The Brown Mountain Lights of Brown Mountain, North Carolina have proven to be one of the most enduring and indeed, mysterious, of all natural phenomenon in the United States. The lights appear to be glowing spheres of red, blue or green light that hover up from the mountain, move around and then wink out or explode without sound. The rare human physical encounter has reported an electrical like charge.
The lights themselves appear at irregular intervals over the top of Brown Mountain according to most sightings. They move erratically up and down, visible at a distance but vanishing as one climbs the mountain. They at first appear to be about twice the size of a star to the naked eye and can rarely appear in vast “swarms”.
With as many causes attributed to such things as swamp gas, to the restless spirits of Indian warriors slain in battle, what exactly are the Brown Mountain Lights and what causes them?
Legends and History:
The oldest known reports of the Brown Mountain Lights date back to 1200 A.D. The cause of the lights according to the Native American people who called this area home state that a battle was fought in the year 1200 and many warriors were slain on the ridges on Brown Mountain. This battle was supposed to have been fought between the Cherokee and Catawba nations. More specifically, the lights were supposed to the be the lost spirits of the maidens who’s husbands or lovers who were killed in that battle so long ago. (Roberts, 1967).
The first known non-Native American scientist to study the lights and the first white record we have of them comes from a German engineer named Gerard William de Brahm. Upon studying the lights, Brahm concluded the lights were caused by nitrous-based vapors that were being emitted by the mountain and mixing and then combusting in the air before degrading away (Roberts, 1967).
Other legends give the cause of the lights to the spirits of Revolutionary war soldiers. A family had migrated across the mountains of western North Carolina, finally settling close to Blowing Rock, at the foot of what is now known as Brown Mountain. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War the father left his wife with her three small children to fight for his country. After the war, he returned to find only the charred remains of his home. Half crazed by despair and grief, he searched frantically for any signs of his lost family. All day he hunted and when night came he continued his long search, lighting his way, with a crude torch. Constantly roaming, it is said that, overcome by hunger and fatigue, he died on the top of Brown Mountain. Thus it is his restless, ever-searching spirit that wanders over that mountain to this very day, haunting it with his eerie beacon (Astronomy Cafe, 2012).
Local lore also states that the cause of the lights comes from the possible murder of a local woman at the hands of her adulterous husband who tracked her into the mountains and murdered her there:
“….Another legend dates back to 1850, when a woman named Belinda disappeared in the
Brown Mountain area, and her husband Jim was suspected of murdering her. Everyone in
the community helped search for Belinda. One night during the search, strange lights
appeared over Brown Mountain. Many believed they were the spirit of the dead woman,
coming back to haunt her killer. The search ended without Belinda being found, and Jim
soon left the county, never to be heard of again. Many years later, under a pile of stones
in a deep ravine on Brown Mountain, a woman’s skeleton was found, and the lights that
had been seen during the search started to appear again. And they have been seen ever
since, reminding evildoers that their crimes will be revealed….” (North Carolina Museum of History, 2012).
The lights continued to be seen and at last, the United States government took an interest.
The Science of Brown Mountain:
In 1913 a United States Geological Survey was conducted to explain what the mysterious lights were that kept appearing over Brown Mountain and in the surrounding area. The 1913 study concluded that the lights were caused by the reflection of locomotive train traffic headlights that used rail road bridges in that area of the Catawba Valley south of Brown Mountain. This early conclusion was put to the test and failed when in 1916 a serious flood knocked out the railroad bridges for several weeks and the lights were still seen even with no trains, cars or power due to the storm, thus invalidating the study in its entirety of the conclusion that had been reached.
In 1919, the Brown Mountain Lights came to the attention of the Smithsonian Institution and the United States Weather Bureau. Dr. W.J. Humphries of the USWB investigated the lights and concluded that the Brown Mountain Lights were the same type of phenomenon that had been described over the Andes Mountains in South America. He did not offer an explanation for the lights, only that they were shared across two continents in that they manifested the same way as the Andes lights.
After further reports of the sightings continued, the United States Geological Society launched a second investigation in 1922 led by George Mansfield. This study concluded that the lights were caused by swamp and marsh gas that was igniting (USGS, 1922). However, there are no marshes nor swamps anywhere near Brown Mountain and furthermore, swamp/marsh gas does not ignite under natural conditions. When ignited under lab conditions, the gas will explode with a loud SNAPPING sound and produce a thick black smoke, neither of which are associated with the Brown Mountain Lights as noted previously.
In 1940, a report by Hobart A. Whitman concluded that the lights were not the result of natural ground sources. He conducted tests and analyzed rocks and soil from Brown Mountain and the surrounding areas for any strange elements and the rocks and soil did not differ from other strata taken from the entire western region of North Carolina.
In May of 1977, the Oak Ridge Isochronous Observation Network (ORION) placed a 500,000 candle power arc light in Lenoir, which is 22 miles east of Brown Mountain. At the same time a group of observers gathered on an overlook on Route 181 which is 3 miles west of Brown Mountain, a favorite spot for watching the Brown Mountain Lights. The observers could in fact see the light as a red-orange glow and thus it was concluded by ORION that the vast majority of Brown Mountain Light sightings were in fact reflections of artificial lights. ORION however, did concede that this explanation did not explain sightings prior to the introduction of electricity in the area and those sightings still remained unexplained. ORION also attempted to recreate the lights through seismic activity by using small detonated charges and was unable to reproduce them. (Astronomy Cafe, 2012).
One theory that was quickly rejected was the possibility of moonshine stills producing the lights. Verifiability of course of this claim has proven beyond a doubt that this was not the case. No moonshiner in his right mind would erect a still on a such a publicly climbed and traveled area.
The most recent study conducted of the Brown Mountain Lights was by the League of Energy Materialization and Unexplained Phenomenon Research (L.E.M.U.R) team starting in 1995 and ending in 2010, a fifteen year period. Below is a sample from their report (Warren, 2012):
Equipment Used in the LEMUR Study:
“…1. Tri-Field Natural EM Meters, Models 1 and 2: These devices are designed to pick up changes in extremely weak DC or “natural” electric fields (as small as 3 volts per meter or v/m), magnetic fields in the microtesla range (as small as 0.05 percent of the earth’s magnetic field when an antenna is used), combinations in variations of electric and magnetic (or electromagnetic) fields, and energy in the radio/microwave range spanning from 100,000 to 2.5 billion oscillations per second (100 KHz to 2.5 GHz) with minimum and maximum detectable signal strengths of 0.01 milliwatt/cm squared and 1 milliwatt/cm squared respectively. The adv6 antage of the Model 2 is an input jack for a coil antenna to be used for measuring magnetic fields.
2. Dr. Gauss/Gauss Master EMF meters calibrated for 50/60 Hz AC and sensitive from 1/10 mG to 10 mG.
3. A handheld Electrosmog Multidetector II Prof I sensitive to either electric or magnetic fields ranging from 5-500 Hz as the ELF (Extreme Low Frequency) setting or 500 and above on the VLF (Very Low Frequency) setting.
4. A large, tabletop VLF (Very Low Frequency) detector with a manually-scannable range of 0-500,000 Hz, using a large coil antenna (1780 feet of coil, as one layer of 24 awg wire, wrapped on a span of 21.5 inches) tuned to 145,000 Hz.
5. A handheld, non-contact infrared thermometer to register surface temperatures instantly in fahrenheit.
6. Digital still cameras and Sony Digital 8 HandiCams capable of sensing into the near-infrared range.
7. A digital volt meter sensitive to milliVolts, both AC and DC.
8. Telluric readings obtained by placing two 3-foot steel rods 15 feet apart into the ground to measure electrical activity.
9. Electrostatic detectors capable of measuring up to 5,000 volts and identifying polarity.
10. A basic spectroscope attached to a digital still camera.
11. Geiger counters sensitive enough to measure microRem and detecting x-rays, alpha, beta, and gamma radiation.
Though these devices were the bulk of our equipment, we additionally employed more simplistic, informal devices (e.g. using AM radios to search for interference). Methodology:
L.E.M.U.R. has spent years interviewing witnesses and camping on, or near, the mountain taking measurements. In 2000, our team was the first to obtain clear video footage of unexplained illuminations on Brown Mountain via our Imaging Specialist, Brian Irish. He used an IR-sensitive camera to obtain over an hour of footage in 2/3 weekends of November (evenings of the 4th and 11th, from sundown to midnight).
We were unable to conclusively exclude some conventional sources of light (such as headlights from 4-wheelers) from portions of the footage. However, some of the footage shows distinct illuminations over rock faces that divide into smaller lights that orbit around each other in an amoebic and fluid fashion, seemingly impossible to reproduce by any conventional means on the rugged, isolated terrain.
In addition to gathering objective data, L.E.M.U.R. consulted with numerous experts in specialized fields (some of whom attended our camping expeditions at the ridge) such as David Hackett (a former nuclear engineer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and member of the ORION–Oak Ridge Isochronous Observation Network–team that researched the lights in the 1970s and 80s), Charles A. Yost (a NASA engineer, in the NASA Hall of Fame, who worked on the Apollo projects and now operates the “Electric Spacecraft” lab and scientific journal), John Connor (a professional geologist in North Carolina) and Primary Forest Researcher Robert E. Messick. Such experts provided valuable guidance and feel our current conclusions have merit.
Principal Results from our Research:
1. Footage of unexplained illuminations on the ridge obtained by L.E.M.U.R. (especially that of Brian Irish) demonstrate that lights can be seen through IR-sensitive cameras even when they cannot be seen by the naked eyes. Sometimes, lights are seen first in the IR spectrum, then are visible to the naked eye as red, flaring to white, and dwindling back down to red and then into the IR range. They therefore appear to change frequencies throughout their duration.
2. In 2000, a specialist in IR photography with L.E.M.U.R. shot a roll of IR 35mm film at the 181 overlook (see http://www.BrownMountainLights.com for directions) when the illuminations appeared. Later, he was shocked to find all his prints completely overexposed.
3. The evening of November 2, 2001, Brian Irish and the author shot clear video footage of a pulsating sphere of white light rising steadily above the ridge and disappearing into the sky over the course of 60-90 seconds. The anomaly produced no sound and could not be explained as a conventional aircraft (no blinking or colored lights).
4. On the mountain at night, especially when lights appear, a Geiger counter will go “haywire.” This has been experienced numerous times by both L.E.M.U.R. and David Hackett. The Geiger reaction does not necessarily indicate alpha, beta, or gamma radiation, but seems to react to extremely high ionization that creates a current in the Geiger tube. One Geiger indicated it was maxed out (more than 10 mR/h on its scale) all night long boths nights of August 8 and 9, 2003.
5. Erratic telluric currents (electricity flowing through the ground) have been measured near the ridge by L.E.M.U.R. without obvious explanation, spanning from tiny milliVolts to spontaneous surges of well over a volt.
6. Our large VLF detector, hooked to an oscilloscope, detected a strong array of disturbances, especially around 140 KHz, producing well-formed, tight oscilloscope patterns at night (often regardless of whether or not lights were apparent to the naked eye).
7. Though L.E.M.U.R. was never able to obtain a clear spectrograph of the lights, Hackett was able to do so and found they produce a wide range of spectra: so wide that it was impossible to ascertain what specific elements may create the illuminations.
8. Nights (such as November 4 and 11, 2000) when the lights appeared to the naked eye often corresponded with a recent, high level of disturbance in the Kp index (a reading of 5 or above, supplied by NOAA, indicating strong distruption of the magnetosphere due to solar activity).
9. Consistent with legend, we found the lights could be most easily observed in the fall during, or just after, a rainy period.
10. We discovered the Brown Mountain area is largely composed of, or contains, layers of quartz and magnetite. Small pieces of magnetite can be easily discovered on the ground and manipulated with magnets.
11. We documented that Brown Mountain is almost completely encircled by thrust faults (Geological Survey Professional Paper 615: Geology of the Grandfather Mountain Window and Vicinity, North Carolina and Tennessee by Bruce Bryant and John C. Reed, Jr.).
12. One of our most successful observation periods, November of 2000, coincided with nearby forest fires.
Hypothesis Based on Results:
1. Considering all data available, the most likely explanation was that those primary illuminations traditionally known as the “Brown Mountain Lights” are a form of plasma, the fourth state of matter, naturally produced by the mountain. Plasma is the product of so much energy being added to a gas (including air) that one or more electrons are ripped from each atom producing a swirling, luminous mass of free-floating electrons and atoms that have a positive charge (positive ions). Plasmas are enhanced by having fuel in the air, such as the carbon produced from a forest fire. The BM Lights may have appeared more often in the past when wood fires were more commonly used. According to David Hackett, ORION also concluded the lights are most likely a plasma phenomenon. Plasmas would indeed interact with nearby human observers since the plasma field would be influenced by the field of a human body.
2. Layers of quartz and magnetite on the mountain create natural capacitors. Quartz is a non-conductor or dielectric (though it will produce electricity when under stress or vibrate when electricity is applied to it), and magnetite is a conductor. Layers of conductors and dielectrics store electrical energy to a critical point until a powerful discharge occurs.
3. There are cavernous holes that run throughout Brown Mountain (some of them can be seen on trails with water running swiftly below). As water runs through the mountain, it charges the layers of quartz and magnetite, in effect charging the mountain’s capacitance. In our lab, L.E.M.U.R. proved that water running over layers of a capacitor can build a charge.
4. At night, the mountain cools and contracts, bringing the layers of quartz and magnetite closer together, resulting in electrical discharges, particularly after water has run through the structure. The contraction of the mountain is enhanced by the thrust faults that surround it, allowing it extra flexibility.
5. Discharges from the natural capacitance presumably provide the most outstanding electrical activity, but strong winds (known as zephyr winds) that blow through the valley building high electrostatic charges may also contribute.
6. As electrical discharges occur, the quartz resonances create complex, overlapping harmonic frequencies, or nodes, similar to those important to tuning Tesla Coils.
7. When numerous discharges, between the mountain and the atmosphere, occur simultaneously from various cliffs and rock overhangs, they sometimes intersect. These points of intersection create points of electrical momentum where one or more discharges swirl. These “pivot points” sometimes spin fast enough to oscillate at a rate in the visible electromagnetic spectrum. Once in the visible EM spectrum, the color changes as the frequency varies; and sometimes the frequency drops so low that it is only detectable in the IR range. Therefore, the traditional lights are simply the only small, visible portion of a much larger invisible discharge.
Their appearance as self-contained spheres is an illusion. As a discharge occurs, sometimes lasting many seconds, the “ball” of light moves back and forth along the layers of discharge and usually winks out once the discharge is complete. More rarely, the pivot point will rise with the shaft of discharge, appearing to strobe or pulsate with the spin, as it floats upward into the atmosphere. The lights are probably occurring more often than believed, but simply are not oscillating fast enough to enter the visible electromagnetic spectrum. Though we have discovered singed trees around Brown Mountain, the plasma balls evidently do not radiate a great deal of heat, at least in one spot for a long period of time, or usually create sounds audible to human ears.
8.) If this model is correct, it might explain how most, if not all, ball-lightning-type manifestations are created: they are not truly self-contained, but are simply the only visible portion of large columns of intersecting electrical discharges following pathways partially determined by electromagnetic nodes. This may especially explain such lights seen over railroad tracks or streams: areas where numerous discharges may originate from various points in a small area and touch each other a short distance above ground. Though this hypothesis is complicated, the number of relevant variables would explain why subjects like ball lightning have been so difficult to understand thus far…..” (Warren, 2012).
The conclusion of the LEMUR joint study seems to indicate that the Brown Mountain Lights are possibly a form of high energy naturally occurring plasma. No other research team has yet independently verified the results and while the data is being analyzed by nuclear physicists, at this time, no absolute conclusion has been reached.
So what are the Brown Mountain Lights? First of all, Brown Mountain itself does not appear to be the focal point. Brown Mountain is not really a mountain but rather a foothill. The highest elevation in the area is barely more than 850 meters or just over 2,700 feet. There are three known cited vantage points for seeing the lights. The most famous is Wiseman’s View, about eight miles west of Brown Mountain, then there is Lost Cove, about nine miles from north west of the aforementioned mountain. In the middle of these two points is an overlook about four miles from Brown Mountain maintained by the Forest Service.
From this look out point, you see Brown Mountain as barely more than a smokey looking dark spot in the rolling hills. The lights appear in the areas above and between Brown Mountain but not on Brown Mountain itself…remember if you try to climb Brown Mountain to look for them, the lights vanish. This indicates and confirms that the lights are not emanating FROM the mountain but rather around it.
Most modern video footage of the lights seems to come from people pointing cameras AT the mountain itself. The mountain is a popular tourist spot and these lights could simply be flashlights or campfires. Depending on the direction that you looked for the lights, the lights could be lost in the glare of the city lights of Winston-Salem. The true lights will always be above the mountain ridge lines and be hovering and free moving. (Skeptoid, 2012).
Despite all the scientific study and all the local legends, we still do not know what the Brown Mountain Lights are. I feel at this point the best conclusion has been reached by a combination of the ORION research and the LEMUR study project in that most of the lights are simply reflections of city and car lights while the rare true light is an as of yet unexplained natural high energy plasma event that if studied and understood have far reaching applications from weapons science to wireless communications.
Right now our country and sciences are focused on space and the oceans, other planets. Perhaps we should re-visit some of our own home-town mysteries as we may yet find that we have more than we bargained for in our own back yards.
— Anthony Milhorn, SSPRS Founder.
Roberts, N. (1967). Ghosts of the Carolinas. Columbia, SC: McNally and Loftin.
The Astronomy Cafe. Brown Mountain Light: History. Retrieved August 13, 2012, from http://www.astronomycafe.net/weird/lights/brown11.htm
N.A. (2005). The Brown Mountain Lights. North Carolina Museum of History. Retrieved August 13, 2012, from http://ncmuseumofhistory.org/fko/NIE/TwistedTarHeelTales/brownmountain.pdf
Mansfield, G.R. (1922). Origin of the Brown Mountain Lights in North Carolina. Geological Survey Circular 646. Retrieved August 13, 2012, from http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/1971/0646/report.pdf
Warren, J.P. (2010). L.E.M.U.R study of Brown Mountain Lights Report. Retrieved August 13, 2012, from http://shadowboxent.brinkster.net/brownplasma.html
When the bottom terminal was positive and the top negative (interchangeable without consequence) we charged a third electrode positive. It was positioned at a slightly upward angle, toward the negative at an approx. 7-10 degree angle (comparable to the slope of points on Brown Mountain), and we created a colorful plasma form, between the primary electrodes, that appeared to be independent and self-contained, like a Brown Mountain Light. The “separated” plasma form, produced by this arrangement, confirmed our hypothesis: that intersecting electrical discharges could create what appears to be a separated plasma form hovering between two primary points of discharge. Gravity did not seem to have an impact on the plasma, and magnets affected it only slightly. Though it was distinct to our naked eyes, it created “blobs” of light when viewed through our IR cameras (just like the BM lights) and also affected our instrumentation like the BM lights.