[Welcome to Sci-Fi Science, a new weekly column that takes an alternating look at the real science behind sci-fi and the every day strangeness that often sends us scrambling for a textbook.]
I recall a few years back walking out of a shop at dusk and being met by a sky that was a putrid orange color as far as the eye could see. It was a barely describable hue that had blanketed the entire horizon and the reason I remember it so well is that, for a second, I was convinced that some manner of Lovecraftian Elder God was rising from his slumber in the netherworld betwixt ours and His. I still don't know what caused that weird optical illusion, but it certainly wasn't the only cloud formation to ever inspire thoughts of invaders from beyond.
Just two weeks ago citizens all over Moscow tilted their heads upwards and broke out their cellphones to snap pictures and record videos of what looked alarmingly like a UFO in the sky. It was a bright halo of light that lorded over the city like an eye from space, though meteorologists have a different explanation for why the sky suddenly looked like the saucer invasion scene from Independence Day. Surprisingly, it does not involve swamp gas. From the Daily Mail, "Several fronts have been passing through Moscow recently, there was an intrusion of the Arctic air too, the sun was shining from the west – this is how the effect was produced."
However, io9 isn't entirely convinced, as they picked up on the visual similarity between the phenomenon and an unexplained special effect on "FlashForward", asking the question as to whether or not citizens in Moscow would soon be turned into blackout time-travelers. Personally, I think a better contender for the real-life "FlashForward" happened a few months ago in Virginia, when people at the King's Dominion amusement park saw a vortex suspended motionless over their heads for some 10 minutes.
When they glanced away the cloud ring disappeared. ForgetoMori tells us that it was essentially a giant smoke ring created from a fake volcano in the park, and that the windless day meant the formation hung around longer than normal. FM also likens the behavior to that of a Viborg "Jellyfish" UFO, which is a reference to a photograph a businessman took of a UFO over the Danish city of Viborg in 1975.
Now that is a startling freak phenomenon that would definitely have me watching the skies, which makes me wonder why no one has ever used the particular weather anomaly in a film. And while all of the above are certainly paranormal at first glance, they're not responsible for nearly as many false UFO sightings as lenticular clouds.
The meteorological bane of all conspiracy theorists, lenticular clouds are often mistaken for flying saucers because, well, they're stationary and can look exactly like flying saucers. In reality, they're just a cloud that forms at high altitudes perpendicular to the direction of the wind, which combined with their curved lens shape creates the illusion of a vessel from out of this world. Diehard believers are buying none of that scientific mumbo-jumbo, however, as they still hold that the UFOs are merely hiding inside the cloud.
Now what would ever give them that idea...
Hell, I still think of War of the Worlds during a really bad thunderstorm...