His patience was rewarded.
When we talked to physicist Daniel Caton last month, the Appalachian State University professor was frustrated.
He’d spent years looking into the mysterious phenomenon of the Brown Mountain Lights, those oddball apparitions reported for at least a century in the North Carolina highlands.
He’d mounted an electronic expedition to keep an eye on the rugged Brown Mountain ridge every night. And every day when he spun through the video harvest there was nothing of note.
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There were plane lights, campfires, the well-worn tracks of planets and stars trudging across the heavens and the glow of far-off Lenoir.
But nothing out of the ordinary.
“I was getting down about it. We haven’t seen anything in all these months.”
Caton’s team decided they’d keep up surveillance for one more summer, then probably call it quits. Research is expensive and getting grants to stalk ghost lights isn’t as easy as you might think.
Then, on July 17, Caton was reviewing the mountain’s slumber from the night before. He was a few minutes before midnight, and bam!
High over the ridge, the Brown Mountain Lights did their stuff. A bright orb suddenly appeared and then vanished. Then it came back, same spot. And then an encore.
Caton, a serious scientist, does not shout “Eureka!” at such times.
“I said, ‘What is that? That’s interesting.’”
He keeps two cameras pointed at the ridge. They’re mounted on a remote $100,000 house with a million-dollar view.
He borrows the owners’ internet account to send back the images.
If something shows up on one camera but not the other, then he assumes he’s seeing a lens flare or some other electronic gremlin.
He checked the second camera. It caught the same show at the same time.
Then Caton and his colleagues dissected the images and could come up with no earthy reason for the light to be there.
It was the first time the lights had been captured on video by the App State scientific team and it ended a long, dry run. They’d had two cameras working together since February.
“It seemed to be fixed high over the ridge,” Caton says. “That’s the first anomaly I’ve seen. I’m sort of back in the game.”
Each frame on the video lasts 30 seconds, so Caton estimates the lights lasted less than a minute.
He doesn’t know what the phenomenon is. He likes a theory that they may be ball lightning, a rare and little-understood miasma known since ancient times.
But he’s a scientist and is more interested in making repeated, measured observations of the lights and perhaps finding a pattern.
“There’s a huge range of atmospheric phenomenon,” Caton says. Some of it is still unfolding.
For decades, pilots reported seeing lights flickering upward from thunderstorms. Nobody paid much attention until 1989 when University of Minnesota researchers captured the waves on a low-light camera by accident.
Now they’re routinely photographed from space and the subject of extensive study. We still don’t know exactly what they are, but we know what they look like.
Same thing up on Brown Mountain.
Caton estimates about 95 percent of the observations from people who claim to see the lights are bogus. They’re maybe seeing campfires, meteors, distant towers, aircraft. Maybe 5 percent, he thinks, could be the real thing.
After months of no-shows, he’d wondered whether the lights had petered out.
Welcome home, Brown Mountain Lights. We missed you rascals, whatever you are.