No matter how they try, scientists ranging from paranormal investigators to serious physicists are unable to unlock the mystery of the Brown Mountain Lights in Burke County.
“Artists and scientists alike have congregated around this phenomena,” said Joshua P. Warren, Asheville native turned paranormal investigator who spoke before a crowd of 120 Saturday at city hall at a symposium on the Brown Mountain Lights.
The Brown Mountain Lights, which can be seen from several vantage points along the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Brown Mountain Overlook on North Carolina Highway 181, have been explained as a series of orange-like orbs by those who claim to have seen them.
Stories surrounding the lights range from Indian legends about former slaves to UFO and U.S. military activity.
“The thing that makes the Brown Mountain Lights so great is that it is a blank slate upon which you can project your imagination, your dreams, your visions,” said Warren, who has made guest appearances on the National Geographic and Discovery channels, among others.
One theory Warren posited to the audience that may explain the phenomena is that water flowing through Brown Mountain causes the land to act as a capacitor, a natural conductor of electricity. Tannic acid that runs through the water may create a significant charge that releases light.
Warren said the best time to view the lights is possibly during November when leaves are off the trees and there is a dramatic change in temperature from day time to night time.
However, Dan Caton, professor of physics at Appalachian State University, stated there is no proof that visiting Brown Mountain at a certain time of year will make the lights more visible. He also disputed Warren’s science and said that there simply has not been enough recorded, scientific data to determine either the origin of the lights or why they occur.
Despite absence of scientific explanation surrounding the lights, audience members attended the event with photos and stories of their own to share.
Burke County Director of Tourism, Ed Phillips, said his office gets so many questions from the public about the lights he thought bringing in two experts who know about them might help generate some answers.
“My job is to find unique things about Burke County and promote them, and this certainly qualifies as one,” he said. “They’re real. Thousands and thousands of people have seen them. And there is something creating these lights.”
The lights are described as balls of light that move at various speeds. The first published account of the lights appeared in 1913 in the Charlotte Daily Observer and chronicles the Morganton Fishing Club’s sightings.
Explanations include headlights from locomotives and cars, moonshiners signaling each other, phosphorescence from decaying stumps and logs, radium emanations and chemical reactions. Others believe the lights are similar to St. Elmo’s Fire — an electrical phenomenon — or the Andes light of South America.
The U.S. Geological Survey has twice undertaken an investigation of the lights. The first investigation in 1913 concluded the lights were reflections from locomotive headlights.
In 1922, the second USGS investigation concluded the lights were caused by the spontaneous combustion of marsh gasses. The mountains create a basin-like area and air, of different temperatures and densities, move into the basin creating a unstable conditions and the lights.