UFO Sightings and the COVID Pandemic
by Mark Rodeghier
[Note: This is a summary of the article “Social Factors and UFO Reports: Was the SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic Associated with an Increase in UFO Reporting?” by Chase Cockrell, Linda Murphy, and Mark Rodeghier, which was published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, vol. 36, no. 4.]
The number of UFO sightings reported varies by day, month, and year. There are periods with many reports, such as 1973 in the United States, or 1978 in Italy, but we don’t understand what causes the increase in sightings. Is it an increase in the UFO phenomenon itself, or is it instead an increase in the number of people viewing the sky, or even the willingness or ease of reporting a sighting?
Many theories have been advanced about social factors that could influence UFO reporting, without great success. One structural factor that clearly has an effect is the ability to make a report via a website rather than having to call or mail in a report form. This has led to a general rise in reporting. This is evident in Figure 1 from our paper showing the number of reports made to the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC). Reports slowly increased from the mid-90s, when online reporting became possible, up until 2014-2015.
Shortly after the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic began, we realized that the pandemic, in its many drastic effects upon society, was a natural experiment to test theories about UFO reporting. Initial review of UFO reports demonstrated that sightings had definitely increased roughly commensurate with the time of the pandemic. Figure 2 from our paper displays the large spike in reports to the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) in early 2020, coincident with the early months of the pandemic. Overall, we found that there were over 600 more reports to NUFORC in 2020 compared to 2019, and almost that same increase to MUFON.
The pandemic led directly to illness and death, and pandemic mitigation measures disrupted and altered behaviors related to social mobility, significantly increasing the time spent at home compared to the pre-pandemic period. Further, social anxiety and stress increased for almost everyone. The combination of the rise in reports and the societal disruption allowed us to investigate factors that could have caused the change in the number of reports.
Past research on UFO waves has suggested that their fundamental cause could be social factors, such as societal crises (the launch of Sputnik in the fall of 1957), economic distress (the oil shocks of the early 1970s), or general anxiety and frustration (the Vietnam War in the 1960s). These are presumed to cause people to enter a state of heightened concern and anxiety and be more watchful of events and, possibly, the local environment. The pandemic caused increased stress for almost everyone, and thus, based on these conjectures, could be presumed to indirectly cause more reports because of increased stress as well as attention to one’s environment.
It has also been theorized that past UFO waves have been triggered by excessive media attention on UFO reports, which then encourages other witnesses to come forward UFOs have received more positive publicity recently because of favorable coverage by mainstream media, after a story in the New York Times in December 4, 2017. However, UFO reports themselves were not highlighted in the news during the pandemic, and so we suggest this factor had a minor role to play in changing the level of reports by varying the willingness to report.
UFO report data
The two sources of UFO reports we used for this research were sightings from NUFORC and MUFON. For the formal analysis we used data only from the years 2018, 2019, and 2020, to compare before and during the pandemic. Only reports from the United States were used.
To quantify the effect of pandemic-induced behavioral changes (e.g., lockdowns, work-from-home, bar/restaurant closures, etc.), we utilized the Google Community Mobility Report (CMR), which provides a metric of how much time people who use Google Maps spent at various places, including home, work public transit, retail, and social locations, compared to a baseline of data collected prior to the first detection of SARS-CoV-2 in the United States. As this data is highly inter-correlated, we defined a single metric as the extent that a region followed social-distancing related pandemic mitigation measures by summing the time spent at home (relative to the baseline) for each state, noting that this metric was essentially the inverse of time spent at work and leisure (retail, restaurants, etc.). These data were aggregated at the state level by necessity as data privacy considerations precluded reporting at a finer resolution for counties that are less populated. We also used the number of new SARS-CoV-2 cases and deaths as a direct measure of pandemic/disease severity. These data were used as proxies for anxiety and stress in the population.
We were already aware of the Starlink project by SpaceX to launch a large number of small satellites to provide internet access worldwide, especially in areas with poor or not current access. These launches include up to 60 small satellites at once, and so are very distinctive and often easily visible. As a result, many people report these as UFOs. Starlink launches began with a test of two satellites on February 22, 2018, with the first test of 60 satellites on May 24, 2019, and the first operational launch of 60 satellites on November 11, 2019 . As criticisms of Starlink’s interference with astronomical observations increased, Starlink took several measures to reduce satellite brightness, with the key alteration being the addition of a sunshade to shade the area causing illumination from reflected sunlight. Beginning with the August 7, 2020, launch, all satellites were equipped with the sunshade. This has reduced the apparent brightness of a typical satellite by approximately 50%.
As noted above, UFO sightings can increase because there are more things to be seen in the sky that are puzzling to witnesses. To test our main hypothesis about the pandemic we first had to code and remove Starlink sightings from the report data because this was something entirely novel. Figure 9 from our paper shows only Starlink reports and depicts how these reports increased immediately after a launch, but also how the number of reports dropped greatly after the sunshade was added later in 2020.
With these reports removed, we then examined correlations between pandemic-related factors of health and mobility and the remaining UFO report data. This was now a fair comparison of UFO reporting before and during the pandemic.
Our analysis of the correlation between the difference in the number of reports comparing 2019 to 2020 showed no association with standard measures of the lockdown response, or the number of cases and deaths caused by SARS-CoV-2. Thus, the widespread lockdown effects of the pandemic, and the pandemic’s medical outcomes, were not correlated with reports.
Our results do not support the various hypotheses that one or more social factors caused a change in the number of UFO reports. This finding is consistent with the limited past research which has failed to find even a modest effect, despite the many theories about how social factors would impact reporting. UFO reports remain puzzling in many of their characteristics, extending even to the question of why their number waxes and wanes over time and location. The pandemic was a terrible disruption to normal life across the globe, but our analysis shows no effects on UFO reporting.