Lenticular clouds are often mistaken for UFOs. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Strange clouds, lightning and extraterrestrials: The nature of UFO sightings

When contemplating UFO sightings your thoughts would probably take you about 5000 miles away, to the US Mid-west, where sensational events such as the Roswell incident are part of folk history. But recently, a UFO sighting occurred somewhat closer to home. 

An unusual black ring was spotted floating in the sky above Leamington Spa, which some proclaimed to be the work of aliens. However, the real explanation was less exciting, being just one of many natural and man-made phenomena that are regularly confused with UFOs.

The perfectly formed black ring was spotted by a 16-year-old girl playing tennis with her mother in central Leamington Spa, where it floated in the air for several minutes before evaporating into nothingness. During the following days, social networking sites and local papers were awash with reports that this strange sighting may have been of extraterrestrial origin.

Several experts from different fields searched for a more rational explanation and many different theories were formed on what gave rise to such an object. Some suggested a strange weather event caused the confusion, whilst others suggested an unusually dense swarm of insects or flock of birds were to blame. But these theories were all discounted, with experts concluding that none of them were sufficiently plausible.

One thing was for sure though, it was confirmed by an independent video analyst that the video was not a fake. Just as it seemed the mystery was going to go unsolved, Warwick Castle released a statement that shed light on the mystery:

“As part of our 1,100th anniversary celebrations this year, we’ve been testing a number of fire effects to enhance our daily Trebuchet Fireball Spectacular show – the world’s largest firing catapult. We’ve seen a number of different effects including the vortex images that have been reported.”

It was confirmed by an independent video analyst that the video was not a fake.

So it seemed fireworks tested at Warwick castle were behind the strange sighting. The castle spokesperson went on to say: “As yet we don’t know how the fireworks caused the phenomenon but it’s certainly a spooky spectacle.”

In the case of the Leamington Spa UFO, a man-made phenomenon proved to be the cause of the confusion. But natural phenomena can also produce confounding effects for onlookers.  In fact, one of the most famous UFO sightings in history was explained by a strange weather event, which caused a rare and extraordinary type of cloud cover.

The event in question happened in December 1953 in Agoura, South California. At around sunset, an aircraft engineer named Clarence Johnson noticed a strange motionless elliptical object in the sky, set against a brilliant sunset. The next day a pilot named Rudy Thoren, who worked at the same company as Johnson, also reported seeing the same object in the sky. The plane, flown by Thoren, had five passengers who all gave similar accounts.

Given the credibility of the witnesses, most of which were pilots or engineers, the government took the sightings seriously. An investigation was launched, and after much deliberation it was decided that the strange object spotted in the sky was actually a lenticular cloud, a conclusion that is debated to this day by some.

Sprites Photo: Flickr/JasonAhrns

Sprites, an eerie form of lightning, are often confused for UFOs. Photo: Flickr/JasonAhrns

Lenticular clouds are masses of swirling, yet stationary, dense cloud that can sometimes sit in one place in the sky for hours as other clouds drift by. Interestingly, these clouds take the shape of flying saucers or other crafts associated with extraterrestrials in the media.

These clouds only form in the specific conditions; it takes just the right combination of humidity, temperature and wind to produce a lenticular cloud. These conditions normally occur in valleys or mountainous areas. The flow of damp air over mountain peaks reduces the temperature in the valleys so that condensation and cloud formation can occur.

Lenticular clouds continue to be confused with UFOs even to this day. For example, in September 2013 a strange cloud formation in Scotland caused a flurry of UFO-related posts on social media sites.  The Met office released a statement saying the lenticular cloud in question was likely to have formed over the Cairngorms and drifted down wind to Aberdeen, where it was spotted.

In 2009, scientists at Tel Aviv University claimed that another group of unusual weather events, known as sprites, were responsible for causing many mistaken UFO sightings during the past century. Sprites appear during thunderstorms, and can be described as lightning-like tendrils, being emitted from a dancing ball of light. But what makes them so spectacular is that they occur many miles above the storm clouds, far above where you would expect to see normal lightning flashes.

Given the unusual appearance of sprites, it’s not surprising that extraterrestrial activity has been used to explain their appearance in the skies.  In fact, both long-haul airplane pilots and astronauts have reportedly been confounded by the appearance of this strange phenomenon in the past.

Sprites were discovered in the late 1980s and the mechanisms behind their formation are not well understood. But researchers believe that the electricity from a specific type of lightning may excite the atmosphere above the thunderstorm, causing sprites to form.

There are countless other natural phenomena that have no doubt been confused with UFOs in the past – from the eerie glow of the Northern Lights, to the unusual brightness of the planet Venus and meteors whizzing across the night sky. When these natural events are combined with man-made phenomena such as satellites and experimental military aircraft, it’s not surprising that there are still thousands of UFO sightings across the world every year.

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Comments (4)

  • Is that a real photo of sprites, or just a photoshopped pic for descriptive purposes? I had thought that sprites were only visible ABOVE a certain layer of the earth’s atmosphere. hmmm…..

  • You’re kidding me right? This idea was dumb when it was presented in the 1960s by the US Air Force and it sounds even dumber today. I along with a friend saw two flying disk in the daytime over a beach. No cloud in the world could look like a metal disk with the sun glinting off it’s sides. They went out over the ocean and turn north and zip up the coast. But if you want to live in a world where we expect our scientist to be as exact as possible accept when it comes to UFO explanations than so be It. Who am I to argue with more voodoo science to explain this worldwide phenomenon . By the way you can’t see Northern Lights for Atlantic City and this was 1962 before drones.

  • Has our government been
    making and flying their own UFOs? Why is this UFO being worked on at Area 51?
    Oops, maybe I wasn’t supposed to take this photo!


  • Talked to an alien lately? The Blue Planet
    Project Lost Chapters Book has information on alien languages! Very
    interesting. I guess next you are abducted you will be able to call them some
    bad names in their native language!


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