How Crop Circles Work

By: Stephanie Watson  | 
Crop circle at Alton Barnes in England, discovered in June 2004.
Photo courtesy

The sun sets on a field in southern England. When it rises again the following morning, that field is an enormous work of art. A large section of the crop is now elaborate patterns of circles, rings and other intricate geometric shapes. But who created it?

Are crop circles the work of alien visitors? Do they signal paranormal activity? Are they a natural phenomenon, which violent air currents produced? Or are they elaborate hoaxes perpetrated by savvy, talented and very determined crop circle makers? 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 study them in an effort to separate the supernatural from credible evidence.

This "optical labyrinth" formation, located near Savernake Forest in Wiltshire, consists of 180 separate standing and flattened elements and is approximately 200 feet (60 meters) across.
Photo courtesy

Crop circles are patterns that appear in fields. The pattern is the result of certain areas of flattened crops while others are left intact. The edge is so clean that it looks machine-made. 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 crop fields for centuries. The earliest mention of these odd patterns 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."


Early Studies of Crop Circles

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 enthusiasts call themselves cereologists — after Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. Most cereologists (or "croppies," as they are sometimes called) believe that crop circles are the work of either extraterrestrials or plasma vortices.


Crop Circle Designs

A crop circle formation at Ogbourne St. George in Wiltshire.
Photo courtesy

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 might also come in sets of two (doublets), three (triplets) or four (quadruplets). A thin outer ring might also enclose the circles.

The stalks inside a crop circle are typically bent into a swirl pattern, and the circles may spin clockwise or counterclockwise. In patterns with several circles, one circle might spin clockwise and another counterclockwise. Even a single circle might contain two "layers" of stalks, each spinning in a different direction.


A crop circle near Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, England, that resembles an Aztec sun stone.
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A formation at West Kennett in Wiltshire that looks like a Celtic symbol called the Triskell.
Photo courtesy

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, modern crop circles became more elaborate. More complex crop patterns, called pictograms, emerged. This landscape art can 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 derive from 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 had 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 the circle makers — whoever they may be — 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; a farmer's tractor created them.

Crop Writing

In 1987, a crop message read "WEARENOTALONE." Skeptics argued that if the message actually came from aliens, it would have read "YOUARENOTALONE."


Crop Circle Locations

A formation at Avebury Trusloe in Wiltshire.
Photo courtesy

Most circles have spawned in the south of England, primarily in the counties of Hampshire and Wiltshire. People have found most of them near Avebury and Stonehenge, two mystical sites containing large stone monuments.

But crop circles exist outside of England, too. They have appeared 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. Typically created at night, the darkness hides the creators (human or otherwise) from curious eyes.

Crop circles can take shape in many different types of fields — wheat, corn, oats, rice, rapeseed, barley, rye, tobacco and even weeds. Most circles appear in low-lying areas close to steep hills, which may explain the wind theory of their creation.


Who Makes Crop Circles?

Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, in Doug's Southampton studio in 1992.
Photo courtesy

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 circle makers.

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 UFO landings or messages brought from afar for us earthlings. Some eyewitnesses claim to have seen flying saucer-like lights and strange noises emanating from crop circle sites.


Probably the most scientific theory says that small currents of swirling winds — called vortices (similar to "dust devils") — created the crop circles. The spinning columns force a burst of air down to the ground, which flattened wheat and other 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?


A few researchers have theorized that small airplanes or helicopters stir up downdrafts that push the crops down into patterns. Recreation attempts so far have not successfully produced the types of downdrafts necessary to make the perfectly round edges seen in most crop circles.

Earth Energy

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 bodies 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.

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 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 others to see them.

But even with crop circle makers 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."

Energy Effects

People close to the sites of crop circles have reportedly experienced strange physical and emotional reactions. Some have reported feeling dizzy, disoriented, peaceful or nervous. Others have said they heard a buzzing noise or felt a tingling sensation.

After visiting the Julia Set formation near Stonehenge in 1996, a group of women reported changes in their normal menstrual cycles. Most startling was a small group of post-menopausal women who suddenly began menstruating again after visiting the site.


How Do You Make a Crop Circle?

Circle maker John Lundberg displaying one of the "stalk stompers" (and standing in front of the combine) his team will use to create the formation.
Photo courtesy

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.

This is the resulting formation. Created in a field opposite Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, it took the team five hours to create.
Photo courtesy

In general, circle makers follow the following steps:


  1. Choose a location.
  2. Create a diagram of the design (although some circle makers decide to come up with an idea spontaneously when they arrive at their intended site).
  3. Once they arrive at the field, they use ropes and poles to measure out the circle.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Circle makers avoid getting caught by working under cover of night and by hiding their tracks in existing tractor-tire ruts.

Crop Circles for Profit

Some circle makers are turning their talent into a real business — and making big profits from it. A team including artist and filmmaker John Lundberg, Rod Dickinson and Wil Russell travel all over the world making crop circles as advertisements for big corporations. Their client list includes a multibillion-dollar computer chip company, a car manufacturer and a digital television company.

Although they won't divulge exactly how much they make per crop design, their budgets are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.


How Do Researchers Study Crop Circles?

This formation was discovered in Eastfield, England, in June 2004. An article in the Western Daily Press called the design "uncannily similar to plans for one of Nikola Tesla's early pieces of equipment."
Photo courtesy

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, e.g., comparing some complex patterns with hieroglyphics or other ancient symbols

Researchers have pondered the question of crop circles for several decades, but they still haven't come up with a real answer as to why they exist.


Lots More Information

Related Articles
More Great Links
  • Crop Circles, by Werner Anderhub and Hans Peter Roth
  • Crop Circles Revealed, by Judith Moore and Barbara Lamb
  • The Deepening Complexity of Crop Circles, by Eltjo Haselhoff
  • The Mystery of Crop Circles, by Chris Oxlade
  • Round in Circles, by Jim Schnabel
  • Vital Signs, by Andy Thomas and Mike Leigh

  • 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.
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  • Earth Energies, Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1991.
  • Fuller, Paul.Rand in Circles, Circlemakers.
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