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One of two engravings depicting consecutive phases of a light phenomenon spotted over Logelbach, East France, in 1878.
[Image scanned from The Age of the UFO]

Over the past 60 years, various researchers have tried to construct a hypothesis that offers an all-in-one solution for the residue of unsolved UFO/UAP reports. Most of these researchers fell back on pseudoscientific and exotic theories to achieve this goal, but some tried to build their hypothesis on a more solid psychosocial, geophysical, astronomical or meteorological foundation. An example of the latter is North American UFO sceptic and aviation expert Phillip J. KLASS, who in the seventies resorted to weather-related phenomena such as ball lightning and atmospheric plasmas to explain UFO reports [1]. KLASS' ideas would later be adopted by Edinburgh-based science writer Steuart CAMPBELL. After a similar attempt to explain away each and every UFO report as ball lightning, CAMPBELL finally turned to bright stars and planets (or mirages thereof) to do the job [2].

Earth Lights
Only one attempt to explain UFO reports by way of a single hypothesis based on scientific principles stood the test of time. We are referring to the work of a group of investigators who postulate that plasma-like lights do not necessarily have to originate from the skies, but can also sprout from right under our feet. The proponents of this "Earth Light Hypothesis" consider it possible that geophysical processes in the earth's crust can produce luminous plasmas. Mechanisms proposed range from luminous phenomena generated through stress in quartz-rich rocks (a phenomenon knows as piezoelectricity) to radioactive gases escaping from the ground and creating ionized pockets of air. The hypothesis would explain why strange lights are more often observed in the vicinity of geological faults and in connection with seismic activity.

One of two engravings depicting consecutive phases of a light phenomenon spotted over Logelbach, East France, in 1878.
[Image scanned from The Age of the UFO]

Earth lights come in a variety of shapes, from a ball of light to a luminous pillar or a mere glow. To explain the diversity and high-strangeness ratio of some of the eye-witness accounts, some have theorized that these lights are accompanied with an electromagnetic field that can not only affect machinery (stall car engines and influence magnetic needles for example), but can also have a direct influence on people's brain, tickling one's imagination to such an extent that the percipient is led to believe that he encountered something out of this world. This can be an alien climbing out of a spacecraft or an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary appearing over a tree. [3]

At first glance, this seems like a decent scientific effort to deal with reports of strange apparitions in our skies and on the ground, but the Earth Light Hypothesis suffers from a variety of shortcomings. First of all, we wonder if the presumed correlation between the location of the sightings and the location of the fault lines, although striking at first sight, is not the result of a selective search for reports of strange lights in areas where faults are located (why look for reports in other areas if you are set on proving that there is a connection?). Secondly, there seems to be no relationship whatsoever between earthquake epicentres and the locations from where UFOs were reported. And thirdly there is no statistical evidence that indicates a correlation between the dates of the sightings and periods of seismic activity. Although diffuse luminous phenomena and meteor-type objects have been reported immediately before, during and after earthquakes, bringing unfiltered UFO reports into the picture seems like a step too far. As with UFO reports, the most important shortcoming of the ELH is that many of the cases referred to in earth light studies can be explained in a much simpler way.

The illustration that accompanies this article was published on page 73 of a successful British book The Age of the UFO [4]. The caption accompanying these 19th century engravings tells us that this column of light is 'another probable example of what has since become known as "earthquake lights"'.

Click for a larger image.
Original page from La Nature.
© Conservatoire national des arts et métiers, Conservatoire numérique - Old issues from La Nature can be consulted at cnum.cnam.fr/fSER/4KY28.html.

Click on the Image for a Full size view.

We disagree. Let's take a look at the original article as it was published in the French popular science journal La Nature [5]. It suffices to read the original text to unravel the mystery: the beam of light depicted here is nothing but a sun pillar, a well-known optical phenomenon that is caused when the light of a low Sun reflects off billions of ice-crystals in the atmosphere.

The bigger part of the article in La Nature is a letter by one Mr. TRINCANO, who observed the display from the French village of Logelbach in the morning of March 22, 1878 (actually the article mentions two different dates: March 22 and March 23).

The first engraving shows the pillar as it appeared around 6:30 a.m. local time.

On the second drawing, not printed in The Age of the UFO, we can see the solar disc rise from behind the mountains.

On the third drawing the Sun is already well up, shining more brightly and with a much shorter pillar, as is to be expected. About this phase, Mr. TRINCANO writes (we translate from French): "One minute after it had risen, the Sun was incandescent; the pillar was then successively retracting toward its fiery disc and persisted for more than five minutes in the rudimentary state of a luminous crest of a height of 3°, then disappeared completely".

Flawed Database
This is only one of many cases in which mundane causes were overlooked. Alternative candidate explanations for earth lights (and earthquake lights!) are: astronomical objects, such as the Moon and bright stars, seen under unusual conditions, meteors, parachute flares, ball lightning, artificial light pillars [6], the glow of a distant fire or gas flame, flashlights, spotlights, illuminated kites, illuminated blimps, fire balloons, aircraft, noctilucent clouds, chemical clouds released by rockets, headlights of cars, trains and snow scooters [7], mirages of distant light sources [8] and even luminescent barn owls [9]. In other words, just as with UFO and ball lightning reports, we are faced with a wide variety of possible causes. Proponents of earth light theories tend to ignore this. Yet, to construct a workable hypothesis for transient phenomena like these, you need reports that:

  • cannot be explained in a simpler way
  • stem from a reliable source
  • are properly documented
  • relate to phenomena that share identical or nearly identical characteristics (the latter to make sure that we are dealing with one unknown at the time)

At present, there seems to be no such list of high-quality cases pertaining to one and the same phenomenon. For that reason, we believe there is little chance for a breakthrough in earthlight studies at this stage.

    Wim VAN UTRECHT (January 2007 – revised May 2008)


Notes and References

[1] KLASS, Phillip J., UFOs - Identified, Random House, New York, 1968. KLASS later admitted to having been overzealous in pushing his plasma hypothesis as THE explanation for the UFO problem.

[2] CAMPBELL, Steuart, The UFO Mystery Solved, Explicit Books, Edinburgh, 1994. CAMPBELL's obsession to build an hypothesis that explains "all" UFO reports (even daylight pictures of metallic-looking objects are explained as mirages of stars and planets) prompted CAELESTIA to coin the expression "campbellitis", a nickname for all those who suffer from the same urge to find an all-in-one solution for a series of phenomena that not necessarily relate to one and the same phenomenon.

[3] Already in 1975 Michael PERSINGER introduced the Tectonic Strain Theory. To this date, the TST remains one of the few attempts to tackle the UFO problem - or at least part of it - in an original and rational manner. The first book that made the idea of anomalous light phenomena, generated by processes within the earth's crust acceptable to a non-academic audience, was Earth Lights, written by Paul DEVEREUX and published in 1982 by Turnstone Press Ltd in Wellingborough, UK. In 1989 DEVEREUX published Earth Lights Revelation, (Blandford Press, London) presenting new evidence and new theoretical models in an attempt to explain reports of unidentified lights.

For elaborate discussions and extensive references about the works of PERSINGER, DEVEREUX and others, see:

Shorter articles on the subject can be found at:

[4] BROOKESMITH, Peter, The Age of the UFO, Orbis Publishing, London, 1984.

[5] "Colonne lumineuse observée à Logelbach, Alsace, le 23 mars 1878" in La Nature, No. 251, March 1878.

[6] VAN UTRECHT, wim: “Light pillars in cirriform clouds” at www.caelestia.be/article01a.html, as well as www.caelestia.be/lightpillars.html for a picture gallery devoted to this phenomenon.

[7] Many areas around the world have stories of "ghost lights" and "spook lights". One such area is Brown Mountain in the Blue Ridge country of West North Carolina. A 1922 investigation conducted by geologist George R. MANSFIELD by order of the US Geological Survey, showed that "about 47 percent" of the lights that MANSFIELD was able to study instrumentally, "were due to automobile headlights, 33 percent to locomotive headlights, 10 percent to stationary lights, and 10 percent to brush fires" (MANSFIELD, Georges Rogers, Origin of the Brown Mountain Light in North Carolina, Geological Survey Circular No. 646, 1922). The valley of Hessdalen, to the southeast of Trondheim, Norway, is another such region were eerie lights have been observed (and photographed). The Hessdalen lights usually appear as slowly moving lights on or near mountain ridges. We wonder if headlights of cars and snow scooters are not responsible for the greater part of these lights. Unfortunately, verification is often next to impossible. For more about the Hessdalen phenomena and the instrumental research carried out in this valley since 1984 under the aegis of the Østfold University College, see www.hessdalen.org. For a rare critic's viewpoint we recommend this PDF file: www.itacomm.net/ph/rebuttal.pdf.

[8] PETTIGREW, John D., "The Min Min light and the Fata Morgana" in Clinical and Experimental Optometry, 86.2, March 2003. See also: www.optometrists.asn.au/ceo/backissues/vol86/no2/2043/.

[9] In his self-published book The Min Min Light: The Visitor Who Never Arrives, Australian owl expert Fred SILCOCK proposes another explanation for the Min Min light. He argues that many reports of bright, dancing night-time lights seen over plains and farmlands may well be due to "luminescing barn owls" (for more info about this unusual book, see www.owlpages.com). Barn owls are also considered responsible for several frightening encounters with demon-like creatures published in the UFO literature as well as in early century writings.