Cloud AnomaliesOne pleasant summer morning in 1975, an Oyster Bay, New York, science teacher named Tom D'Ercole was in his driveway about to enter his car when he took a last glance up at the sky. There, hovering above the roof of his house, he saw a small dark cloud unlike the occasional cumulocirrus clouds that were floating by at a much higher altitude.
"The 'cloud' seemed to move and slightly enlarge as I watched it," D'Ercole related. "This basketball-sized 'cloud' floated back and forth across the peak of the roof, changing in shape from a small globular mass to a larger ovoid and finally becoming an abstract, multicurved, dark, vaporous 'something.' It finally measured about six feet in height and 11/2 feet in width."
Stunned and unable to think of a rational explanation, he continued to watch in disbelief as events took an even stranger turn. The cloud seemed to inhale, purse its "lips," and direct a stream of water toward him and the car, soaking both. After a minute the spray stopped, and the cloud vanished instantly.
After changing his clothes, D'Ercole took his wet shirt to Garden City Junior High School, where he worked, and ran a pH test on it. The precipitation was simply water.
This event, which sounds like nature's idea of a prank, may or may not be beyond current science's ability to explain. Clouds are capable of peculiar appearance and behavior. In his Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena (1983) William R. Corliss culls from the scientific literature reports of cloud arches, luminous clouds, rumbling clouds, clouds with holes in them, and more. Though unusual, these are, no doubt, mostly or entirely of more interest to meteorologists than to those seeking evidence of truly inexplicable events in the atmosphere. This entry concerns the latter: instances of clouds so peculiar that some of them, in fact, may not have been clouds at all.
Falling from cloudsFalls from the sky of organic or inorganic materials sometimes are associated with unusual clouds.
One interesting case, reported in scientific journals of the period, concerned a small, slow-moving, perfectly spherical white cloud which suddenly appeared in an otherwise clear sky northwest of Agen, France, at 11 A.M. on September 5,1814. Within a few minutes it stopped and remained motionless for a period of time, then abruptly sped southward, all the while revolving on its own axis and emitting earshattering rumbling noises. These climaxed with an explosion and the expulsion of a variety of stones, some of them of impressive dimensions. The cloud then ceased its movement and faded slowly away.
Comparable events are recorded at Sienna, Italy (1794), Chassigny, France (1815), Noblesville, Indiana (1823), and elsewhere.
In a letter published in a 1932 issue of Science, John Zeleny recalled a strange sight he had witnessed "on a clear summer night at Hutchinson, Minnesota, some 35 years ago." A solitary brightly luminous cumulus cloud "rose majestically from the eastern horizon," he recalled, "shone with a uniform, steady, vivid, whitish light and passed directly over the town. When the cloud was overhead a great shower of insects descended to earth covering the ground all around to the number of about 50 to 100 per square foot. These insects proved to be a species of hemiptera and were nonluminous."
That same summer (if Zeleny was correct in thinking the episode to have taken place in 1897) numerous small, blood-colored clouds filled the sky over Macerata, Italy. An hour later a storm broke, during which thousands of seeds fell. Unfamiliar to local people, they were eventually identified as being those of a kind of tree found only in central Africa and the Antilles.
Cigars in clouds"Although I have studied the skies for many years," Charles Tilden Smith wrote in the British scientific journal Nature, "I have never seen anything like it before." "It" was two triangle-shaped shadows in the clouds. These dark patches maintained their stationary position even as the clouds rolled on. To all appearances, he said, each was a "heavy shadow cast upon a thin veil of clouds by some unseen object."
This sighting took place on April 8, 1912, at Chisbury, Wiltshire, England. After the commencement of the flying-saucer era 35 years later, it would have been noted in the UFO literature as yet another instance in which UFOs had hidden themselves in clouds. As early as 1919, in The Book of the Damned, anomalies chronicler Charles Fort was speculating, "If a large substantial mass, or super-construction, should enter this earth's atmosphere, it is our acceptance that it would sometimes ... look like a cloud."
Fort's prescient remark anticipated a later phenomenon which would be dubbed the "cloud cigar." Cloud cigars figured in a number of UFO reports from the late 1940s (what may have been the first was reported in Toronto in November 1947) into the 1960s but, for some reason, few if any after that. Usually such objects were associated with smaller disc-shaped structures; thus cloud cigars were also known as "motherships."
just before the onset of the great autumn 1954 UFO wave in France, several witnesses, among them a businessman, two police officers, and an Army engineer, recounted a spectacular observation of an extraordinary object over the town of Vernon. Businessman Bernard Miserey, who watched it from his driveway at 1 A.M. on August 23, described it as an enormous vertical cigar, 300 feet long, hovering above the north bank of the Seine River 1,000 feet away. According to his testimony, "Suddenly from the bottom of the cigar came an object like a horizontal disc, which dropped at first in free fall, then slowed, and suddenly swayed and dived horizontally across the river toward me, becoming very luminous" before vanishing in the southwest. Over the next 45 minutes other, similar discs dropped out of the cigar. By this time the mother craft had lost its luminosity and disappeared into the darkness.
Though no clouds are mentioned in connection with this sighting, it set the scene for an even more spectacular event. This one, with hundreds of witnesses, took place three weeks later on September 14, in the southwest of France along the Atlantic coast. At 5 P.M. while working with his men in a field, a wealthy farmer who lived near St-Prouant saw a "regular shape something like a cigar or a carrot" drop rapidly out of a thick layer of clouds. The object, essentially horizontal though tipped slightly toward the earth, was luminous and rigid, and its movements did not correlate with the clouds just above it. It looked, Georges Fortin said, like a "gigantic machine surrounded by mists." It ceased its descent, then moved into a vertical position and became motionless.
By now citizens of half a dozen local villages, as well as farmers living in the region, were watching in awe. White smoke like a vapor trail began to pour out of the bottom of the object and head straight down before slowing and ascending to circle the cigar in ascending spirals. By the time it got to the top, the wind had blown away all the smoke or vapor, revealing its source: a small metallic disc which shone like a mirror and reflected light from the larger object. The disc darted about the area, sometimes moving with great speed, sometimes stopping abruptly, before finally streaking toward the cigar and disappearing into its lower part.
"Perhaps a minute later the 'carrot' leaned over as it began to move, accelerated, and disappeared into the clouds in the distance," Fortin told investigators, "having resumed its original position, point forward. The whole thing had lasted about half an hour." Other witnesses up and down the valley confirmed this account. Meteorologists confirmed that no tornado or other unusual meteorological activity was occurring at the time of the sighting.
A 300-foot-long, dull-gray, cigar-shaped machine emerged from a cloud during a rainstorm over Cressy, Tasmania, Australia, on October 4, 1960. Among those who saw it was the Rev. Lionel Browning, an Anglican minister and Tasmanian Secretary of the World Council of Churches. As he and his wife watched this extraordinary sight-they estimated the object to be four miles away and 300 feet off the ground-five or six domed discs, approximately 30 feet in diameter, shot out of the clouds just above and behind the cigar. They headed toward it "like flat stones skipping along water"exactly how Kenneth Arnold described the motion of the discs he saw over Mount Rainier, Washington, on June 24, 1947, in the sighting that ushered in the UFO age.
"After several seconds the ship, accompanied by the saucers, reversed the way it came," Browning reported. "It . . . was gone from sight after 30 seconds.... It appears the ship sailed on for some seconds unaware that it had shed its protection. Possibly when this was discovered, the saucers were called to the mother ship. The objects then moved back into the cover of the rain storm."
UFO-like cloudsThis incident, which took place on the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of West Africa, south of Cape Verde, on March 22, 1870, is from the log of the barque Lady of the Lake:
... from 6.30 to 7 P.M. a curious-shaped cloud appeared in the S.S.E. quarter, first appearing distinct at about 25 degrees from the horizon, from where it moved steadily forward, or rather upward, to about 80 degrees, when it settled down bodily to the N.E. Its form was circular, with a semicircle to the northern face near its center, and with four rays or arms extending from center to edge of circle. From the center to about six degrees beyond the circle was a fifth ray broader and more distinct than the others, with a curved end:-diameter of circle 11 degrees, and of semicircle 2 1/2 degrees. The weather was fine, and the atmosphere remarkably clear, with the usual Trade sky. It was of a light grey color, and though distinctly defined in shape, the patches of cirrocumulus at the back could be clearly seen through. It was very much lower than the other clouds; the shape was plainest seen when about 55 degrees to 60 degrees high. The wind at the time was N.N.E., so that it came up obliquely against the wind, and finally settled down right in the wind's eye; finally lost sight of it through darkness' about 30 degrees from the horizon at about 7.20 P.M* Its tail was very similar to that of a comet. The men forward saw it nearly 10 minutes before I [Capt. F. W. Banner] did, and came aft to tell me of it.... [I]t's general appearance was similar to that of a halo around the sun or moon.
A pair of clouds resembling "puffy-like daubs of cotton" passed in an eastward direction over Sunset, Utah, late on the afternoon of October 14, 1961. The clouds were linked by a cord of long, stringy material. Immediately behind them were two smooth, metallic, disc-shaped structures. All four objects disappeared over the horizon. The next day Ronald Miskin, an investigator for the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization, interviewed the witnesses. One was Sunset's mayor, who was pointing upward and illustrating the objects' trajectory when suddenly a "puffy" white object flew overhead, joined soon after by another, and the two proceeded to streak across the sky in the same direction as the objects of the previous day.
Aliens in cloudsLooking out the window of a clifftop house along the seashore at Sydney, Australia, late one afternoon in the spring of 1965, a tourist noticed a beautiful stationary pink cloud. An hour later, when she looked again, the cloud was moving in her direction and soon was actually below her eye-level, enabling her to look down on it and see, to her amazement, a round, white object. Vents along the object's side emitted gray steam which, as it enveloped all but the top portion of the object, turned pink. The "cloud," in short, was an artificial creation.
As if this were not mind-boggling enough, an engine sound came from the still-descending object. A luminous ladder was lowered from the underside, and a humanlike figure climbed down to a lower rung. There he sat down and directed a searchlight toward the sea below. Some distance out on the water a pink flare shot into the air. Immediately the ladder retracted, and the object shot off in the direction of the flare. The witness then noticed a long but not clearly visible shape in the water from which the flare had ascended. Both the UFO and the underwater shape vanished in a "vivid pink flash."
On the afternoon of January 7, 1970, two Finnish ski enthusiasts reportedly encountered a mysterious luminous red "cloud" which, when it got within 50 feet of them, turned out to contain a smoke-spewing domed disc at its center. The object hovered near them, and in the light it cast, they could see a three-foot-tall humanoid with a waxy, pale face and a hooklike nose but no visible eyes. The creature was standing on the ground just under the UFO. After about 20 seconds the red fog reappeared suddenly, and by the time it dissipated, both the object and the being were gone.
These are not the only close encounters of the third kind in which "clouds" or "fogs" play a role, though these are infrequent features of such reports.
Phantom planes and vanishing cloudsA drought that began in 1973 and continued for well over a decade gave rise to a curious episode which, though its details are different, nonetheless is reminiscent in its effect of stories about "mad gassers." In other words, a person or persons unknown are said to be afflicting weird havoc on a community; yet the assailants' existence cannot be proved, and neither can their nonexistence.
In the early 1980s farmers in three southern Spanish provinces which drought had reduced to almost a desert landscape began charging that the absence of rainfall was not a sorry condition of nature but a sinister conspiracy. The principal, though not the only, suspects were big tomato growers who, small farmers asserted without discernible logic, did not want precipitation to fall on their crops. Farmers claimed, moreover, that the conspirators had hired pilots to destroy rain clouds.
If there is a technology that can break up rain clouds, no meteorologist is aware of it. Despite repeated denials by atmospheric scientists, legal authorities, and aviation experts (who swore that small planes could not fly into storm clouds without serious risk of crashing), the farmers refused to back down. They said they had seen, on quite a number of occasions, the appearance of a thunderhead on the western horizon, followed within minutes by the approach of an unmarked aircraft. The aircraft would fly into the cloud, spew out chemicals, and reduce it to mere wisps.
A drought in southwestern France in 1986 produced identical claims. This time the villains were said to be corporate interests financing antihail seeding experiments. It did no good for the experts to retort that nothing can be done to prevent hail. Again some farmers insisted they had seen, or at least heard, the mysterious aircraft. The affair ended when heavy rain fell that summer.
Though social scientists laid the episode to mass hysteria, even some individuals not directly affected by the drought said they had seen the planes in action. One of them, Agriculture Ministery engineer Francisco Moreno Sastre, insisted, "It's not just the collective imagination." He told Wall Street Journal reporters that witnesses numbered in the "thousands." A priest, Father Manuel Prados Munoz of the mountain village of Maria, claimed repeated sightings, sometimes as many as a dozen a month. He said the planes would show up whenever his desktop barometer and his eyes indicated an imminent storm. After local people began to report their sightings to him, he learned of hundreds.
In cases such as these, no explanation really makes sense, and any speculation brought to bear on the episode is simply guesswork. No one suggested another possibility, for which no evidence whatever exists either, that a supersecret military or intelligence weather-control operation was responsible. One suspects that had these events occurred in the United States, where paranoia about such things is intense, this would have been the (non)explanation of choice. Fortunately for all concerned except those who wanted answers, the drought's passing put the mystery planes, real or imagined, out of sight and soon out of mind.