International Earthlight Alliance

Earthlight Theories and Explanations

Lore and superstition:
What are Earthlights? People have long wondered about glowing orbs of lights that have been witnessed for centuries if not millennia. You can see in the list of names below, that they have been described in supernatural and superstitious terms by cultures whose science was insufficient to explain them ….so people wondered and speculated about their nature and named them according to their perceptions and beliefs.

Names that have been associated with Earthlights 1:

ALP (aerial luminous phenomena)
Amber gamblers
Ball of wildfire
Blazing stars
Bodhisattva lights
Burning shields
Cemetery lights
Corpo Santos
Corpse candles
Corpse light
Dead man's candles
Death light
Devil's bonfires
Earthquake lights
Elf light
Fair maid of Ireland
Fairy death lantern
Fairy fire
Fairy lights
Fata morgana
Fetch candle
Fetch lights
Feu follet
Fiery coruscations
Fiery dragons
Fiery drakes
Fire of destiny
Flaming torch
Flickering fire
Fluffy fire
Fools fire
Flying flame
Foo fighters
Foolish fire
Fools fire
Fox fire
Friar's lantern
Friar Rush with a lantern
Geophysical meteors
Ghost beacons
Ghost fire
Ghost lights
Ghostly lanterns
Ghostly lights
Going fire
Hornet Spooklight
Ignis fatuus
Jack of the bright light
Laim na lasoige
Lambent flame
Lantern man
LP (luminous phenomena)
Lumères de la terre
Luminous clouds
Luminous columns
Luminous vapors
Luz mala
Meg of the lantern
Min-Min lights
Money lights
Mysterious flares
Mystery lights
Night suns
Nocturnal lights
Peggy with the lantern
Phantom effluence
Pixie lights
Robin Good-fellow
Rocket lightning
Sean na gealaige
Sparkling fires
Spirit lantern
Spook lights
Strange lightning
Strange meteors
Teine side
Teine sionnii
The Hessdalen Phenomenon
The swamp ghost
Treasure lights
UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena)
Unctuous vapor
Walking fire
William with the little light

The name “Earthlight” was devised by author Paul Devereux in 1982. We have chosen to use the name”Earthlight” because the lights are usually seen close to the ground. Other names imply assumptions about the character of the lights, but IEA acknowledges that the Earthlight phenomenon may be an undiscovered natural phenomenon whose character we have yet to discover.

Many theories, explanations, and folklore tales exist concerning Earthlights. Some of the names in the list above are descriptive of the folklore. The theories and possible mechanisms show a wide variation. One of the reasons is that not enough physical data has been gathered yet to provide a basis to validate any theory. IEA is conducting research to acquire data so that theories may be tested. Currently, IEA emphasizes that none of these theories have been proven as the cause of Earthlights.

Causes for Earthlights can be separated into two categories; explanations and theories for mechanisms. Explanations presume that Earthlights do not physically exist and that the observation of lights has a different or artifactual cause. Theories imply that Earthlights do physically exist. They speculate on the mechanisms by which they could occur.

Popular explanations:

Popular theories:
Description popular explanations:

Vehicle headlights:
Many speculations have been made that lights seen at various Earthlight sights are actually headlights of cars, trucks, motorcycles or other vehicles traveling along highways, county roads or jeep trails. Indeed, many lights observed at Earthlight sites are vehicles. But the fact that vehicle headlights are in the area, does not rule out the possibility of genuine Earthlights in the same area. The vehicle headlight explanation may fit only lights which are seen in the direction of roads. By examining the spectrum of a light one can determine whether it is a vehicle headlight. Earthlights usually have different movement patterns and different spectra than vehicles.   

A refraction phenomenon wherein an image of some distant object is made to appear displaced from its true position because of large vertical density variations rear the surface; the image may appear distorted, inverted, or wavering.” 2

Mirages are caused by the way in which light passes through air layers of different densities. As light waves move through the air layers, its path is bent or refracted toward the denser air. The index of refraction (amount of bending) for air varies with the density of the air. Air density is strongly dependent on its pressure, temperature and water vapor content.

Mirages appear under certain weather conditions. Spectacular mirages such as the Fata Morgana mirage (which distorts images, making them appear to elongate and rise vertically), can trick the brain into thinking it sees something quite different from what is actually there. Sometimes mirages reflect light from over the horizon; a light that appears to be up in the air can actually be a distant car headlight from a road on the other side of a mountain. It is also possible to see a light from an airplane high up in the air reflected from the ground giving the appearance that the light was actually on the ground.

More information can be found at the Weather Doctor’s web pages:

The mirage may be an explanation for some of the lights seen, as long as weather conditions are conducive for such occurrence, and there is a source of light in the distance. The mirage explanation can not account for lights seen by people located at different locations, who see the same light in different directions. The mirage explanation also does not fit when a light illuminates the ground beneath, or moves rapidly over a large (>30º) horizontal angular distance.  

Light sightings near airports may often be aircraft. However, aircraft may not be the full explanation to account for all of the lights observed. Special attention needs to be paid in order to discriminate aircraft from genuine lights. Some Earthlights that are seen above the horizon can be confused with aircraft. Usually, aircraft have red and green (port and starboard) strobe lights as well as top and belly strobe lights. These strobe lights usually flash once per second. They are indicators that the object/light is most likely an aircraft. Often more puzzling, are aircraft with landing lights on, flying on departure or approaches to airports when their altitude is too high for the wingtip red and green strobes to be observed. In these cases only the landing lights are seen from the ground and can be confusing to Earthlight observers. When the pilot turns the landing lights off after takeoff, the airplane seems to suddenly ”disappear” because smaller lights cannot be seen if the altitude altitude is too high. Aviation procedures are structured such that landing lights may be turned off at precise precise times during climb out after takeoff. Because most airlines’ flights are scheduled, observers at a specific location may see objects about the same time in the sky each night, that seem to approach or rise vertically then ”disappear”. Such aircraft may be mistaken as Earthlights specific to that area.

Airport approach patterns can also be a source of confusion. Many observers assume that aircraft fly straight to airport runways. Although this is often the case, standard airport approach patterns can cause multiple lights that appear suspended in the air or slowly drifting downwards, then suddenly disappear. Airport approaches are actually a horizontal rectangle over the airport that begins, flying in the opposite direction of the airport (downwind leg) along side the airport runway. Next, an aircraft turns to the base leg, perpendicular to the runway while it continues to descend. Finally, the aircraft turns towards the runway on the final approach, continuing to descend. An observer on the ground may see several airplanes descending at various altitudes as they fly towards him on the any of the legs. The lights seem to disappear when the airplanes turn to the nex t leg of the approach and the landing light beam is no longer in the direction of the observer. If multiple lights appear in an equally spaced vertical line, it is probable that this is a aircraft landing pattern. Atmospheric turbulance can make landing lights twinkle. If the airport is near a body of water, mysterious reflections can arise that make it appear as if the light is submerging. Weather conditions can also distort and affect the appearance of landing lights close to the ground.

Examining the spectra of lights near airports is helpful in discerning aircraft lights. 

Planets and stars:
In 2003 the planet Mars was very close to earth. It appeared as a bright orange orb especially around sunset. It was large enough to even momentarily fool some experienced Hessdalen observers when it appeared after clouds suddenly parted. Incidents like these also occur with the planet Venus and even the bright star Sirius as well as other astronomical bodies. Stationary objects above the horizon are often astronomical bodies. Such sightings should be checked against astronomical software that will show the night sky patterns for given dates and times.  

Campfires, bonfires, garbage fires oil refineries, grass and forest fires are all sources of nighttime illumination. Although they can be mistaken for Earthlights, usually these are not plentiful enough to explain a significant portion of Earthlight sightings. Use of a telescope or binoculars will reveal the nature of this kind of light.  

Yard lights:
Earthlight sites are usually polluted by electric outdoor lights. Yard and building lights always add confusion to Earthlight sightings. Indeed many sightings are often these types of lights. They can sparkle and scintillate due to atmospheric disturbances usually wind or heat. However, at Earthlight locations, genuine Earthlights can occur among the yard and building lights such as at Marfa Texas and in Southern AZ. It is critical that observers know the bearing of all man-made lights from his or her location before making assumptions of a valid Earthlight sighting. Known yard lights are valuable ”standard lights” to use to identify the bearing of Earthlights that may appear.  

Swamp gas:
Burning swamp gas was first proposed as an explanation by Dr. J.A. Hynek in 1966 to explain observations of luminous phenomenon in a Michigan swamp. Methane or swamp gas, caused by decaying vegetation, has been known to ignite spontaneously and to cast a flickering light. This explanation may only fit a small fraction of observations where there are lights above swamp areas. The swamp gas explanation does not fit when a light moves against the wind, or when there are no swamps in the area.  

Virtual images induced in the human brain:
Neurophysiologist Dr. Michael Persinger proposed that strain fields within the Earth’s crust may produce electromagnetic discharges that may manifest by directly affecting the human brain so that the observer will perceive he or she is viewing a moving body of light. Persinger has been able to produce bizarre light effects by placing a helmet that generates similar fields on the heads of volunteers in the laboratory. This theory may account for some sightings, however since Earthlights can be captured on 35mm film and on video cameras and measured in other ways, it is not the explanation for the entire Earthlight phenomenon.  

Description of Popular Theories:

Theory Overview:
IEA does not necessarily agree with or support the theories below. They are simply a collection of theories and explanations that are offered as educational information to apprise you of current thinking about Earthlight mechanisms.

Tectonic Strain Theory (TST)
Strain can build up in the Earth’s crust through various processes, as tectonic activity, tidal action and human activity such as dams and reservoirs. Dr. Michael Persinger 3, 4 and Dr. John Derr have both hypothesized that strain fields within the Earth’s crust may produce electromagnetic discharges that can manifest by becoming visible as a moving body of light. Marsha Adams’ work supports this hypothesis as she has observed fluctuations in Extremely Low Frequency electromagnetic emissions prior to earthquakes.5  Reports of light observations have been made over a large radius from the epicenter of large earthquakes before they occur. When lights are seen in an area prior to an earthquake, they are called “earthquake lights”.

Although this is one of the more attractive proposed mechanisms for Earthlights, it probably does not explain all of the valid sightings. Earthlights do occur near areas with seismically active histories such as Marfa Texas. However Earthlights are rarely seen in other known seismically active areas such as California. Additionally, lights are seen in areas of low seismic activity such as Hessdalen Valley. So although this theory may explain some of the lights it is not likely to be the explanation for all of them.   

Volcanic activity:
Author and researcher Egon W. Bach has found that reported observations cluster around volcanoes.6   El Popo (Popocatepetl in Mexico) became active in 1991. In the same year people in Mexico started reporting lights. Most of the sightings were close to volcanoes. El Popo has been active for many years, and so have the observations of lights in the Mexican highland.

The proposed mechanism is as follows: Ultra Low Frequency (ULF) electromagnetic waves may trigger a process that causes light. ULF may be produced when volcanic activity increases, bubbles of gas in magma float up to the surface. Bubbles of gas disturb the magma surface supporting the oscillations on the surface, which gives off ULF electromagnetic waves.7 - Significant anomalous changes in the ultra low frequency range (≈0.01 Hz) were observed in both geoelectric and geomagnetic fields before the major volcano-seismic activity.8  Strand, Fryberger and Devereux measured increased amplitude fluctuations in the geomagnetic field close to the volcano Popocatepetl on an expedition 1996.9

One hypothesis is that these anomalous electromagnetic discharges may trigger a process that causes a visible moving body of light. This is similar to the tectonic strain theory. This theory may explain sightings which occur close to active volcanoes. This theory does not fit Earthlight observations where there are no active volcanoes.  

Geologic Fault lines:
Author Paul Devereux found that reported observations clustered around geologic fault lines in the UK.10  The fault line observations support Persinger/Derr’s tectonic strain theory. However it does not explain lights that occur away from fault zones.  

Solar activity
Several researchers have speculated about relationships between solar activity and the appearance of Earthlights. Teodorani and Nobili analysed the occurrence of lights in the Hessdalen Valley against the sunspot number. They found no correlation.11 Gori proposes that Earthlight appearance may be related to the electron density of the ionosphere.12 The electron density varies seasonally and with solar activity. Adams has performed statistical analysis of California sightings with additional geophysical variables linked to solar activity. The analysis is in process and looks promising. It will be published later on this web site.

Here is a link to further specific mechanisms

Page by Erling P. Strand and Marsha H. Adams February 17, 2004

1 List courtesy of Jader Monary, IRA-CNR, Italy
2 The American Meteorological Society’s Glossary of Weather and Climate
3 Persinger, Michael A. (1976) “Transient Geophysical Bases for Ostensible UFO-related
      Phenomena and Associated Verbal Behavior", Percept. Motor Skills, 43, 215-221
4 Persinger, Michael A., and Lafreniere, Gyslaine F. (1977) “Space-Time Transients and Unusual
      Events”, Nelson-Hall. ISBN 0882294628
5 Adams, M. (1990) “Some Observations of Electromagnetic Signals Prior to California
      Earthquakes”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 4, Number 2
Kopytenko, Nikitina, (2003) Geophysical Research Abstract, Vol.5 0037
6 Bach, E. (1993) ” ’ Ufo’s’ from the Volcanoes” ISBN 1557790620
7 Kopytenko, Nikitina, (2003) Geophysical Research Abstract, Vol.5 0037
8 Proc Acad Sci USA, 2002 May 28;99 (11): 7352-7355
9 Unpublished, Discovery Channel
10 Devereux, P. (1989) ”Earth Lights Revelation” ISBN 0713722096
11 Teodorani, M., Nobili, (2002) ”A Optical and Ground Survey in Hessdalen”
12 Gori, F. (2003) ”Hessdalen 2002-I.C.P.H. Mission: Electron Density Hypothesis”






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