The House Intelligence, Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence and Counterproliferation Subcommittee held a hearing this week on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs). If you are old school like me, you probably think of these as Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs). UAP is just a more contemporary and apparently less stigmatized labeling of what many of us called UFOs. As I watched a portion of the hearing, it was mentioned that meteorological expertise is among the selection of disciplines consulted by the United States Office of Naval Intelligence Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF) program. Here are five weather-related things that likely get reported as UFOs (or UAPs).
Weather Balloons are certainly a culprit. According to the National Weather Service (NWS) website, “Weather balloons carry an instrument called a radiosonde which is tracked by specialized ground equipment.” These balloons are simultaneously launched by over 90 NWS offices a few times a day to collect information about the upper atmosphere. Such information is vital for our weather prediction models and diagnosing severe weather. Other atmospheric researchers, not affiliated with NWS, use weather balloons as well.
Lenticular clouds are often reported as UAPs. According to a NASA website, they are formed, “When strong winds blow across complex terrain, causing the water vapor in the air mass to alternately compress, then decompress, and thus condense into shapes which roughly mirror the terrain beneath.” If you see these clouds and are flying on a plane, get ready for turbulence too.
Atmospheric electrical phenomena can also be confused as UAPs. In a 2010 Livescience article, Bjorn Carey and Remy Melina wrote, “Sprites suddenly appear when lightning from thunderstorms excites the electric field above the storm, producing dancing flashes of bright light.” There are a host of other upper atmospheric electrical phenomena like blue jets, elves, trolls, and gnomes. If you are not familiar with these things, they would certainly come across as “unidentified.” For a deep dive into these atmospheric process, the University of Albany has a great “101” website.
Optical phenomena like rainbows are pretty common. However, there are some other atmospheric optics that may not be as familiar to many people. The processes of reflection, refraction, and diffraction of light can produce some really interesting things in the sky. The image above is from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) website and shows a Parhelic circle comprised of various bright spots often referred to as “mock suns.” This spectacular optics are caused by the presence of ice crystals interacting with sunlight (mainly refraction). There are numerous other interactions caused by different light interactions and water phase states. These include: corona, glory, green flashes, parhelia, Bishop’s Ring, and rainbows. WMO has a fascinating website explaining all of them.
As a reminder, meteorologists do not study “meteors,” however I suspect that Venus and other celestial objects are often falsely identified as UFOs too.