Searching for The Brown Mountain Lights

For more than 100 years, mysterious lights have shone over western North Carolina's Linville Gorge and Brown Mountain. In that time people have attributed the lights to everything from swamp gas to train lights to aliens and yet no one knows exactly what they are. Watch as two Appalachian State University Astronomers use special cameras to investigate the lights.

MORGANTON — There are millions of lights in today's night sky. Stars, planes, city lights and hundreds of other things brightening a dark night. Over western North Carolina's Brown Mountain, some people say there is a different kind of light altogether.

"The majority of people don't really see the lights," said retired Forest Service Agent C.W. Smith. "But if you see them one time, you'll know it from there on out."

The lights Smith is referring to are the legendary Brown Mountain Lights. People have seen the Brown Moutnain Lights hovering over Brown Mountain and nearby Linville Gorge, moving back and forth a bit, growing and wavering in intensity before finally guttering out. Smith said he used to see the lights when he would patrol the local forests for his work.

"Those light were different than any lights I'd ever seen," Smith said. "And I knew the area so it couldn't be an airplane, it couldn't be a car; there are no roads or anything like that in the area. From that time on, I believed in the Brown Mountain Lights."

Smith is not alone. People have been seeing bright lights hanging over Brown Mountain for more than 100 years. But despite the thousands of sightings, the countless folktales and the theories ranging from swamp gas to aliens, no one has yet figured out exactly what the Brown Mountain Lights are.

That is why on a cold dark night at a ridge above Brown Mountain, Appalachian State University astronomer Dan Caton and observatory engineer Lee Hawkins climb up onto the roof of a small house on a ridge above Brown Mountain.

"We're astronomers so our day job, or actually our night job is to observe dots of light," Caton said. "So hopefully we're actually going to be able to image real lights and determine what triggers them. That's the big question."

He plans to do that with two astronomy-grade cameras he adapted from his observatory to look over Brown Mountain all night, every night. He recently added the second camera as a check for the first. His digital cameras are sensitive enough to pick up cosmic rays that we can't see with our eyes. When those rays hit the computer chip in the camera, they trigger a bright flash in the picture. The second camera looks at the exact same view of the first so that Caton and Hawkins can tell the difference between random cosmic rays, which can only interfere with one camera at a time and the Brown Mountain Lights which would appear in both. 

"When we see suspect light in one camera, we better see it in the other one," Caton said.

Each morning, Caton downloads 1,300 images from each of the two cameras on the roof and from another camera positioned on the opposite side of Brown Mountain. He puts the images together into a movie and watches it to check for anything suspicious. Three years of data collection, however, have yielded very little in the search for the Brown Mountain Lights.

"We are the world's foremost experts in not actually seeing any lights," Hawkins said.  

Hawkins and Caton have seen plenty of lights over Brown Mountain since they started looking, but they have not yet seen a light they could not explain. Caton said many of the reports of the Brown Mountain Lights can be chalked up to misidentification of lights in the everynight sky.

"People are going to see things when they go out there to see them," Caton said. "We've imaged campers. I got a hiker a couple nights ago. We've seen airplanes come from a distance that can look spooky. I've been fooled by the tail lights of cars."

Caton said he hears stories of people seeing small lights from far away and generally doesn't think too much of them, but Caton and Hawkins still collect data every night. They do that, Caton said, because of the accounts he hears about close up sightings.

"I don't think you're going to mistake something from 20 feet," Caton said. "They have no reason to lie. They saw something, and that's when the ball lightning theory sort of came about because what they saw sounds a lot like ball lightning."

Like the Brown Mountain Lights, ball lightning is something that people have been seeing for a long time but nobody can really explain. The basic idea is that a self-contained pocket of gas somehow generates a massive electric charge. It might float around a little bit or stay still but after a few seconds it fizzles out and dissapears. Scientists have yet to figure out the physics of ball lightning or, indeed, if it even exists. That said, accounts of ball lightning are eerily similar to some of those for the Brown Mountain Lights.

"How do you have that self-contained glob of gas that doesn't just immediately dissipate?" Caton asked. "We don't know. We can't make that in a lab. So if we can figure out how that works it might lead to some interesting new physics."

If the Brown Mountain lights are ball lightning, Caton and Hawkins hope to capture it on their cameras and correlate it with some atmospheric or geomagnetic conditions to determine how ball lightning works. Until they do, they will gather the images from the cameras every night. Their findings can also be seen posted to YouTube each morning. 

— Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, engineering, medicine and the evironment in North Carolina.