Up in the Air

Science vs. the Brown Mountain Lights

December 15, 2013 

Let’s look at what’s up in the air. Or, maybe not up there.

The Brown Mountain Lights is an enigmatic luminous phenomenon reported in the Linville Gorge area for over a century. I have been investigating the lights for more than 15 years and have, in the last couple of years, helped form a local group of investigators that includes geologists and outfitters in that area.

The lights have been reported from viewing locations on N.C. 181, at the Lost Cove overlook on the Parkway, and at Wisemans View. After a lot of trips to stare in the dark for hours, I became pessimistic: How come some people reported always seeing the lights, yet I never saw anything unusual?

We have traced the history of the lights, and they seem to have morphed over the decades. The earliest report was of a single light that always appeared at the same place and time. An exploration by U.S. geologists concluded it was a train light. Reports of lights then seem to grow with the simultaneous expansion of electricity and lighting in the region.

Claims of the Cherokee seeing the lights were investigated and found to be myths. No convincing description of the lights was found in a book of 500 myths collected around the 1900s. The story that they were witnessed by William Gerard de Brahm, surveying the southern colonies for Great Britain in the mid-1700s, is also untrue. De Brahm never made it into North Carolina. Yet these myths will live forever on the Internet.

After changing from pessimism to cynicism, my own interest was rekindled when I got reports of close-up encounters not likely confused with natural lights. We are documenting these reports with video interviews.

We have installed two cameras that monitor Brown Mountain and the Linville Gorge, with a third camera planned. We have seen some interesting lights but nothing unexplainable yet. You can find a link to the images at www.brownmountainlights.org.

The bottom line is that most people are unfamiliar with the dark, especially the outdoors in the dark. They go to see the lights, they see some kind of lights, and they leave thinking they have seen the lights. So the vast majority of anecdotal reports are bogus, and any statistics collected from them, such as a best time of the year to look, are invalid.

I hope we eventually see the real lights and figure out what, if anything, they are. But we must also expect the possibility that we will determine that they simply aren’t.

Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State University. Email: catondb@appstate.edu. More on this month's column: www.upintheair.info.

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