Mystery Circles: Our Golden Opportunity

Paul Fuller
Magonia 31, November 1988
By 1988 some crop-circle investigators were beginning to realise that atmospheric phenomena explanations for the crop circle mystery were just not adequate to cover the increasingly complex forms that were being created. However there was still a great reluctance to concede that most, if not all, of the complex circles were made man-made. This article may have been one of the last attempts to reconcile Meaden’s ‘vortex’ theory with what was happening on the ground.

In Magonia 27 (September 1987, page 14) John Harney reviewed Mystery of the Circles, BUFORA’s 1986 report on those intriguing crop circles which attract so much publicity every year because of their alleged association with UFOs. In this review, Harney comments on the theory first proposed by Dr Terence Meaden of the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation (TORRO) that stationary whirlwinds or vortexes are responsible for the phenomenon. Unfortunately, Harney dismisses the theory on the basis of his knowledge of ordinary, ascending vortexes (which are generated by insolation) whilst in fact Dr Meaden is proposing a previously unrecognised descending vortex as the cause of the circles.

I think that perhaps the time has come for me to explain in more detail why I have continued to promote the Vortex Theory of Circle Origin, and why at this time more than any other I have become so concerned with the activities of some of my colleagues and their less than critical attitude towards the phenomenon.

Most ufologists are already aware that every summer groups of precisely defined ‘mystery circles’ up to 30 metres in diameter have been appearing without warning in arable crops across southern England. Reports of circles have been published from many parts of the world over the past decade or so but until now no one has suggested a mundane explanation for what is occurring. It is this explanation, and the more sensational views being promoted by some ufologists, which forms the basis of this article.

The mystery circles are fascinating, highly complex features which contain an abundance of clues as to their natural (vortex-related) origin. To begin with, each part of the affected area is very precisely defined – as if a giant probe had been used to cut the circle from the surrounding crop. This feature automatically excludes helicopter downwash as a causing agent because downwash spreads out radially and its effects decline gradually with distance. As Harney points out, the effects of ordinary vortexes also tend to fade under ordinary circumstances; however the very best close-up photographs of vortexes [1] reveal a precisely defined funnel at the core of the vortex. This suggests that, under certain circumstances, vortexes can produce neatly defined areas of crop damage, and this belief is supported by numerous accounts of vortexes which lack severe atmospheric turbulence in the zone immediately surrounding the funnel.

A second, definitive characteristic of the phenomenon is the existence of an off-centred swirl pattern within the affected zone. This swirl clearly mirrors the rotation of the vortex and, significantly, roughly equal proportions of circles display clockwise and anti-clockwise swirl patterns – just as in ordinary (minor) vortex events. [2]

This swirl pattern is usually strongly banded as if the responsible vortex was rotating in an irregular, cyclic manner, whilst the affected crop is laid down in several distinctive layers which tend to point in different and highly divergent directions. This layering is very important because it suggests that the vortex column is moving about the zone of activity and displacing the upper layers of the affected crop on several occasions. If we imagine the vortex as a giant pendulum this layering begins to make sense because the layering is concentrated in the centre of the circle (where most movement will have taken place) and it also explains the off-centred positioning of the spiral centre. Clearly the spiral centre moves with the positioning of the vortex column; its final location within the affected zone depends upon chance factors governing the generation of the vortex column and its (relatively brief) lifetime.

A third, very important characteristic of the circles is the almost total lack of damage to the crop itself. Delgado’s research demonstrated how mechanical depression (e.g., with a chain) automatically damages the heads of the crop and snaps the stems. By contrast, air pressure within a vortex would be ideally suited to permanently deforming the crop in a circle and laying it gently flat without causing such damage. In some circles the heads have been firmly pressed into the ground surface by this strong, down current of air, but even then there is minimal damage to the crop itself; the heads are still largely intact

A fourth, fascinating feature of the circle phenomenon is the sheer variety of different formation types which have been discovered over the past decade or so. Single circles appear by far to be the most common type, but we now know of over a dozen different formations which occur across the English countryside.
These different formations are evocative, beautiful features which stir deep emotions within many observers. It is for this reason that so many people are willing to believe that the circles represent something exotic and incredible.

It is important to understand that the outer rings and satellites in all these formations display the same characteristics as their parent (central) circles, whilst the existence of the outer rings confirms their vortex origin because many vortexes exhibit tiny sheaths of contra-rotating air surrounding the vortex funnel. Corliss [2] cites many accounts of waterspouts with (up to three) outer sheaths all positioned very close to the funnel at the core of the vortex. These sheaths can descend and ascend during the vortex event and they have been likened to the movements of a wriggling, pulsating animal! Significantly, the outer rings of our mystery circles are also positioned very close to the parent circles (although they occasionally bisect the outer circles [4]) and they also display a sinuous, wave-like pattern which seems to be the result of this pulsating sheath described by Corliss.

Dr Meaden points out that the direction of spin in the outer rings is always opposite to the direction of spin exhibited by the parent circle; this confirms that – as in ordinary vortex events – some kind of momentum conservation is at work to prevent the vortex from becoming unstable.
It is a significant fact that the majority of these circles appear close to the bases of steeply inclined hill slopes (e.g. at the Cheesefoot Head ‘punchbowl’ near Winchester and at the Westbury White Horse escarpment in Wiltshire) [5] ‘Trailing vortices’ have been extensively described in the meteorological literature (e.g, on the lee slope of the Rock of Gibraltar); these vortexes are generated by the formation of eddy currents on the lee side of many topographical features, Dr Meaden proposes that most circle formations are created by stationary vortexes generated in this way by ‘standing waves’ of lee-side eddy currents.

A fine example of this process is provided by the Cley Hill, Warminster circles, which Dr Meaden cites in the Journal of Meteorology (Vol. 13, No. 9, May/June 1988). Five circle formations are known to have appeared at this location between 1982 and 1987 inclusive. All five were located on the eastern side of the hill where the prevailing westerly winds produce leeside eddies. On two occasions the wind direction at the time of formation was known to be westerly, thus supporting Dr Meaden’s hypothesis.=

Those mystery circles which do not appear at such locations are obviously created by similar descending vortexes which must be generated within the atmospheric boundary layer. These ‘descending eddy currents’ burrow down from the sky by day or night, under cloudy skies as well as clear skies, and even during heavy precipitation. Their effects are identical to the topographically induced vortexes and their lifetimes are also relatively short (possibly less than 10 seconds), hence the lack of reliable eyewitness accounts.

When Jenny Randles and I wrote Mystery of the Circles we were well aware of the two eyewitness accounts of vortexes creating circles cited by Dr Meaden. We nearly decided to omit these accounts because we were not fully convinced of their value (one involved well-known UFO writer Arthur Shuttlewood!). However, during 1987 a correspondent wrote to the Daily Telegraph to describe his observation of a vortex ‘bouncing’ across a wheat field adjacent to his home in the Malvern Hills. This vortex created two circles according to the witness, but like so many UFO events, it was reported far too late to be adequately investigated.

Clearly an abundance of evidence exists which supports Dr Meaden’s highly original Vortex Theory of Circle Origin. It would be quite wrong for the ufological community to dismiss the vortex theory simply because it does not provide us with an exciting, exotic explanation for the circles. Indeed, the ufologist’c paradigm must include the acceptance of a mundane, 1′natural’ hypothesis for UFO phenomena when such hypotheses become available, despite our willingness to search for more sensational explanatory model= for the phenomena we study.
Although the survey findings do not make
giant conceptual leaps in our understanding
of the circles phenomenon,
they do confirm those aspects which suggest that a natural mechanism is at work

The Vortex Theory offers unique challenge to ufologists because it tests our ability tc evaluate theories and to investigate anomalies in the real world. The theory is golden opportunity for us all to demonstrate our more mature approach to the scientific study of anomalous phenomena and a chance to persuade a sceptical world to take a fresh look at ufology and our data, Regretfully, some ufologists have not recognised this and take every opportunity to dismiss the theory (ever before it has been published) and to discredit its promoters. It is this approach, and the cost to our movement, which I will discuss next.

Although the survey findings do not make giant conceptual leaps in our understanding of the circles phenomenon, they do confirm those aspects which suggest that a natural mechanism is at work,

I have explained in some depth why I find the vortex theory of circle origin so convincing and so plausible, given the nature of the evidence before us and the existence of recognised meteorological mechanisms capable of creating ‘mystery circles’. My description of these mechanisms represents more than three years of research and investigation into the phenomenon which culminated in 1987 with the joint funding of the BUFORA/TORRO Sample Survey which aimed to establish certain, quantifiable aspects of the phenomenon and the beliefs of the landowners concerned.

The aims of the survey were to find out how many circle formations were appearing, how many were being reported, and to establish whether those formations which were being reported constituted a representative (random) sample of these formations which were actually appearing. We were particularly concerned with the way that the formation types being reported seemed to evolve into ever more complex patterns with every passing summer. Such a non-random characteristic seemed quite inconsistent with a purely ‘natural’ theory and suggested that the more complicated formations were really (very clever) hoaxes. [6]

The postal survey was carried out in January 1987 in the English counties of Hampshire and Wiltshire. Ninety valid responses were received from cereal farmers in an area with a high incidence of circle formations. Our findings were:
  1. There was virtually no support whatsoever amongst the landowners that UFOs were creating the circles. Only three of the survey respondents indicated a willingness to agree with this belief, whilst significantly higher proportions of the respondents agreed with Hoaxing and The Weather as likely explanations. Because of the small sample size and a low response rate to this question there was no significant difference between the proportions of respondents who agreed/disagreed with Hoaxing and The Weather as perceive causes of the phenomenon.
  2. The 90 survey respondents produced accounts of 19 circle formations on eleven cereal holdings. Significantly, 13 (68%) of these formations and two of the seven formation types were unknown prior to the survey. Only 2 of the 19 formations (11%) had ever received publicity, thus confirming that the true number of formations appearing must be about ten times the number being reported.
  3. The survey predicted that on average a circle forming event was occurring once every 34,800 hectares (86,100 acres) per year. This implies that every year over 400 circle forming events are occurring in England and Wales alone. [7]
  4. A different, non-random distribution of formation types was reported to the distribution known before. This confirmed that media bias to report only the more exciting (or accessible) formation types was distorting our knowledge of the phenomenon and producing the apparent evolution of formation types.
Perhaps most importantly of all, the survey failed to produce a single account of a ‘paranormal’ UFO creating a circle formation in front of startled farmers. All the survey findings were consistent with the hypothesis that a rare, natural phenomenon was responsible for the circles.

The BUFORA/TORRO Survey was the first such venture between British ufologists and a respected scientific organisation and must represent a minor breakthrough in our (somewhat frosty) relationship with the scientific community. Whilst the survey findings do not make giant conceptual leaps in our understanding of the circles phenomenon, they do confirm those aspects which suggest that a natural (vortex related) mechanism is at work, and as such the survey provides one small piece in the jigsaw of science.

With the success of the survey in mind, I must say how frustrated I have been to see that some ufologists still continue to pander to sensationalism by promoting Their wildly speculative theories about ‘paranormal’ UFOs (?), ‘invisible earth forces’ and ‘lev lines’! These ufologists dismiss my more rational approach to the study of the circles with a wave of their hand as if they were experts in vortex generation and we were fools just released from the asylum. Their obsession with finding an exotic explanation for the mystery circles can only result in the dismissal of all the UFO data by our detractors and the assumption that all ufologists are equally willing to discover incredible causes for anomalous events.

Quite apart from the philosophical problems we face when trying to account for one unexplained phenomenon (the circles) with another unexplained phenomenon (UFOs), these ufologists seem to accept every media-generated UFO report as a bona fide truly unexplained UFO report with the minimum of criticism or investigation. Take for example their ‘eyewitness account’ of a giant UFO creating a circle at Cheesefoot Head near Winchester, affecting three bystanders’ vehicles and being photographed by the primary witness.

When I wrote to this witness made no mention of the alleged photograph of this extraordinary event despite my form specifically asking ‘if you took a photograph, give details’. In addition I find it difficult to believe that any person observing and photographing an event of this magnitude (creating extensive ground traces and affecting mechanical apparatus for an appreciable length of time) would wait several years before sending the only existing negative of this priceless photograph to their local free paper (The Winchester Gazette and Extra) and then simply forget about it when that newspaper mislaid such an important piece of evidence in the rather dubious manner described in Flying Saucer Review, Vol. 32, No. 6!

Furthermore, I note with some concern that this witness could not have observed a UFO creating ground traces in the Cheesefoot Head ‘punchbowl’ way back in 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984 or 1985 (he’s not sure which year) if he had been standing (as he claims) in the car park at this well-known beauty spot. Even the most unobservant UFO investigator should have noticed that circles appearing in the ‘punchbowl’ are simply not visible from the car park due to the lie of the land and intervening obstacles. [8]

Despite appreciable publicity, the two corroborating witnesses (whose names and addresses were rather inconveniently unrecorded) have not come forward to confirm this amazing encounter and, in the meantime, our ‘repeater’ witness (along with two rather elusive policemen) has observed two more UFOs, this time above Winchester city centre.

In my opinion this case cannot be judged as a credible and objective account of a truly incredible (and totally unprecedented) event. It illustrates only too well the dangers of accepting media generated UFO stories at face value and the cost to the UFO movement without careful forethought and a degree of soul searching.

I must emphasise that I too believe there are ‘novel new phenomena’ in the UFO data and that I would be perfectly happy to consider FSR’s view that (‘paranormal’) UFOs were creating the mystery circles if I thought that FSR’s ‘honoured consultants’ understood the ufological facts of life. But when they, enthusiastically promote such a dubious and frankly unbelievable claim like this I just throw up my hands in horror at the damage they are inflicting on the ufologist’s cause.

When FSR carries a full unedited description of the Vortex Theory of Circle Formation to add a more balanced view to the circles debate, and when FSR’s ‘honoured consultants’ learn to familiarise themselves with the established meteorological literature instead of dismissing the Vortex Theory out of hand (because they prefer a more exciting, exotic explanation), then perhaps ufologists will begin to persuade the scientific community to take ufologists and our data more seriously.

At the end of the day, what concerns me most about the mystery circles is not so much their cause (after all, I could be wrong) but their treatment by ufologists and the media. I believe that most ufologists appreciate only too well that the reason why science has ignored our data for over forty years is because of this obsession by large numbers of ufologists with wildly exciting and exotic interpretations of our data. This uncritical approach gives our enemies all the ammunition they need to discredit ufology and the fascinating phenomena we study.

It saddens me to see such naive and emotive support for the UFO theory being promoted again and again in FSR – a magazine which was once the champion of our cause under Charles Bowen, but which has now descended into a fantasy world of MIB and sinister government plots to suppress The Truth. FSR’s current contributors really have no concept of the damage they are inflicting on their own credibility (let alone the credibility of our infant science), and they seem to interpret the Vortex Theory some kind of threat to the established order, instead of theory which will stand or fall on its merits alone.

For ufology to progress it must learn to adopt more stringent investigative criteria before we rush to proclaim anomalies as unexplained. We must learn to discard all those outdated theories which brought so much ridicule down on our predecessors, and must be seen by the scientific community to be co-operative with established, respectable scientists in a common quest for knowledge without recourse to the emotive and quite unnecessary comments being made in FSR about those of who support the Vortex Theory

Regretfully, some ufologists not accept these honourable values. To these people I have simple, direct message. Leave us ufologists alone and take your obsessions elsewhere.

  1. See for example The Guinness Book of Weather Facts and Feats, by lngrid Holford (1977), page 193 and cover,
  2. During 1987 Dr Meaden inspected and measured 66 circles (not formations); of these 30 displayed clockwise swirls and 36 displayed anti-clockwise swirls,
  3. See ‘Tornadoes, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation and Related Weather Phenomena’, by William R Corliss, The Sourcebook Project (1983), pages 154-156,
  4. See for example Flying Saucer Review, Vol, 29, No, (1983), page 15,
  5. Of course, depending on wind speed and the size of the hill slope, eddies can generate vortexes well away from the base of the hill – perhaps as far as 2 or 3 km from the feature responsible.
  6. Readers should note that two circle formations are known to be proven hoaxes (Westbury, August 1983; and Froxfield September 1986).
  7. The 90% confidence interval for the estimate is 63 to 745.
  8. We know of no circles in the immediate vicinity of the car park over the past decade; the nearest circles would have been in the ‘Punchbowl’.