The sun sets on a field in southern England. When it rises again the following morning, that field has been transformed into an enormous work of art. A large section of the crop has been tamped into a pattern of circles, rings and other intricate geometric shapes. But who created it?
Are crop circles the work of alien visitors? Are they a natural phenomenon, created by electrically charged currents of air? Or are they elaborate hoaxes perpetrated by savvy, talented and very determined circlemakers? Believers and naysayers each have their own theories, but the truth remains elusive.
In this article, we'll look into the phenomenon of crop circles -- what they are, where they can be found, how they are made (from the people who claim to create them), and how researchers are studying them in an effort to separate the supernatural from the scientific.
What are Crop Circles?
Crop circles are patterns that appear in fields. The pattern is created when certain areas of the crops are tamped down, but others are left intact. The edge is so clean that it looks like it was created with a machine. Even though the stalks are bent, they are not damaged. Most of the time, the crop continues to grow as normal.
Sometimes, the patterns are simple circles. In other instances, they are elaborate designs consisting of several interconnecting geometric shapes.
Farmers have reported finding strange circles in their fields for centuries. The earliest mention of a crop circle dates back to the 1500s. A 17th-century English woodcut shows a devilish creature making a crop circle. People who lived in the area called the creature the "mowing devil."
In an 1880 issue of the journal Nature, amateur scientist John Rand Capron reported on a formation near Guildford, Surrey, in the south of England. He described his finding as "a field of standing wheat considerably knocked about, not as an entirety, but in patches forming, as viewed from a distance, circular spots." He went on to say, "... I could not trace locally any circumstances accounting for the peculiar forms of the patches in the field ... They were suggestive to me of some cyclonic wind action ..."
Mentions of crop circles were sporadic until the 20th century, when circles began appearing in the 1960s and '70s in England and the United States. But the phenomenon didn't gain attention until 1980, when a farmer in Wiltshire County, England, discovered three circles, each about 60 feet (18 meters) across, in his oat crops. UFO researchers and media descended on the farm, and the world first began to learn about crop circles.
By the 1990s, crop circles had become something of a tourist attraction. In 1990 alone, more than 500 circles emerged in Europe. Within the next few years, there were thousands. Visitors came from around the world to see them. Some farmers even charged admission to their mysterious attractions.
Crop Circle Designs
Crop circles are not just circles -- they can come in many different shapes. The most basic (and the most common) crop circle is the single circle. Circles may also come in sets of two (doublets), three (triplets) or four (quadruplets). Circles also may be enclosed in a thin outer ring.
The stalks inside a crop circle are typically bent into what is known as a swirl pattern, and the circles may spin clockwise or counterclockwise. In patterns with several circles, one circle may spin clockwise and another counterclockwise. Even a single circle may contain two "layers" of stalks, each spinning in a different direction.
Crop circles can range in size from a few inches to a few hundred feet across. Most early crop circles were simple circular designs. But after 1990, the circles became more elaborate. More complex crop patterns, called pictograms, emerged. Crops can be made to look like just about anything -- smiling faces, flowers or even words. Crop circles are sometimes unique designs, but they can also be based on ancient motifs.
Some of the more sophisticated patterns are based on mathematical equations. Astronomer and former Boston University professor Gerald S. Hawkins studied several crop circles and found that the positions of the circles, triangles and other shapes were placed based on specific numerical relationships. In one crop circle that had an outer and an inner circle, the area of the outer circle was exactly four times that of the inner circle. The specific placement of the shapes indicates that, whoever the circlemakers are, they have an intricate knowledge of Euclidean geometry (the geometry of a flat surface introduced by the mathematician Euclid of Alexandria).
Some circles have thin lines leading away from them. These lines, called spurs, are not actually a part of the circle. They are created by the farmer's tractor.
Crop Circle Locations
Most circles are concentrated in the south of England, primarily in the counties of Hampshire and Wiltshire. Many of them have been found near Avebury and Stonehenge, two mystical sites containing large stone monuments.
But crop circles are not confined to England. They have been spotted in the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, India and other parts of the world.
The "season" for crop circles runs from April to September, which coincides with the growing season. Circles tend to be created at night, hiding their creators (human or otherwise) from curious eyes.
Crop circles can be found in many different types of fields -- wheat, corn, oats, rice, oil-seed rape, barley, rye, tobacco -- even weeds. Most circles are found in low-lying areas close to steep hills, which may explain the wind theory of their creation.
Now, let's get into some of the crop circle theories.
Who Makes Crop Circles?
The answer of who or what is creating these crop formations is not an easy one to answer. Some people claim they are the work of UFOs. Others say they are a natural phenomenon. Still others say they are elaborate hoaxes perpetrated by teams of circlemakers.
UFOs and Aliens
Possibly the most controversial theory is that crop circles are the work of visitors from other planets -- sort of like alien calling cards.
People who agree with this theory say that the circles are either the imprint left by landing spacecraft or messages brought from afar for us earthlings. Some eyewitnesses claim to have seen UFO-like lights and strange noises emanating from crop circle sites.
Probably the most scientific theory says that crop circles are created by small currents of swirling winds called vortices (similar to "dust devils"). The spinning columns force a burst of air down to the ground, which flattens the crops. Vortices are common in hilly areas such as parts of southern England.
Dr. Terence Meaden of the Tornado and Storm Research Organization (TORRO) in Wiltshire, England, says the vortices that create crop circles are charged with energy (his idea is called the Plasma Vortex Theory). When dust particles get caught up in the spinning, charged air, they can appear to glow, which may explain the UFO-like glowing lights many witnesses have seen near crop circles.
But the question remains -- how can a few seconds worth of spinning air create such intricate and perfectly defined crop circles?
Recreation attempts so far have not been able to produce the types of downdrafts necessary to make the perfectly round edges seen in most crop circles.
Some researchers believe that the earth creates its own energy, which forms the circles. One possible form of earth energy is electromagnetic radiation. In fact, scientists have measured strong magnetic fields inside crop circles, and visitors have sometimes reported feeling a tingling sensation in their body while in or near the circles.
In the early 1990s, American biophysicist Dr. William Levengood discovered that crops in circles were damaged much in the same way as plants heated in a microwave oven. He proposed the idea that the crops were being rapidly heated from the inside by some kind of microwave energy.
Other researchers say that the energy comes from under the ground or in the soil. Either the energy is natural, such as a fungus that attacks the crops and causes their stems to bend over, or it is a byproduct of something man-made, such as bombs that exploded during World War II.
The easiest explanation for crop circles is that they are man-made hoaxes, created either for fun or to stump the scientists. Among the most famous hoaxers are the British team of Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, known as "Doug and Dave." In 1991, the duo came out and announced that they had made hundreds of crop circles since 1978. To prove that they were responsible, they filmed themselves for the BBC making a circle with a rope-and-plank contraption in a Wiltshire field (see the next section for information on making a crop circle).
Joe Nickell, Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) says that crop circles have all the hallmarks of hoaxes: They are concentrated primarily in southern England; they've become more elaborate over the years (indicating that hoaxers are getting better at their craft); and their creators never allow themselves to be seen. But even with crop circlemakers claiming responsibility for hundreds of designs, hoaxes can't account for all of the thousands of crop circles created. Colin Andrews, cereologist and author of the book, Circular Evidence, admits that about 80 percent of crop circles are probably man-made, but says that the other 20 percent are probably the work of some "higher force."
How Do You Make a Crop Circle?
Crop circles appear to be very intricate formations, with many geometric shapes linked in sophisticated patterns. But the basics of crop-circle creation and the tools involved are actually fairly simple.
In general, circlemakers follow the following steps:
- Choose a location.
- Create a diagram of the design (although some circlemakers decide to come up with an idea spontaneously when they arrive at their intended site).
- Once they arrive at the field, they use ropes and poles to measure out the circle.
- One circlemaker stands in the middle of the proposed circle and turns on one foot while pushing the crop down with the other foot to make a center.
- The team makes the radius of the circle using a long piece of rope tied at both ends to an approximately 4-foot-long (1.2-meter) board called a stalk stomper (a garden roller can also be used). One member of the team stands at the center of the circle while the other walks around the edge of the circle, putting one foot in the middle of the board to stomp down the circle's outline. Photos courtesy www.circlemakers.org Circlemakers Rod Dickinson and Wil Russell in action
In August 2004, National Geographic contacted a team including circlemakers John Lundberg, Rod Dickinson and Wil Russell and requested a daylight demonstration in Wiltshire in support of a crop-circle documentary. These are the plans they worked from:
Circlemakers avoid getting caught by working under cover of night and by hiding their tracks in existing tractor-tire ruts.
How Do Researchers Study Crop Circles?
When researchers come to the scene of a crop circle, they conduct a thorough investigation, including the following methods:
- Talking to possible eyewitnesses and residents living nearby
- Examining the location and the weather where circles have formed
- Examining the affected crops and the surrounding soil with sophisticated techniques such as X-ray diffraction analysis (firing X-rays at a sample to determine its composition materials)
- Taking electromagnetic energy readings inside and near the crop circles
- Analyzing the circle patterns (Some complex patterns are compared with hieroglyphics or other ancient symbols.)
Researchers have been pondering the question of crop circles for several decades, but they still haven't come up with a real answer as to why they exist.
To find out more about crop circles and related topics, check out the links on the next page.
More Great Links
- Anderson, Alun. "Britain's Crop Circles: Reaping by Whirlwind?" Science, Volume 253 (August 30, 1991): pgs. 961-962.
- Beginners Guide, Circlemakers.
- The Crop Circle Connector
- Crop Circles Mystify Russian Farmers, BBC News, June 24, 2000.
- "Crop Circles: Theorems in Wheat Fields," Science News, Volume 150, Number 15 (October 12, 1996): page 239.
- Earth Energies, Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1991.
- Fuller, Paul.Rand in Circles, Circlemakers.
- Harrison, David. The Fellowship of the Rings, The Telegraph, July 25, 2004.
- Nickel, Joe. Circular Reasoning: The 'Mystery' of Crop Circles and Their 'Orbs' of Light, Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, Special Report.
- Other Facts, BLT Research Team, Inc.
- Oxlade, Chris. The Mystery of Crop Circles, Reed Educational and Professional Publishing: Des Plaines, IL, 1999.
- Randles, Jenny and Peter Hough. The Complete Book of UFOs, New York, NY: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 1996.
- UFO: The Continuing Enigma, Pleasantville, New York: Reader's Digest, 1991.