The Mysterious Marfa Lights
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The Mysterious Marfa Lights

The Marfa lights are very mysterious and scientists do not know what causes them. They appear sporadically and only at night. There are theories and skeptics. Learn about the mysterious Marfa lights and what might cause them.

Marfa, Texas is located in southwestern Texas about 336 miles west of San Antonio. For years, people have observed strange lights in the area and to this day, no one can explain them. They occur at night and float or spin around in erratic movements. Texas built a view park for people to sit and watch for these strange and mysterious Marfa lights or more scientifically called luminous phenomena.

Description of Marfa Lights

About 10 miles east of Marfa, Texas, in an area called Mitchell Flats, the mysterious Marfa lights can be seen about 20 times per year and only at night. They are usually round, about the size of a basketball and float and dance around. Sometimes several balls of mysterious lights float around or one will split into two balls. Their colors are usually white, but yellow, red and blue have also been seen.

When the Mysterious Marfa Lights Appear

Scientist and observers camp out for weeks with cameras and hi-tech equipment hoping to see these mysterious lights. The Marfa lights only appear between sunset and sunrise and these lights can last up to several hours. But they occur very infrequently, sometimes occurring in clusters or not at all for months.  

The Marfa lights seem to occur more frequently during the second half of the lunar cycle than during the first half, between the full moon and the next new moon. Marfa light sightings are 2.5 times more likely to occur during this lunar phase and 71% of the Marfa light sightings occur at this time.

Theories of the Marfa Lights

There is a theory that the Earth and rocks can produce electrical currents in the crust of the planet under the right conditions. These electrical currents can sometimes find there way to the surface and produce mysterious lights like this. One theory for these lights is that they can foretell an earthquake. The earth’s crust and rocks become stressed before an earthquake and this can cause these strange lights. But the area around Marfa doesn’t experience strong earthquakes.

Since these mysterious Marfa lights occur more during the second half of the moon’s cycle, maybe it has something to do with the gravitational pull of the moon. We all know that the moon’s gravitational pull causes the ocean tides. This same gravitational pull would also affect the land and rocks, the land wouldn’t move nearly as much as the liquid oceans, but it can still move.

During laboratory experiments, scientists have found that if enough stress occurs, ingenious rocks (rocks formed by cooling magma or volcanoes), can actually act like a battery and produce significant amounts of current. If these electrical currents can find a path to the surface of the earth and interact with at this time unknown atmospheric gasses and or an unknown condition, it could cause the glowing mysterious Marfa lights.

Weather, solar flares and solar cycle data has been collected and compared to the actual sightings and no correlation was found connecting the Marfa lights with the weather or the sun [1, 2]

Skeptics of the Marfa Lights

There are plenty of skeptics who do not believe these are mysterious balls of light floating around the Marfa night sky. Most skeptics blame the mysterious Marfa lights on car headlights on one of two nearby roads. This might explain why they are only seen at night. Some articles write that there is no written evidence of these mysterious lights before 1957. One rancher was said to have seen these lights in 1883, but he never wrote of this sighting.

Between May 10 and May 14, 2004, The University of Texas at Dallas Society of Physics Students (SPS) went to Marfa to investigate this phenomenon. Their conclusion was that these mysterious Marfa lights were nothing more than headlights from cars on highway 67. They attributed the strange appearance and movement of these lights to what is called the Fata Morgana mirage, which under certain temperature gradients can make the headlights look like they are floating above or below the horizon [3].

Not So Fast Marfa Light Skeptics

The skeptics and newspaper articles only reported the first SPS trip to Marfa and those findings. In May 2008, another group of scientists went to Marfa for 20 days with high-tech equipment. They also saw no Marfa lights that met the criteria for genuine Marfa lights. The criteria for Marfa lights are erratic on and off periods, dimming, gradual or suddenly brightening and eccentric motions of light not characteristic of car headlights. They were not surprised they didn’t see any because of the short duration of only 20 nights and how infrequently these lights appear [4].

Between 2000 and 2008 James Bunnell set up and maintained several unmanned observation sites with low-light cameras. After analyzing all of this data, 40 incidents were found that did meet the criteria to be considered actual Marfa lights. With only 40 incidents of Marfa lights in an 8-year period, it is understandable why these scientists never saw any Marfa lights in so few nights [4].

According to this scientific paper, hundreds of witnesses attested to seeing these lights going back to the 1800s, long before cars, planes and beacon lights [4].

Questions about the Mysterious Marfa Lights

I read articles from skeptics, observers and scientists about these strange lights and I have a few questions myself. If these mysterious lights were only from cars, wouldn’t they be seen far more often then 10-20 times per year. On the other hand, maybe the right temperature gradient for the mirage to make the car headlights look this way only occurs that many times per year.

Since weather data was collected and compared during Marfa light sightings and no weather correlation was found, so temperature gradients causing mirages should have been noticed. There will be more studies and trips with even more sophisticated equipment in the future to find out just what these mysterious Marfa lights really are.

Mysterious Marfa Lights Conclusion

Someday you might want to travel to Texas and hopefully see these Marfa lights yourself. The Marfa lights view park (MLVP) is located in an area called Mitchell Flats between Marfa and Alpine, Texas on US highway 90, east of Marfa. If you go, do not stray too far since most of this land is private property. Statistics show that the seasons do not seem to matter with the fall having the most Marfa light sightings with 32%. More importantly, most sightings happen in the last half of the lunar cycle, between full moon and the next new moon.

Copyright © February 2012 Sam Montana

References and Resources

[1] – Weather conditions and Marfa lights

[2] – Solar conditions and Marfa lights

[3] The Society of Physics Students at the University of Texas at Dallas - An Experimental Analysis of the Marfa Lights.

[4] Spectroscopy applied to observations of terrestrial light sources of uncertain origin. 2009 American Association of Physics Teachers. DOI: 10.1119/1.3130609


Map and directions to Marfa Lights View Park

Cover photo with permission from David Adam Salinas

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Comments (20)
Ranked #63 in Science

I've been there, Sam and have seen these lights myself. This was an excellent article on the subject.

Your article posted twice, one below the other. My question though, is there a military base located within 30 miles?

Ranked #8 in Science

@Jerry, do you believe they were mysterious lights or car headlights? @Samantha, I see that the article is posted twice, it was fine in the editor, so I don't know how to fix this error. The closest AFB I can find is Laughlin AFB about 100 miles from Marfa.

Ranked #33 in Science

A fascinating topic! (Yeah, when will these "bugs" be removed from the system??)

There are a lot of things in this world we don't understand.

Ranked #1 in Science

An interesting topic to attest that there is more to this planet we lived in that we need to comprehend that our applied science should permit us to do.

Ranked #36 in Science

Great artcle! Weird lights!

If it is car lights one would suspect that over time more and more lights would be seen each time as traffic is probably increased. It might be a combination, temperature, humidity, and the cars may have to be in a certain place along the road in relationship to other cars whose headlights shine upon it and bounce off, which would explain the colors.

Sam, what a perfect example of another unexplainable thing to the human mind explained as explainable...catch my drift? Very interesting article.

Fascinating. I do believe that there are unanswered "things" out there.

Ranked #10 in Science

There are things unexplained that make people wonder. There may come a time that this phenomenon will finally be explained.

Impressive and enjyable read. thanks

Ranked #3 in Science

I haven't heard of it yet. But it sounds very interesting. Wish to see the lights!

You have done a great job here. Excellent.

Thanks Sam, this is a wealth of information about one those mysteries of our universe that someday we will all know about! Voted! Great job!

Very interesting!

Fascinating and interesting article.Thank you for explaining these lights so well.

First time I heard this interesting write.

Ranked #7 in Science

I like the 'moontide' theory creating ball lightning-esque effects...a full moon actually lifts the entire North American shelf something like 12-inches. That is a lot of rock, bending!

Ranked #7 in Science

p.s. re: "Your article posted twice,..." -Happened to me once too. I have one article, published twice. I am reticent to delete one in favor of the other, so I might just edit the doppelganger with a 'Part II' and expound upon the subject further... This way, I won't upset Search engine indices that may already point to the 2nd article...