The Brown Mountain Lights. What are they? This question has been around about a century now, as High Country residents and visitors have gazed out over the Linville Gorge area hoping to catch a glimpse of dancing lights.
I got interested in the Lights when a student asked me about them. We got some equipment support from Appalachian State University and started our pursuit. After dozens of viewing runs, I went from skeptical to cynical. I had already determined that the vast majority of sightings are just misidentified natural and man-made lights seen by a public increasingly disconnected from the nightscape.
In 2006, at the nadir of my beliefs, I did an interview for the Associated Press. It was disseminated widely. I got the usual emails claiming sightings, which are hard to believe with the high ratio of bogus to possibly true sightings. But a few were from people who had seen it not from a thousand feet but tens of feet, in the viewing site’s parking lot. Those reports were intriguing, and the descriptions were a lot like a phenomenon called “ball lightning.” Could it be that these mountains produce such phenomena and offer a natural laboratory for their study? I was back in the game.
We formed a research group after Burke County held a Brown Mountain Lights Symposium. We tracked down the history of the lights, to discover that many claims on the internet were wrong. No clear record exists of the Cherokees’ seeing them; the closest we can get to their oral tradition is a collection of myths published by James Mooney. None of these really sounds like the lights. The 1770s surveyor Gerard de Brahm did not record actually seeing the lights and in fact did not travel into North Carolina.
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The first light was probably a CSX Railroad train, since it was seen the same time of the night as the train ran. The appearance of multiple lights is correlated with the electrification of the region. A local huckster promoted them for his hotel, and, in 1960, Paul Rose built a tower on the mountain for tourists who lined up to look. Hucksters are still around, too.
A few years ago, we installed cameras that take photos of the mountain all night long, and we use the images to build YouTube videos of each night. Not catching anything unusual, I was about to give up again.
Then, on the night of July 16-17, both cameras caught an anomalous light (you need two cameras to sort out camera artifacts from real lights). It appeared high over the ridge and background town lights, four times over about 20 minutes. It did not streak like a plane or rising star. A true anomaly, and on a night with lightning.
Well, I guess I will stay in the game.
Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor, and director of observatories at Appalachian State University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. www.upintheair.info