UFOs: Do environmental factors increase or decrease reported sightings?

The image from video provided by the Department of Defense labelled Gimbal, from 2015, an unexplained object is seen at center.
The image from video provided by the Department of Defense labelled Gimbal, from 2015, an unexplained object is seen at center. Copyright US Department of Defense via AP
Copyright US Department of Defense via AP
By Oceane Duboust
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Light pollution, tree canopy cover, and proximity to airports and military installations are among the environmental factors that may influence reported UFO sightings, according to a new study.


While so-called unidentified flying objects (UFOs) have long been a focal point for conspiracy theorists, there has been recent increased attention to these phenomena among researchers and authorities.

Just last year, the US space agency NASA held its first public meeting on the topic, members of the US Congress interrogated whistleblowers in a hearing, and the Pentagon released a new declassified website on what they have rebranded as unidentified anomalous phenomena (UAPs).

Now researchers from the University of Utah decided to investigate the local environmental factors that can influence sightings of these unidentified aerial events.

Using data from the US National UFO Research Center, they studied approximately 98,000 total UFO reports from 2001 to 2020.

Sightings could be linked to geographical factors

First, they examined the influence of sky conditions such as light pollution, tree canopy, and cloud cover. The second factor was the potential for objects to be present in the sky, in this case, they focused on the proximity of UAP sightings to airports and military installations.

They published their findings in the journal Scientific Reports late last year.

“The idea is that if you have a chance to see something, then it’s more likely that you’re going to see unexplained phenomena in the sky,” Richard Medina, associate professor of geography at the University of Utah and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

The only variable they studied that did not influence sightings was cloud cover, while the other factors aligned with their “initial hypotheses, that people report more sightings where they have a better view of the sky,” the authors said.

Most of the sightings occurred in western parts of the US which the authors said could be due to the region’s physical geography with lots of wide-open spaces and dark skies, culture of outdoor activities, and "paranormal ideation".

“The West has a historical relationship to UAP — Area 51 in Nevada, Roswell in New Mexico, and here in Utah we have Skinwalker Ranch in the Uinta Basin and military activity in the US Army Dugway Proving Ground,” said Medina.

“Plus, there’s a robust outdoor community that recreates in public lands year-round. People are out and looking skyward,” he said.

The study also suggests that the sightings were more frequent near airports and military installations, suggesting that people are seeing aerial phenomena, but do not recognise it as linked to human activity.

“There’s more technology in the sky than ever before so the question is: What are people actually seeing? It’s a tough question to answer, and it is an important one because any uncertainty can be a potential threat to national security,” Medina added.

So, no aliens?

There’s actually little academic research on UAPs due to the “stigma of flying saucers and space invaders,” according to the researchers.

Trustworthy and available data is also scarce. To conduct their study, researchers used a public, self-reporting system with no real way to verify hoaxes.

For researchers, the patterns observed are enough to assert that the data aren’t entirely invalid, with it being most likely that “some are and some aren’t”.

“There are many factors that can contribute to the report of anomalous objects,” said Simon Brewer, an associate professor of geography at the University of Utah and co-author of the study.

“By examining the spatial distribution of reports and how they relate to the local environment, we hope to provide some geographical context that may help resolve or understand reports by both the public and in military settings”.


In the future, researchers want to investigate if socio-cultural factors play a role in the sightings such as whether UAP sightings increased after last year’s congressional hearing or after a SpaceX launch.

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