Brown Mountain Orbs (Spooklights, FoxFire, Swamp Gas, Ball Lightning?)

An orb by any other name, would probably be the same thing, unless it’s swamp gas (more on that later). Some call them spooklights, foxfire, St Elmo’s fire, will-o-the-wisps, Jersey Devil, ignis fatuus (Fool’s Fire) and so on. No matter the name, people and scientists are seeing them.

In fact, in areas around the whole world, people are seeing balls of light that behave erratically, give off their own light, and don’t particularly seem to interact with the surroundings. In this post, I’m going to focus on the Brown Mountain Orbs seen in western North Carolina.

 Geography is Important

The geography of the area is important because it may be what’s causing the orbs, so let me briefly share that:

  • Brown Mountain is a low-lying ridge on the border of Burke and Caldwell Counties
  • Part of the Pisgah National Forest
  • Stands about 2,750 feet (838 meters) high
  • The Brevard Fault runs in and around that area, but hasn’t been active for 185 million years
  • Land contains huge granite deposits with high quartz contents (and rubies).

 Who’s Seen Them?

The orbs of light have been seen for centuries based on reports from Cherokee and Catawba Indians, early settlers, and Civil War soldiers through and including scientists and citizens of today. In fact the United States government has “investigated” them three times, and they were featured in an episode of The X-Files in 1999.

Private investigators have explored the phenomena in recent years, and I was impressed by the investigation done by the L.E.M.U.R group. They approached the work scientifically and logically. Here are some of their findings:

  • They were all able to see the lights in the low-lying ridge (Linville Gorge) of Brown Mountain, at night.
  • They pointed a laser light at it, and it didn’t react.
  • Thermal camera showed the orbs were colder than the surrounding area, so it couldn’t have been fire(s).
  • The orbs appeared blue on the night vision camera which should not have been possible.
  • At another point, the orb showed up red on the night vision camera – also not supposed to be possible.
  • They could see the lights reflecting off the tree leaves below the orbs.
  • Their equipment started to go haywire.

If it was fire, it would have registered hot on the thermal imager. Night vision cameras allow people to see in the dark but it’s always in green and nothing should change that. At least nothing terrestrial that we know of.

The L.E.M.U.R. team sent their equipment to experts in Princeton, NJ who thoroughly tested the equipment and reported that it was all functioning normally. The tester said that to get a blue or red image on the night vision camera, the orb would have had to have been a higher level of energy, like a gamma ray or x-ray. Gamma rays and x-rays only appear naturally in outer space. Hmmm.

Geologist John Connor said that under pressure, quartz emits light – something called the piezoelectric effect that he likened to an igniter on a gas grill.  During the L.E.M.U.R. investigation, they recorded spikes in the magnetic fields around them that they speculated may have interfered with some of their equipment. But not to the extent that it could disrupt the night vision camera, I think, based on the comments by the Princeton, NJ expert.

Some have speculated that there is uranium in those mountains and if so, its gas could produce light. However, others say that there is no uranium in the area, and no corresponding outbreaks of cancer, as you would expect to see under those circumstances.  I’d say the jury is out about the presence of uranium. A geologist needs to give that answer definitively.

Researchers from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory investigated and found anomalous energy fields when the orbs appear. They used standard EMF meters, IR scanners, and Geiger counters.

Ball Lightning

Daniel Canton, a professor in the physics and astronomy department at Appalachian State University, said he believes a lot of the sightings are mistaken lights from cars, planes, and campfires. But he also said there are reports of people being up-close to these balls of light, and that leads him to believe ball lightning may be the culprit.  Ball lightning isn’t understood very well yet, but it does form luminous balls and travels erratically over an area.

Professor Canton says, “The cool thing is, if ball lightning is preferentially made by nature in the Linville Gorge, at least we have a place to look for the conditions that might create it. Otherwise, it’s hopeless to try and study ball lightning because it’s just randomly made and you don’t know where to look for it.”

Making Sense of the Data

What to make of all this?! Well dear readers, I think it’s almost certain that these kinds of “orbs” and lights are some earth-science that we don’t yet fully understand. Sure, some people may see plane and car lights, or the occasional campfire, but something is certainly happening in this area, and others around the world.

For now, my money is on ball lightning. Although, that would mean that ball lightning must have energy at the gamma or x-ray level in order to show up in color on a night vision camera.

What a conundrum!

Oh, about the swamp gas. When that is released into the atmosphere it diffuses into the air like air freshener would, except that swamp gas smells terrible. So now you can tell the two apart – swamp gas smells, and orbs of light do not. Swamp gas can also catch fire by itself, like the Jersey Devil. But that’s a story for another  post …

Til the next time Villies!

(To see some video of the lights, go to – a site run by L.E.M.U.R.)


    • I lived on Heavenly Mountain in Boone NC for 1.5 years 2007-2009. I didn’t know anything about lights as I came from New Mexico. I saw them regularly. They actually accompanied me on each side as I walked to my apartment. These sightings were common. Many students from the university moved in to the complex and the lights never came back. It is remarkable that I saw them not aware of the phenomena and certainly surprised at their appearance, but then comfortable with them, and then I missed them.

      • Very interesting Rebecca! I’m hoping to get a physicist on the radio show who may help us figure out just what these things are. The part where they accompanied you to the apartment is really strange!

        • Yes, strange. They stayed about one road width to either side.never in front of me. Then reappeared on and above the treeline off the backside of the apartment where the deck was located. Honestly, I did not know this stuff existed until AFTER my numerous experiences.

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