ufo debunking with a grain of salt

February 25, 2009

UFOs. We know them, we love them, we made them an enduring part of pop culture over the last 60 years. Unfortunately, it seems like that’s all UFOs are. A pop culture phenomenon with seemingly countless reasonable explanations which range from mistaken identity, to black aircraft to natural phenomena that casts unusual lights. However, a recent explanation offered for the phenomena doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. Space.com says that sprites, electrical discharges in the upper atmosphere, may be the culprit of some unusual, high altitude UFO reports.

giant ufos

Sprites and their relatives, blue jets, are short lived atmospheric bursts of plasma which tend to be associated with an unusual form of lightning. Some 95% of all lightning bolts during a storm have a negative charge in which the electrons run from the ground to the air. In the other 5% of lightning strikes, the charge runs the opposite way to create positive lightning. And that’s not the only difference. Because positive lightning starts at the top of the thunderstorm, the charge it carries is usually a good deal higher and the burst lasts longer. When there’s a high number of positive strikes coming from a storm, the electrified mesosphere above creates a very brief and very powerful network of plasma tendrils (called candles) up to 15 miles high and 45 miles across. That burst of energy is known as a sprite. A much more concentrated column of these tendrils originating in the stratosphere is known as a blue jet.

Considering that we know what sprites are and the fact that they’re very short lived (only a few seconds), I wonder how they would explain a UFO sighting. The typical UFO encounter involves an object that’s moving across the sky slowly enough to be tracked by eyewitnesses but with a guesstimated velocity that places it in the realm of advanced alien machinery. Since the sprites are there and gone, how would anyone mistake them for an alien spacecraft? If anything, they’d look like enormous explosions overhead, each easily the size of a mountain, or flashes of light in the distance that disappear as soon as they’re spotted. Extremely few UFO reports talk about flashes of light but rather about triangular objects, the new trend in sightings which indicates a black aircraft or a test of an existing stealth jet is the culprit rather than lighting or an everyday airplane being seen at an odd angle during a maneuver.

Trying to explain the unknown that’s usually reported by passionate eyewitnesses with enough exposure to pop culture to make up their minds as to what happened just seconds after their encounter is a serious problem for skeptical investigators. It’s not enough to just throw out an explanation that sounds ordinary and innocuous. When dealing with the subject of UFOs or an occasionally mind boggling claim that just can’t be explained by someone who wasn’t there to see it firsthand, you have to offer explanations that are plausible and actually fit with the typical scenario of the event you’re trying to explain.

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  • Debunkers like to put UFO sightings in the same class as visions of the Mother Mary, stygmata and other religious manifestations. They never ( or hardly ever ) mention witnesses such as airline pilots, law enforcement personnel and ocean vessel captains observing these phenomena in action.

    Sure the human mind can interject its own interpretation of what its perception is, but c’mon now, how can millions of people all over the world be suffering mass hallucinations akin to a religious vision?

    These self-styled “logical” thinking folk have blinders on IMHO.


  • Greg Fish

    Actually it’s the fact that millions of people purport to see them that makes proof of UFOs as alien spacecraft very difficult. If they all saw the exact same thing, over many decades then we could seriously talk about a phenomena that needs a lot more investigative work.

    However, they usually see something different every time. Different lights, different colors, different shapes which change from time to time. Why would an alien species that knows something about mass production build millions of wildly different craft and visit the Earth millions of times over?

    It seems wildly wasteful, sort of like us building a swarm of unique craft and sending them all to another solar system at once. We could do it, but we’d spend far too much on this venture and use way too many resources. Aliens would have the same problem even if they’re much more advanced than us.

  • That’s what makes it almost a metaphysical phenomenon, the different descriptions.

    The “hardware” explanation fails to take this into account and that’s where the individual’s perception comes into play.

    Just what is the brain trying to interpret?

    And with the metaphysical explanation, we’re stepping dangerously close to religion here, and in fact the line has been crossed a few times, i.e., the Heaven’s Gate suicides of 1997.

    As for myself, I think it’s a combination of societal archetypes with some Jungian collective consciousness thrown in for good measure.

    For the life of me, I can’t understand why a Kardeshev T-III or IV would have an interest in us anyway, other than primitive biological study.

  • But that doesn’t make the phenomenon any less real.

    Trying to placate the UFO community with “there, there, it’s only ball lightning” is condescending and insulting to boot.

    Of course, the carnival barkers of UFology like Billy Meiers and his ilk doesn’t help serious discussion of the issue either and that’s who the debunkers often focus on as the “mainstream” of UFology.

  • Greg Fish

    “I cant understand why a Kardeshev T-III or IV would have an interest in us anyway, other than primitive biological study.”

    A Kardashev Type II civilization would be easily able to travel between stars. Types III or IV would be capable of intergalactic travel and it’s very unclear if a species could even make it to such a high level of technological advancement before being wiped out with a GRB, an environmental disaster or just be handicapped by its evolution.

    And yes, I absolutely agree. Lightning is not going to explain any UFO reports and verges on downright condescending when held up against much better explanations like top secret aircraft tests.

  • jypson

    I thought I saw a UFO once, and I was so excited! But then after about 5-10 seconds I realized it was just a B-2 doing a low altitude flyover. It was at an odd angle while banking on approach to Andersen AFB (Guam). If I can be mistaken for a minute, and I used to be in the Navy and still working for the military as a civilian, then Im sure others can be too.

    I’m not saying there are no such thing as UFO’s, but to adametly defend something that I can’t quantify, I can not.

  • James

    I love thei huge ufo in sanfransisco by the golden gate bridge.