SCIENCE

Mystery in the fields

Experts study bizarre marks on the ground

NORA UNDERWOOD September 16 1991
SCIENCE

Mystery in the fields

Experts study bizarre marks on the ground

NORA UNDERWOOD September 16 1991

Mystery in the fields

SCIENCE

Experts study bizarre marks on the ground

Jennifer Skinner says that only aliens could have caused what happened in her wheat field outside of Lethbridge, Alta. Skinner’s son-in-law, Cyril Hubbard, was the first member of the family to spot the strange occurrence: on Sept. 1, while harvesting in a field, he noticed two 15-foot-wide circles connected by paths to a 20-foot-wide circle. “I don’t like it,” said Skinner after viewing the site. “There’s no tracks, nothing.

This has been done from the air somehow. It makes me nervous.” Skinner’s is one of at least six mysterious “crop circle sites” that have appeared in southern Alberta fields since Aug. 21. Circles of flattened grain have been reported in hundreds of locations across North America, Britain and Australia. Researchers are baffled by the phenomenon. Says Herman Austenson, a professor of crop sciences at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon who studied a site near North Battleford, Sask.: “I can tell you one thing—it absolutely is not a hoax. But what caused it, I don’t know.”

In Canada, the first crop circles were reported in Langenburg, Sask., in 1974. In the past two years, about 20 more circles have been found in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and more have been reported across the western United States. The largest concentration of circles is in England. According to Ralph Noyes, secretary of the 800-member, year-old Centre for

Crop Circle Studies in London, scientists have documented more than 1,000 so-called circle events in Britain. About half of those have occurred in a 20-square-mile comer of the southern English county of Wiltshire. There, Britons have seen and photographed an assortment of patterns of flattened grain.

Theories about the causes of crop circles range from unconfirmed assumptions about extraterrestrial spaceships allegedly hovering

over agricultural land to scientific explanations involving lightning, magnetic fields and unusual wind patterns. Ieuan Evans, a supervisor in the Alberta government’s plant-diseases section in Edmonton, offers an agriculturally based theory: he says that a lack of nutrients, such as copper, in the soil could cause grain to collapse under its own weight. Still, the most widely accepted explanation comes from Terence Meaden, director of the Circle Effects Research Group in Bradford-on-Avon, near Bath, England. Meaden, who was once a physics professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says that the circles are created by “ring vortices”—electrically charged spinning balls of air that form when winds flow over hills. According to Meaden, the vortices sometimes touch down briefly in fields, flattening the crops growing there in a circular pattern.

Some other experts offer more fanciful explanations. Noyes, for one, said that whatever

is behind the circles “displays an almost limitless inventiveness, an ability to design and redesign.” He added: “What the hell it is, what degree of intelligence it exhibits, I wouldn’t know.”

But whatever their cause, the circles have a strong effect on some of the people who see them. Last summer, Darrell Roth spotted circles in a neighbor’s wheat field near Christopher Lake, 50 km north of Prince Albert, Sask. Roth, the editor and publisher of the Lakescapes Weekly, a tourist newspaper, said that one circle was between 60 and 70 feet in diameter and that the wheat inside it was completely flattened. Around it was a fourto five-foot-wide band of wheat that was still standing and, beyond that, another twoto three-foot-wide circle in which the wheat had collapsed. Roth said that about 300 yards away, there was a smaller set of circles. “It makes you feel a little bit small,” said Roth. “You can’t help but think ‘Who the heck are we?’ when you see something like what I saw.”

Even pranksters are considered a possible cause of the circles. Says Gordon Kijek, director of an Edmonton-based group that studies reports of unidentified flying objects: “We could end up tomorrow with a group stepping forward and saying, ‘We did it, and here’s how we did it.’ ” After the two crop circles were discovered near Lethbridge last week, Kijek collected grain and soil samples from one site and sent them to a provincial laboratory in Edmonton for testing. Still, he says that he suspects some form of intelligent being was involved. “It’s so precise and so neat and so unreal,” Kijek added. “It doesn’t look like a random act of nature.” But the search for the real answers about the mystery so far has taken a circular route.

NORA UNDERWOOD with ANDREW PHILLIPS in London, DONNA KORCHINSKI in Calgary and DALE EISLER in Regina

ANDREW PHILLIPS

DONNA KORCHINSKI

DALE EISLER