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Crop Circles from Outer Space?

Artist's conception of a UFO with a crop circle. (Copyright Lee Krystek 1996)

For over three decades the southern English countryside has been the site of a strange phenomenon that has baffled observers and spawned countless news stories and more than a few books. In the middle of the night, flattened circular depressions have appeared in fields of wheat, rye and other cereal crops. They range in diameter from ten feet to several hundred feet wide and vary from simple circles to complex spirals with rings and spurs. All have sharply defined edges.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the circles is the frequency with which they occur. In 1990, over 700 crop circles appeared in Britain.


People who attempt to study these circles have coined a name for themselves: cereologists. The word comes from the name of the Roman goddess of vegetation, Ceres. There are several theories held by cereologists who think crop circles are the result of some not well understood physical phenomena. The first is that the depressions are the result of an unusual weather effect. George Tenence Meaden, a former professor of physics, calls this a "plasma vortex phenomenon" which he defines as "a spinning mass of air which has accumulated a significant fraction of electrically-charged matter." According to Meaden, the effect is similar to that of ball lightning, but larger and longer lasting.


A formation of crop circles that appeared in southern England.

Some have also suggested the circles are the result of top-secret military experiments noting that it might be possible to project a beam of high intensity microwaves from a distance with enough energy to vaporize the water in a plant causing it to collapse. If the beam was controlled by a computer, it would be possible for it to sweep out any pattern desired, no matter how complex. Why the military would wish to puzzle the public with such a display is unclear, but there are suggestions it might be part of a dark psychological experiment.

Another theory is that somehow crop circles are created by UFOs. Proponents of this theory note that occasionally crop circles seem to appear in conjunction with a UFO sighting. Some of the early, simple crop circles certainly do suggest fields that might have been flattened by the weight of a grounded flying saucer. As the circles have become more complex in shape, though, proponents of the UFO theory have had to modify their ideas suggesting that the marks left are due to the strange effect of the craft's drive force on the plants. Others even argue that the shapes are messages purposefully left by the alien spaceship's crew.


A 1678 pamphlet entitled The Mowing-Devil is sometimes referred to as the earliest evidence of a crop circle. The pamphlet tells the story of a farmer who made a deal with the devil to mow his field. While the woodcut illustration appears to show a demonic creature cutting the field in a circular pattern, the story indicates that the whole field was mysteriously cut, not just a small section, as in the case of modern crop circles.

The Mowing Devil pamphlet from 1678.

Another early case comes from the 19th century. Nature magazine published an article on July 29, 1880, which reported on some circles that amateur scientist John Rand Capron said he'd found in a field near Guildford in Surrey. According to Capron:

The storms about this part of Surrey have been lately local and violent, and the effects produced in some instances curious. Visiting a neighbour's farm on Wednesday evening (21st), we found a field of standing wheat considerably knocked about, not as an entirety, but in patches forming, as viewed from a distance, circular spots.

Examined more closely, these all presented much the same character, viz., a few standing stalks as a center, some prostrate stalks with their heads arranged pretty evenly in a direction forming a circle round the center, and outside these a circular wall of stalks which had not suffered.

Capron thought that the circles he observed were somehow weather related and "suggestive to me of some cyclonic wind action."

Mostly Hoaxed

Despite the intense interest among the paranormal enthusiasts for supernatural explanations that depend on alternate science or UFOs, the most likely cause for almost all of the crop circles is that they are hoaxes. Even the most ardent fans of either the weather or UFO theories admit that a significant fraction of the circles are manmade. One cereologist, Jenny Randles, a believer in the weather theory wrote: "I would put the hoaxes to comprise something over 50 percent of the total." Another circle researcher, Colin Andrews, working on a grant from Laurance Rockefeller, came to the conclusion that 80% of circles made in the years 1999 and 2000 were manmade and either prompted by business and/or media interests.

A video showing flying lights creating a set of crop circles. Such footage is easily faked with computer graphics, however.

The first hoaxsters responsible for crop circles may have been two local gentlemen named Doug Bower and Dave Chorley. According to the two, they conceived the prank over drinks in a pub near Winchester, Hampshire, England in 1978. They found they could build circles quickly using simple tools. At first, there was little reaction to their work, but in 1981 they chose a site for a circle called Cheesefoot head, a hill which was very visible from the nearby motorway. The incident made the papers and all of a sudden crop circles were big news. Because some people argued that the circles were the result of a simple weather phenomenon, the two started making their circles more complex involving intricate geometric forms. The two continued their work until 1991 when they approached a British newspaper acknowledging their actions and demonstrated the technique to reporters. Though Chorley died in 1996, Bower continued to make circles until 2004. Since then, other groups have apparently taken up the practice.

Why don't these backers of the weather or UFO explanations believe that all the circles are hoaxes? Most would argue that a close examination of a circle will reveal differences between a hoaxed circle and a "genuine" circle. There is no clear criteria about what makes a circle genuine, however. In fact, the BBC once asked a circle "expert" to examine a formation they had found. The expert declared it real, only to have to reverse his judgment when the BBC film crew told him they'd had the circle especially built for the occasion.

Some cereologists claim that the plants in hoaxed circles have broken stems while those in real circles are bent. However, whether the plant is bent or broken depends on the condition of the plant rather than the type of force used in flattening it. During the summer, green, moist, wheat is easily bent and can only be broken with great difficulty.

Complex Configurations

Believers in supernatural explanations also argue that many of the crop circles are extremely comlicated patterns that would be impossible to create by hand in a single night. Indeed, some of the patterns do seem bafflingly complex.

A formation of circles built as a six-sided triskelion.

In 2009 a crew from National Geographic television challenged a group of artists called the Circlemakers to reproduce a highly-complex pattern designed by a professor of mathematics at the Imperial College of London. The formation, based on the Circles of Apollonius, required making over eighty circles of various sizes in exacting locations across the field. The group had to do this in a single night, arriving after dark and leaving before sunrise. Though the work took most of the evening, the Circlemakers were able to complete the complex diagram without mistakes, demonstrating that even the most complex formations can be made by a group of dedicated workers in just a few hours.

Making a Circle

So how do you hoax a crop circle? The tools are simple: A stake, a chain or rope, some boards, and a few people. The stake is pounded into the ground at the center of the soon-to-be circle and the rope attached to it. The rope is then stretched out and someone standing at the end marches around the stake to make a perimeter. The boards, controlled by ropes held in the hoaxster's hands, and pressed down by a foot, can then be used to flatten the plants within the circle. Rings can be made through the same technique simply by leaving some sections undamaged. (Warning: The above information is not meant to encourage anybody to trespass or vandalize. If you want to experiment with making a circle, get permission from the owner of the grounds before starting.)

Though Bower and Chorley may have started the phenomenon in England, crop circles have been seen around the world. They have also become a part of popular culture. In 2006 the Circlemakers stomped out a design that included the product logo for Shredded Wheat. A picture of the results was then used on the cereal box's label. Crop circles also made an appearance in the 2001 film Signs when a farmer in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, discovers them in his corn field as a prelude to an alien invasion.

Since nobody can tell the difference between a hoaxed and "genuine" circle, is there any reason not to believe that all of them are hoaxed? Probably not. Several factors argue in favor of the complete hoax theory. First, there is a lack of historical precedent for crop circles. Despite Capron's report, crop circles as they are seen today are a recent phenomenon only thirty or forty years old. Secondly, the number and complexity of the circles have grown in proportion to the media coverage of them (suggesting that people are more apt to make circles if the circles get in the news). Finally, there are almost no credible reports of someone actually seeing a circle being made by either a UFO (though some clearly hoaxed videos have appeared on YouTube) or weather phenomena (suggesting that the hoaxsters are purposefully keeping out of sight).

Perhaps the mystery here is not what makes the circles, but what would cause so many otherwise normal and rational people in southern Britain to make strange circles in the middle of the night in a farm field?


Copyright Lee Krystek 1996, 2010. All rights Reserved.