Since 1833, strange orbs of light have been sighted over the Texan town of Marfa.
Numerous explanations have been put forward to explain the yellow-orange glowing luminous objects but, to date, no viable cause has been determined.
The first recorded witness, Robert Reed Ellison, saw the lights one night whilst herding cattle near Mitchell Flat. He believed that he was seeing the lights made by camp fires in Apache Indian settlements, but on further investigation, he was unable to find evidence of any fires in the area.Other settlers confirmed that they often saw the lights, and Native American people living in the area were familiar with the lights and described them as "fallen stars."
Since then, the lights have been attributed to a broad range of possible causes, including ghosts, atmospheric conditions, and UFOs. During World War 1, the glowing spheres aroused fear in local residents as they feared them to be the lights of an invading German army.
Another potential theory suggested that light refraction could be causing an optical illusion known as a "Fata Morgana" or superior mirage. This can occur when layers of calm, warm air rest on top of layers of cooler air. The conditions required to generate such optical effects are known to be common in the Marfa area, though the theory has yet to be substantiated.
Unexplained lights can often be created by "swamp gas," which can occur over marshy areas when phosphine (PH3) and methane (CH4) are produced from wet soil and ignite when they encounter oxygen in the atmosphere. It is thought that the phenomenon, colloquially known as "will-o'-the-wisp," "ignes fatui" or "fool's fire," could potentially arise in the dry, arid conditions of the Texan desert due to the release of gases from oil reserves in the area.
In 2005, a group of graduates from the University of Texas camped out to try and ascertain what the source of the lights could be, and managed to capture some viable video footage of peculiar flashes in the sky southeast of Marfa. The researchers compared this with traffic patterns on a road that ran close by, Highway 67, and came to the conclusion that the flashes had been caused by headlights from cars driving along the highway.
Their explanation was hotly disputed by other witnesses, some of whom had spent many years researching the phenomena.Retired aerospace engineer, James Bunnell, has collected hundreds of hours of night-time video footage of his own since 2000, though he has only been lucky enough to film the lights a few dozen times. He maintains that he has captured only 60 "true" Marfa lights, which seem to appear in clusters; consistent with this, his sightings happened over the course of just 31 nights.
"I just got lucky," Bunnell said in an interview. "The lights are rare, but I got one of the really good displays."
Bunnell claims that the real lights are actually very elusive, which would not be the case if they were caused by car headlights. He has now seen so much evidence and so many variations that he is able to immediately dismiss evidence of false sightings, and does agree that many people who believe that they have seen the lights have most probably just seen car headlights or some other unrelated phenomena. The west Texan desert now hosts a viewing platform dedicated solely for the purpose of witnessing the weird orbs, though most serious viewers will leave disappointed as the genuine lights remain an infrequent and intangible mystery.
Bunnell is certain that there are those who have undoubtedly seen the real thing, but he admits that proving this is very difficult.
“The biggest obstacle to gaining understanding of the Marfa lights is their rarity of occurrence,” he says. “Short of being able to reproduce the lights with laboratory equipment, or finding a place where they occur with the regularity of old faithful in Yellowstone, I don’t know what’ll settle it.”
Karl Stephan, a physics professor from Texas State University has collaborated with Bunnell and used his evidence in various related scientific papers. Bunnell's analysis appears to have ruled out connections with humidity, atmospheric pressure, wind speed, temperature, and solar activity, though he has noted some link to lunar cycles or events. His own theory is that the Marfa lights arise due to piezoelectric charges created by the igneous rock under Mitchell Flat. Piezoelectric chargesof electricity can be produced via pressure from solid matter such as minerals, crystals or ceramics.
Stephan is evaluating Bunnell's hypothesis, but hasn't yet fully endorsed it. "It may be geological activity that creates electrical activity, but it's all speculation at this point," he said. "There are no proven facts."
The lights therefore remain an intriguing and ongoing mystery that will continue to draw hopeful viewers to the platform in the desert. If you have seen the lights, or have a theory regarding their origins, please share your thoughts with us. Subscribe today to leave your valued comments!
An amateur video taken from the viewing platform accompanies this article.