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Photo illustration by Rob Moore | Watauga Democrat

Originally published: 2012-02-09 09:57:49
Last modified: 2012-02-09 10:00:54

Demystifying the Brown Mountain Lights

by Anna Oakes

Shrouded by mystery and masked by confusion, the legendary Brown Mountain Lights have defied explanation for decades.

In recent years, however, researchers have bolstered efforts to detect, analyze and even forecast the phenomenon, described as balls of light that appear along the Brown Mountain range in Burke County. On Saturday, Feb. 11, two of these researchers will share their theories and findings at the first Brown Mountain Lights Symposium, hosted by the Burke County Tourism Development Authority (TDA) in Morganton. 

The sold-out event features Appalachian State University (ASU) physics and astronomy professor Daniel Caton and Joshua P. Warren, a paranormal investigator, author and radio host based in Asheville. The symposium includes remarks by speakers, a catered meal and a guided field trip to the Brown Mountain Overlook on N.C. 181.

“There's a lot of interest. I sold 120 seats — I probably could have sold 500,” said Ed Phillips, director of tourism for the Burke County TDA. “I've got people calling me every hour.”

In addition to the N.C. 181 overlook, Brown Mountain is visible from Wiseman's View in Pisgah National Forest and from the Lost Cove overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The earliest sightings of the Brown Mountain Lights have not been confirmed; some say they were seen by Native Americans, and other publications claim that surveyor D.E. Brahm spotted the lights in the 1770s.

The Charlotte Observer published a 1913 article detailing the Morganton Fishing Club's account of seeing the lights: “With punctual regularity the light rises in a southeasterly direction from the point of observation just over the lower slope of Brown Mountain … It looks much like a toy fire balloon, a distinct ball, with no ‘atmosphere' about it … It is much smaller than the full moon, much larger than any star and fiery red.”

Explanations for the phenomenon are as varied as the sightings, ranging from ghosts to aliens to vehicle headlights.

Warren is president of the League of Energy Materialization and Unexplained Phenomena Research (LEMUR), which in 2004 published a “Report on the Cause of the Mysterious Brown Mountain Lights.” The report concluded that the lights are most likely a form of plasma, an ionized gas. 

The Oak Ridge Isochronous Observation Network in Oak Ridge, Tenn., reached a similar conclusion in the 1970s.

Caton has shown interest in the Brown Mountain Lights for about a dozen years.

“We worked on it for a number of years and got cynical about them,” he said, but recently he has revived his efforts and is working to install remote viewing equipment at Wiseman's View. The equipment will transmit images to a website, where viewers can monitor the images and send a message to researchers if they think they see something.

“If it looks real and interesting, then we can jump in the car and go look,” Caton said. Once researchers can correlate sitings with triggers such as geomagnetic activity and weather, they may be able to more accurately predict the lights' appearance.

“It must be some natural phenomenon that produces it. The bottom line is, I hope we explain it, and I don't think we'll ruin it [for people],” Caton said. “I know how a rainbow works, and I still appreciate rainbows.”

Caton has expressed skepticism about Warren's methods, which he called “junk science.”

“They're not scientists, and they buy instruments and point them across the gorge and think they're doing science,” he said.

Saturday's event is sold out with a waiting list of more than 50 people, but the Burke County plans another event in the fall, Phillips said. In addition, the TDA is launching a Brown Mountain paranormal expedition that will likely become a monthly event led by Warren. The event, open to 20 people for $99 each, includes dinner and a brief presentation in Morganton followed by a drive to a viewing point. Warren will distribute equipment to the group, and at the end of the evening group members will share data and what they've seen.

“It's a pretty interesting way to let people get involved with the research that's going on and have fun with it,” Phillips said.

For more information, contact the Burke County TDA at (828) 433-6793 or find its page on Facebook.