientist” of his day had a “reluctance toward considering shocks of this earth and phenomena in the sky at the same time”.

John Keel, a later but similarly far-sighted American writer, came to the conclusion that UFOs were more likely to be “soft” lightforms than “hard” metallic craft. As early as the 1960s, he was associating their appearance with areas (“windows”) of geological faulting, earthquakes and geomagnetic anomaly. In France at about the same time, Ferdinand Lagarde was also noticing a significant correlation between reported UFOs and geological faulting. Although there was no book dedicated solely to this approach within ufology at this time, American writer Vincent H Gaddis published Mysterious Fires and Lights (1967), which contained chapters such as ‘Earth’s Glowing Ghosts’.

My own curiosity regarding the relationship between the ground beneath our feet and lights in the sky was piqued in 1957 when I was a schoolboy in Leicestershire in central England. In that year, there was an earthquake, in which I saw the school walls bulge (but fortunately not collapse). A teacher who had taken a school party out on a field trip stated that he and the kids saw lines of “tadpole-shaped” lights crossing the sky just before the quake struck. (I didn’t know at the time that Kenneth Arnold, the man who in 1947 had inadvertently originated the term “flying saucers”, described the lights he saw over the Cascade Mountains in Washington State, USA, as being tadpole-shaped.) It was no accident, then, that, years later, a friend, Andy York, and I chose to conduct an investigation of fortean phenomena in our home county. In 1975, we published our findings as a two-part article entitled “Portrait of a Fault Area” in The News, the first incarnation of Fortean Times. Although fairly primitive, this geographical study nevertheless clearly indicated that over the centuries modern “UFOs” and earlier “balls of light” or “meteors” in Leicestershire shared a common distribution with faulting, seismic activity and unusual meteorology.

Historical literature has revealed that people from all cultures and times have seen unexplained light phenomena. To the Irish they were fairy lights; to the Scots they were simply gealbhan (balls of fire); to Malaysians, pennangal – the spectral heads of women who had died in childbirth; to Indians they were local deities or the lanterns of spirits; to Africans they were devil lights; to Brazilians, the “Mother of Gold” leading to buried treasure; and to Chinese Buddhists they were Bodhisattva Lights. (The Indians and Chinese sometimes built temples where lights had appeared with some regularity.) Europeans visiting some of these lands also reported seeing strange lights – demonstrating they were more than just local lore. On a visit to Gabon in 1895, for instance, the writer Mary Kingsley saw a ball of violet light roll out of a wood onto the banks of Lake Ncovi; it hovered until joined by another, similar light. The two lightballs circled each other until Kingsley approached them in a canoe. One then flew off back into the trees while the other floated over the lake surface; as Kingsley paddled quickly after it, it went down into the water, still glowing as it sank. Locals later told her such phenomena were aku, devil lights.

In Europe, there had been debate about unexplained lights from at least the mediæval period. In the way that the popular myth today is that UAPs are alien craft, then it was that they were dragons. But some questioned this. In the 13th century, for example, Albertus Magnus said the “dragons” were in actuality “vapours” that could roll into a ball and float up and down. In 1590, Thomas Hill said they were “fumes kindled” giving the simulacrum of a flying dragon. In 1608, Edward Topskell argued that “dragons” were really “a weaker kind of lightning”.

There are also early modern reports from Britain, such as the account given by the “peasant poet”, John Clare, in his Journal of 1830. He told how he encountered a lightball while walking one evening between the villages of Ashton and Helpston in Cambridgeshire. The light came towards him. “I thought it made a sudden stop as if to listen to me,” he wrote. It crackled and was surrounded by a luminous halo: Clare described the light as having “a mysterious terrific hue”. When it darted away, he promptly took to his heels. He already knew that there was locally “a great upstir” about the lights, with up to 15 at a time being seen over Deadmoor and Eastwell Moor flying back and forth, both with and against the wind. Clare said that his close encounter robbed him of “the little philosophical reasoning” he had about them. 1

A Closer Look

In 1977, Canadian-based scientists Michael Persinger and Gyslaine Lafrenière published Space-Time Transients and Unusual Events. Using a statistical approach, they correlated reported UFOs in North America with “seismic-related sources”. They argued that the enormous energies built up in tectonic strain even without actual release in earthquakes were sufficient to produce glowing, ionised, lightforms in the atmosphere above such areas. Bodies of water, especially reservoirs, could also produce strain on underlying geology.

Over subsequent years, Persinger and the US geologist John Derr, together and individually, examined specific “windows” of recurring reported light phenomena, and amassed an impressive body of data to support this “tectonic strain” theory (though not without some criticism). One such study was of the Yakima Indian reservation in Washington State, where, in the 1970s, fire wardens in lookout posts observed and photographed a range of unusual light phenomena. They saw large, orange-coloured lightballs, smaller “ping-pong” balls of light, luminous columns and flares, and white lights with smaller, multi-coloured lights apparently connected to them. Glowing clouds and flashes in the sky were also noted. Derr and Persinger showed that three-quarters of the reported phenomena were seen most often in the vicinity of faulted ridges and they correlated lights with seismic activity.

Another area where nature similarly lent researchers a hand is the Hessdalen valley near Trondheim, Norway. From late 1981, local people saw lights spring into visibility near rooftops, or hover just below the summits and ridges of the surrounding mountains. The lightforms included spheres and inverted “bullet” and “Christmas tree” shapes. Colours were mainly white or yellow-white, though small, flashing red lights on the top or bottom of larger white forms were also reported and strong, localised white or blue flashes in the sky were observed – all rather similar to Yakima. In 1984, a group of researchers formed “Project Hessdalen” and conducted monitoring in Hessdalen using radar, magnetometers, spectrum analysers and other instrumentation. The group conducted further sessions in 1985 and 1986. Many photographs (some sequential) were taken of the lights, and radar anomalies were recorded. Around a decade later, a new Project Hessdalen was inaugurated using more sophisticated automated monitoring equipment. Under the directorship of Erling Strand, it is still operating (See FT103:26–31; 189:30; 204:29).

In UFOs – A British Viewpoint (1979), Jenny Randles and Peter Warrington coined the term “Unidentified Atmospheric Phenomena”, suggesting these were the root cause of many genuine sightings. In 1980, Kevin and Sue McClure published Stars and Rumours of Stars, a thorough account of reported light phenomena in the Barmouth–Harlech area of northwest coastal Wales in 1904–5 (See FT33:52). Beriah Evans, a local journalist of the time, published accounts of witnesses’ sightings, including his own: “Between us and the hills there suddenly flashed forth an enormous luminous star… emitting from its whole circumference dazzling sparklets like flashing rays from a diamond…” Glittering diamond-shapes were seen on roofs, “bottle-shaped” lights hung over hilltops, ruby-red lights popped out of the ground, rose into the air and fused together, and columns of light emerged from the ground.

London newsmen from the national daily papers who visited to report on the kerfuffle lost their initial cynicism when they saw the lights for themselves. The Daily Mail correspondent saw yellow balls of light of “electric vividness” hovering 100ft (30m) above the Barmouth–Harlech road. A Daily Mirror journalist found himself engulfed in a “soft, shimmering radiance”. Looking up, he saw “a large body” overhead that had “suddenly opened and emitted a flood of light from within itself”. The reports caused considerable national interest, and Charles Fort naturally picked up on them (see Lo!, 1931).

As many of the reports contained location details, it seemed to me that this Welsh outbreak would be worth testing for geological links. So I teamed up with trained geologist Paul McCartney. It was our good fortune that a recent geological survey had been conducted in the area, enabling us to correlate exact sighting information with exact faulting information. It was found that this is the location of the deep-rooted Mochras Fault, almost linking Barmouth and Harlech, and that most of the light events were strung out along it like scintillating beads on a thread. Some sightings occurred off the main fault, but these were associated with tributary faulting. No reported light phenomenon occurred further than 700m (765yds) from a fault, and incidence increased with proximity to faulting, so that most events occurred within 100m (109yds) of faulting. Indeed, some lights emerged directly out of the Mochras Fault. Further, it was found that the Welsh events began immediately after a local earthquake (October 1904).

(The lights still appear occasionally. Harlech is adjacent to the Lleyn Peninsula, one of Britain’s most active seismic zones. In 1984, it was the epicentre of a significant, 5.5 Richter-scale, earthquake. A resident told me he saw, the evening before the quake, a brilliant white light the size of a small car float in from the sea and dissolve in sand dunes.)

In 1982, I published Earth Lights (with Paul McCartney). It was heavily attacked by ETH enthusiasts and even by normally more reasonable researchers who hadn’t quite got their heads around the new approach. In the same year, academic Helmut Tributsch published When the Snakes Awake, in which he recorded bizarre light phenomena (among other events) in association with earthquakes. A year later, Jenny Randles cited UAP sightings and made tectonic associations in her The Pennine UFO Mystery. In 1985, David Clarke and Granville Oldroyd published Spooklights – A British Survey. One of its superbly documented UAP haunts was at Burton Dassett, in south Warwickshire, the focus of outbreaks of light phenomena in 1922 and 1923. A reporter from the Birmingham Post, among other witnesses, saw a “steady and vivid” light travelling a few feet above the ground. Clarke and Oldroyd discovered that the location sits directly on the Burton Dassett fault, and that the mysterious light briefly reappeared on the night of 25 January 1924. That very night, there was a powerful earth tremor around Hereford, 60 miles (97 km) to the west; the local Leamington Chronicle noted the tectonic coincidence at the time. (This was a year after Fort had published his observations of apparent links between aerial lights and the 1896 Hereford–Worcester quake.) In 1989, I published Earth Lights Revelation. It included a section by David Clarke and Andy Roberts on Project Pennine, their study of the hill and moorland country running along the spine of England, an effort in which they were assisted by numerous other researchers. A geography of light-haunted moors, hills, valleys and reservoirs was mapped by the project, and phenomena described that ranged from balls of light to glowing hillsides. Clarke and Roberts expanded on this work in their Phantoms of the Sky (1990).

In the mid-1990s, under the ægis of the Princeton-based International Consciousness Research Laboratories (ICRL), I was able to conduct some field expeditions. We included a few of what in America are called “spooklight” locations. These typically involve extremely long straight sections of road or former railroad corridors cutting through forests. The spooklights we investigated turned out to be distorted glimpses of distant vehicle headlights – a finding I also recently (2005) confirmed at Bragg Road, a noted spooklight haunt in Texas. I paid two field visits to the famed “Marfa lights” area of southern Texas (see FT52:72), one with the quantum physicist, Hal Puthoff. This turned out to be more complex. We conclusively showed that most of what people think are the “Marfa lights” seen from a designated viewing point are in fact distorted car headlights, 40 miles (64 km) away, or nearer vehicles negotiating tracks leading to ranches out on the range, giving the appearance of lights dancing back and forth just above the slightly undulating ground. But there are reports of strange lights being seen in the vast region dating back to the 17th century, and witnesses (including priests and teachers) we interviewed reported close encounters with spheres of light. An “active” area was seemingly the Chisos Mountains to the south of Marfa. There, I personally witnessed an anomalous light; but it flickered out before photographs could be taken. Finally, Erling Strand of Project Hessdalen and I investigated reported “min-min lights” in the remote Kimberley region of Australia (See FT47:72–73). We gained insights from bush Aborigines, and witnessed at least three probable UAPs (one a beautiful, shimmering fan of golden light emerging soundlessly and momentarily from the desert surface). We managed to film only one of them, though – a moving white light that appeared as our magnetometer registered a strong geomagnetic anomaly.

Some of these exploits, among others, were the subject of a 1996 Channel 4 documentary, Identified Flying Objects (re-titled Earth Lights for Discovery Channel). It screened in November and marked an extraordinary coincidence that Fort would have hugely enjoyed: within 24 hours of transmission people began reporting bizarre light phenomena in Cornwall. There were soft, silent nocturnal luminous displays, rectangles of light moving jerkily through the heavens, and moonlike spheres that slowly dissolved. It went on all week, at the end of which Cornwall experienced its strongest earthquake of the century. There’s nothing like having Mother Nature as a PR agent.

In 1997, Peter Brookesmith and I co-wrote UFOs and Ufology, where we tried to sort out all the strands that intertwined in the scene formerly known as ufology, including earth lights research and “alien abductions” (an altered state of consciousness issue, not an extraterrestrial one). It was welcomed by researchers, but rubbished by ETH die-hards. Fortean Times has kept the subject alive over subsequent years by publishing items by others as well as by me: the Condign Report is a modest vindication of sorts.

Future Visions

Most reported sightings of strange aerial phenomena are surely the product of misperception of mundane objects, artificial or astronomical, or else mirage effects, hoaxes, or cases in which psychosocial factors affect a witness’s interpretation of a perception. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that there is a rump of reports that relates to genuinely unexplained phenomena, as the Condign Report recognises. A percentage of these core sightings, I believe, is made up of those relating to UAPs: earth lights, mystery lights, anomalous luminescences, or whatever else we choose to call them. But what exactly are these lights, and what kind of research needs to develop regarding them? Well, my take on it all is as follows.

UAPs are exotic natural phenomena apparently belonging to the same family as earthquake lights and ball lightning but with their own distinctive characteristics, such as sometimes displaying greater longevity. There certainly seems to be an association between the appearance of UAPs and tectonic factors such as stresses and strains in the Earth’s crust, and there are doubtless many more sources of energy, geological and meteorological, that could power these lightforms. There is probably a spectrum of UAP types.

The actual nature of the lights is unknown, but they seem to have electromagnetic properties. Michael Persinger has suggested that they are, indeed, surrounded by EM fields that can trigger hallucinations and trance states in close witnesses. Also, there are accounts of poltergeist-like events accompanying some outbreaks of light phenomena (such as at Yakima) with objects flying around, door latches moving of their own accord, and gravel crunching as if trodden by ghostly feet. Interestingly, similar effects have been occasionally noted during particularly vivid auroræ effects (see The Gaelic Vikings by James Shaw Grant, 1984).

UAPs are presumably some form of plasma – plasmas can appear metallic in daylight and shine in the dark. But UAPs can occasionally also appear totally black – perhaps an indication of an anode-cathode, polarity-type effect. I well recall an incident in 1967, when I was a passenger in a car one sunny summer afternoon somewhere around the Norfolk–Suffolk border in eastern England. I suddenly noticed a perfectly round, perfectly black shape just above treetop height over a roadside field. Another passenger also saw it. It maintained a horizontal course roughly parallel to the road, then vanished in front of our eyes. Moments later, the black shape reappeared a couple of fields away then shot upwards at an angle to be lost in the glare of the sun. In talking to Erling Strand, I found he too had witnessed one of these pitch-black shapes, and Project Pennine also uncovered accounts of such phenomena. In addition, there are reports of black ball lightning in the literature.

Two other characteristics of UAPs are so bizarre that one hesitates to mention them – but Fortean Times is not a publication for the intellectually squeamish (you saw the light first in its pages, after all, so we might as well be precognitive again!). One is that, according to witnesses far and wide, some UAPs seem to react to onlookers. John Keel, for instance, observed small lightballs in the Ohio Valley skittering about to avoid his flashlight beam. Again, geologists in a jeep chasing after a Marfa light felt that it “definitely had intelligence”. And several of the original Project Hessdalen people, including Erling Strand, have quietly admitted that in about 10 per cent of their observations they felt the lights interacted with them. If such reports have any credence, then some UAPs may possess rudimentary intelligence, often displayed as a playful, animal-like curiosity.

But this is a forbidden topic. For one thing, it raises the tricky question of the nature of consciousness. Scholars and scientists cannot agree on what that actually is, but the prevailing reductionist view is that it is an effect of brain complexity. To even suggest that consciousness might manifest in geophysical contexts as well as biological ones is to go beyond the pale. Nevertheless, laboratory studies in Romania have revealed cell-like forms within plasmas that can replicate, grow, and communicate…

The other highly exotic UAP characteristic sometimes reported might give the strongest clue to the deep nature of these phenomena. It revolves around quantum physics. If you examine a solid object closely enough, down through its constituent molecules and its atoms, it dissolves (as does all matter) into the weird sub-atomic quantum realm where peculiar properties prevail: entanglement, for instance, in which electrons can communicate with one another instantaneously over any distance; or quantum events that are neither waves nor particles but probabilities that “collapse” into one or the other when subjected to attention. There are properties of earth lights that exhibit some of these quantum-like tendencies.

As just one example, a Daily Mirror reporter who visited the Barmouth–Harlech lights outbreak recounted rushing towards a light shining like “an unusually brilliant carriage-lamp” barely 500 yards (457m) from him; but as he got closer, it changed its form into a bar of intense blue light almost 4ft (1m) long. Observers on the other side of the light to the reporter could not see it at all, even though there was nothing obscuring their view. Such unidirectional light emission has been reported in other UAP cases. This illogical effect, among others displayed by UAPs such as disappearing then reappearing instantaneously at another location or stopping seemingly without deceleration as if having no mass, makes me suspect that they are macro-quantal events.

It is only in the last decade that science has noticed vast energetic phenomena such as SPRITES (coloured discharges of energy rising thousands of feet above certain types of thunder clouds) or ELVES (discoid lightning of enormous size) (see FT86:14, 178:13), so it’s perhaps no wonder the relatively more intimate UAPs have gone unnoticed. Perhaps the existence of the Condign Report might give enough confidence to a few brave scientists to seek proper funding and resources to commence serious scientific research on UAPs. But only prolonged, direct study of them in their habitats is likely to reveal their secrets. Although there have been short-lived attempts at scientific field studies over the years, the only ongoing effort is Project Hessdalen. An automatic field station there is continuously online (www.hessdalen.org/station/), but Erling Strand is strapped for cash and time. Better funding and resources are needed. UAPs are saucerfuls of secrets that could change our world, for they seem to display physics we have yet to understand.

Out of Sight

Are there unexplained phenomena in addition to UAPs in that rump of sightings reports? Purely from my own experience, I would answer: “yes”. I’d offer as one example an incident from around 1954. I was going home from junior school with a schoolmate. We saw a gigantic airship hovering over a nearby ridge – it was black and had a gondola slung beneath it. The sun shone on its sides as it would on any solid object. But it then vanished literally into thin air. There were no airships flying in Britain at that time, and I now know that it was an old-fashioned type of dirigible. I have no explanation for the incident, but it really happened and I don’t think the object was geophysical in origin – and I’ve no reason to think it was extraterrestrial either.

It is time for a new renaissance in scientific thinking and research, for we understand a lot less about the world than we like to think: as Charles Fort well knew, as a culture we ignore or intellectually sidestep what doesn’t fit the agreed model of reality. It is time to intervene and attempt to expand today’s ever-narrowing worldview.

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Unidentified Atmospheric Phenomena
Erling Strand (left) and Leif Havik (right) in conversation with American UFO investigator J Allen Hynek in Hessdalen. Both Strand and Havik claim to have witnessed light phenomena interacting with witnesses. The late Dr Hynek commented that “something very important” was occurring at Hessdalen. Photo: Paul Devereux.
min-min lights
Checking a movie camera prior to one of many night observation sessions during the joint ICRL/Project Hessdalen expedition to study “min-min lights” in Australia.
Michael Persinger
 Professor Michael Persinger, pioneer of “earth lights” research.
Pinnacles Fault
Physicist David Kubrin took this picture of a light skimming the treetops at Pinnacles Fault, California, in 1973. Kubrin commented that the light created shockwaves in the air ahead of its direction of travel, as if it had mass, yet stopped dead without apparent deceleration, as if it were massless.
Marfa Lights
This long-exposure photograph was taken facing southwest from Mitchell Flat, Marfa. The diagonal lines in the top half of the picture are star trails. The other lights are from occasional vehicles travelling along the Marfa-Presidio road many miles way. It is these that most casual observers think are “Marfa Lights”.

Egryn chapel
The isolated Egryn chapel, between Barmouth and Harlech, Wales. During the 1904–05 outbreak of light phenomena in the area, glittering lightforms were seen to fix themselves to its roof, red balls of light were seen to emerge from the road in front of and near it, and large-scale lightforms were seen above the hills in the background. The chapel stands near the Mochras Fault.
An engineering student at Østfold College, Norway, working on monitoring equipment for use at Hessdalen.
Hessdalen light
Enlargement of a photograph of a pulsing Hessdalen light.

earthquake swarm
It has long been known that geophysical forces can produce light phenomena. This glow was photographed at the time of an earthquake swarm in the Matashiro region of Japan in 1966. 
Unidentified Atmospheric Phenomena
Light Over A Ridge, Hessdalen, 1985. Photo: Project Hessdalen / Arne Thomassen.

Author Biography
Paul Devereux’s most recent book, Fairy Paths ' Spirit Roads (2003), dealt with pre-modern folk geography of supposed spirit routes. He is currently working on a book comparing parapsychology in the West with anthropological observations of paranormal phenomena in tribal societies.


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