Professor attempts to uncover Brown Mountain mystery
Tuesday, 28 November 2006
by JULIA MERCHANT
Intern News Reporter
A mystery that has eluded Boone researchers for centuries may soon be solved. Long before the establishment of Appalachian State University, reports existed of mysterious lights appearing in the vicinity of the Linville Gorge, known as the Brown Mountain Lights. Astronomy and physics professor Dr. Dan B. Caton said the lights appear at completely random intervals and 90 to 95 percent of the occurrences can be explained.
But Caton isn't interested in those; instead, he is making it his goal to study the other 5 percent - the occurrences that science has tried to explain, but has not been able to. Observers of the lights have reported them to appear as bright, glowing orbs above Table Rock, Linville Gorge and Brown Mountain.
Caton said they have been reported in every color, and sometimes last for a few hours. Caton received an e-mail from someone who saw the lights from a distance of eight feet in a parking area. Caton's idea to research the Brown Mountain Lights is in the form of a web-cam, which he has already procured through university funding.
Caton received permission from the U.S. Forest Service to place the web-cam on a pulpit at the Wiseman's View overlook off the Blue Ridge Parkway, but realized the camera might be destroyed by vandalism. To solve that problem, Caton and his associates proposed the building of a tower to house the web-cam. Permits for the tower are expected to be approved by the Forest Service next month.
However, the funding for construction of the tower through the University Research Council was recently denied. "Now we're in the odd position that the U.S. Forest Service is likely to approve the permit, but we lack funding," Caton said. "If I get approval, I will make it happen somehow," Caton said.
Ultimately, Caton hopes to set up a system where viewers around the globe will be able to access the web-cam via the Internet and monitor activity of the lights, using an instant-messaging service to notify Caton and his associates of any possible sightings.
The signpost at the Wiseman's View overlook cites a few myths associated with the existence of the Brown Mountain Lights. For example, stories circulate that they are the lights of Cherokee maidens looking for their lost lovers who were killed in war. DE Brahm, George Washington's surveyor, reported witnessing the lights and sounds associated with them in the 1770s.
In 1913, The Charlotte Observer ran a story about the lights, reporting that residents of Burke County, near Brown Mountain, witnessed them rising above the horizon almost every night, looking similar to "toy fire balloons."
Caton estimates he has traveled to study the lights about 20 times, but has yet to actually witness them firsthand. An Associated Press reporter interviewed Caton for a story about the lights about a year ago, at which time Caton said he was "really discouraged." However, the article prompted a surge of e-mails to Caton, among which he found a "core of very interesting sightings."
Caton began to examine the possibility that the lights could be a phenomenon known as ball lightning, something that is little understood by physics. The idea of ball lightning renewed Caton's interest in studying the Brown Mountain Lights.
Currently, 90 to 95 percent of sightings can be attributed to campers on Table Rock, hikers, headlights, trains and roads in the area, Caton said.
Students Patrick T. McCaully, a senior interdisciplinary studies major, and Chase R. Casadonte, a senior philosophy and religion major, think they may have witnessed the Brown Mountain Lights on a class field trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
"They looked like eerie, glowing, pulsating lights hovering over the ridge," Casadonte said. However, every sighting seems to be the source of some debate. The teacher of Casadonte and McCaully's class, Outdoor Programs Adventure Education Specialist Andrew Miller, does not recall witnessing them.