UPDATE: There have been at least two reports of UFOs this week in Pennsylvania. On Monday night, a woman videotaped a UFO in Harrisburg, and it was first reported on Good Morning America this morning. Here's the video:
Then on Tuesday, Ron Shawley (who is Executive Director of the Laurel Highlands Historical Village which hosted my presentation at the paranormal conference earlier this month - see below) witnessed a strange object pass overhead in Vinco, Pennsylvania, then caught the object in the distance on film from a quadcopter. In an interview I did over the phone with UFO Researcher Stan Gordon (who was also at the seminar), he indicated that no additional reports have been received of this object, and he's not sure what it is. I have taken Ron's original video and enhanced it below:
From this video evidence, there's no way to tell what either one of these was... they could have been something as innocent as airplanes, stars, or chinese lanterns carried in the wind (which was SSW->NNE, which Ron indicated was the movement of the object). Other explanations are being offered up by the Pennsylvania Storm Chasers Group on Facebook. If you read my presentation below, there are plenty of things that can be mistaken for UFOs, just speaking from a weather perspective.
ORIGINAL BLOG 8/26/2014:
Last weekend, I was invited to attend a local paranormal event, hosted by the Laurel Highlands Historical Village. The aim of the event was to get different perspectives on historical unidentified objects sighted in the Pennsylvania area.
The presenters were myself (from the science point-of-view, talking about weather phenomena commonly mistaken as UFOs), AccuWeather Astronomy Blogger Mark Paquette (from the Astronomy point-of-view), Stan Gordon (a paranormal investigator who has some doubts because he's never seen a UFO himself), Clay Smith, who believes the UFO phenomenon may be spiritual in nature, and John Ventre, state director for the Pennsylvania division of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), who says UFOs are extraterrestrial in nature and related to a number of government conspiracies. S.C.A.R.E. Somerset County and the Johnstown Area Ghost Hunters were also present at the conference. Stan, John and Clay entertained questions about paranormal phenomena at the end of the conference. (Image below from my 1995 website "J's World" at Cybervox.Org)
Stan Gordon has been researching paranormal activity for about 50 years. He gave an excellent presentation on Pennsylvania UFOs and other paranormal activity (which I can't show here due to redistribution of copyrighted material, but you can view other videos of Stan on YouTube). Stan has never witnessed a UFO himself, but he has investigated a lot of things that he can't explain. He does admit though that many reports turn out to be weather-related.
The presentation I gave is available for download here, and a video of it is shown below.
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My discussion included examples of the following phenomena that have been confused for UFOs:
1. Lenticular Clouds. Because these clouds continually reform as air flows through them, they appear to "hover" and have a saucer shape. Below are photos of Pennsylvania lenticular clouds taken by myself and Ron Shawley from the Laurel Highlands Historical Village:
Hole-Punch Clouds. These appear as holes in a cloud deck, often with precipitation falling from them. The most notorious example appeared in Moscow, Russia, in 2009. I took the photo below here at AccuWeather HQ in State College, Pennsylvania, in 2009:
3. Mothership Clouds. Extremely severe thunderstorms take on a saucerlike shape before they drop high winds, hail and tornadoes. The example below was sighted in Canada in 2012:
4. Rocket Exhaust Trails. Water vapor trails from rocket booster exhaust can produce a bright, luminescent trail at night. The photo below was taken in California in 2005.
5. Sprites, Elves and Jets. I blogged about these (relatively new) atmospheric phenomena in 2007. These are basically electrical impulses in the upper atmosphere that occur way above lightning during thunderstorms. Until the modern era, we didn't even know they existed. A rare "blue jet" was photographed this week in Australia. The NOAA graphic below shows what each looks like:
6. Ball Lightning. I believe that I saw ball lightning when I was a child, rolling around in our basement, but I have no proof of it. Stories were all that we had until ball lightning was created in a lab in 2006. The YouTube video below from 2007 shows something similar to ball lightning, although it purportedly lasts for minutes, not seconds, as shown in the video. In 2013, the phenomenon was officially created in the lab. Although it hasn't been filmed yet in the air, it has been reported above ground.
7. St. Elmo's Fire. Objects sometimes buzz or emit tiny filaments of energy (like tiny lightning strikes) when electrically charged. Few pictures of St. Elmo's Fire exist, but it has been seen by airline pilots, as evidenced by this photo.
8. Atmospheric Reflections.I personally think this accounts for the largest part of explained UFO sightings. The atmosphere can cause reflections of street lights on clouds or fog (as illustrated in this photo). There are also non-weather lens flares caused by glass and camera lenses (the "Google Street View UFO" story became a lot less interesting when the reflections were also caught on the road).
9. Other Atmospheric Optics: The Sun can reflect on ice crystals or rain in strange ways to produce atmospheric phenomena such as halos and sun dogs which (especially when only part of the event is seen) can appear as orbs or rainbows in the clouds. The photo of a sun dog shown below was taken by JWWalter in North Dakota in 2005. A fascinating website covers all the different atmospheric optics.
10. Weather Balloons. Yes, it's the classic scapegoat for UFOs, but over 100 such balloons are sent up by the U.S. National Weather Service at least twice daily. Not only do they go up, they pop and come back down. Private companies, in addition to the government and military, are constantly launching new research projects involving balloons, rockets or drones. I think I'd do a double-take if I saw the Google Loon overhead and there's no telling what all man-made objects are in the sky now.
11. Quadcopters & Chinese Lanterns. Stan Gordon said in his seminar that he's recently seen an "epidemic" of reports of UFOs that turn out to be Chinese Lanterns drifting in the winds at night. Even worse, there has been an explosion of sales in small craft such as quadcopters (amateur drones) used for weather research or just recreational entertainment. These craft are self powered and autonomous. At night, their lights look strange indeed. They can even be used to do long-exposure "light painting" photos, although you can also use a hula-hoop for that. (Photo below is of me and my "ufo" drone):
So what does it all add up to? What do I believe, as a scientist?
Recent NASA studies indicate that there could be 100,000,000,000 (100 billion) Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone. Multiply that by the number of (known) galaxies and you're looking at something like 10 billion trillion? (1+e22 or 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000?) planets. The odds are tremendous that there is alien life out there, in my opinion. However... most of them are very far away and would require a long evolution of space travel, something that makes me think it's extremely unlikely they have visited here. In my opinion, there's no concrete, irrefutable scientific evidence that they have.
The other thing that makes me believe that most UFO sightings are false is Occam's Razor. This principle has helped me many times in life and science. It says: "Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but -- in the absence of certainty -- the fewer assumptions that are made, the better." Ask yourself: which is more likely: A known flying object was mistaken for a UFO (because we know this happens tens of thousands of times each year) or an extraterrestrial life-form has evolved to make a long journey to appear in our skies but leave no evidence?
However, there is one thing that bothers me. For illustrative purposes, there are about 70,000 ufo reports per year. Let's say, for the sake of argument that 30,000 of those are probably atmospheric phenomena. Let's say another 30,000 are known aircraft, and another 9,999 are camera reflections.
What if there is JUST ONE that can't be explained?
Thanks for reading.
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