Reports of increasing UFO sightings are greatly exaggerated

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This year, humanity has been forced to spend an agonizing time locked in their homes. We are upset. We are bored. And we are going crazy. But has this resulted in more people seeing unidentified flying objects? A wave of reporting has suggested that UFO sightings are on the increase around the world, with tired skyglancers from around the world reporting an increasing number of extraterrestrial encounters from Belgium to New York City.

However, even so-called ufologists don’t really buy it, as the evidence for such claims is surprisingly weak. A website, the National UFO Reporting Center, noted a peak in sightings in the spring when the Pentagon released its juicy UFO tapes. But another popular reporting database, Mutual UFO Network, has not seen such a trend.

In fact, sightings have generally declined in recent years, although UFO investigators say they are seeing increasing numbers of people reporting easily identifiable objects. From fuzzy bugs to airplanes, from bright planets to Starlink satellites, observers with cell phones are increasingly confused by what is in the night sky.

“You wouldn’t believe some of the photographs people send us,” says Steve Hudgeons, international director of investigations at the Mutual UFO Network. “People who don’t know what they’re looking at will send us a picture that they think is the holy grail, and it’s just a plane.”

Are UFO sightings increasing?

The Mutual UFO Network, or MUFON, is one of the largest and oldest groups of its kind. Their well-trained volunteers have been collecting UFO sightings – and studying them in detail – for more than 50 years. They have also served as the central database for UFO sightings since 1969.

Along the way, MUFON investigated some really bizarre cases, like a 2008 incident in Stephenville, Texas, where dozens of reliable witnesses claim to have seen a UFO as big as a Walmart.

So, if there had really been a massive increase in UFO sightings in recent years, MUFON would be among the first to know.

However, the group says they are really not seeing a dramatic increase in UFO sightings. There were around 3,800 cases reported between January and the end of September of this year, which is about a 20% increase from 2019. But they say the level of annual variation is normal for their data set. And, in fact, most reported cases have declined in recent years.

“It’s not really alarming. It fluctuates a lot, ”says Hudgeons, who admits to answering many questions on the subject this year. “I wouldn’t say there is a big increase at all.”

Navy pilots see UFOs

However, most of the news articles written about the increase in sightings come from another online reporting site called the National UFO Reporting Center. Like MUFON, they have been collecting reports of UFO sightings for nearly half a century, largely through a telephone hotline and, for the past several decades, an online form.

In April, they received more than twice as many reports compared to the same month the previous year. But those numbers came at the height of the lockdowns, at the same time as a sensational report was published in the New York Times that revealed previously classified images of UFOs captured by American fighter pilots. But soon after, their reported sightings returned to 2019 levels – which were significantly lower than they were just 5-10 years ago.

Yet, stories of a recent spike in UFO sightings continue to be published.

In August, The Cut, an online vertical of the New York magazine, wrote about the increase in UFO sightings, particularly in Belgium and Canada. And in September, a headline in the Wall Street Journal stated that “UFO Sighting Replaces Bird Watching As A Pandemic Obsession.” It is a “banner year for close encounters,” the newspaper reported.

Later that month, Patch.com, a website with local news centers, suggested “Alien Invasion Latest 2020 Threat as UFO Sightings Shoot Up in NY”. What was their evidence for this “huge increase” in sightings? The cases reported in New York have increased from 151 in 2019 to 184 in 2020.

Since the start of the pandemic, similar stories have cropped up about an increasing number of strange objects seen in the skies of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, New York and more.

It’s a bird, or an insect, or a plane

Hudgeons, however, remains unimpressed.

Very few of these cases involve people seeing things that might surprise the average observer (or even a beginner). This, he explains, has been the defining trend in recent years.

Around 2012, Hudgeons says MUFON began to notice a sharp increase in the percentage of reported UFO sightings that their investigators consider to be clearly identifiable. That’s not to say that every case involves a confused skygazer or a hoax. But, says Hudgeons, really interesting things are rare. (Despite the easy identification of many allegedly unidentifiable objects, Hudgeons says there are a few cases each year that intrigue MUFON investigators enough to go out into the field and do X-files-style sleuthing.)

Seth Shostak is a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute and a public favorite as the voice of reason in many popular UFO programs. He adds that if you look at the reported UFO cases there was an increase around 2012 and then about five years ago sightings peaked and started to decline. “It could be that the aliens have lost interest in Earth,” he jokes. “Maybe they’re afraid of the virus.”

Nevertheless, the astronomer still regularly receives emails from people who believe they have found evidence that aliens are real. But when Shostak looks at most of the pictures, he immediately realizes that they show planes or other obvious objects.

Part of the reason for the confusion, he says, is that most photos are now taken on cellphones, which don’t have a mechanical shutter. This can cause image artifacts like smearing of objects moving in one direction. Birds become cigar-shaped alien craft. The insects become hypersonic UFOs because people don’t realize they were flying right in front of the camera lens.

“When it comes to aliens, I think a lot of people are very interested, and I think that’s wired to us,” Shostak said. After all, keeping an eye out for alien creatures was vital for the safety of ancient peoples. “If you weren’t interested in aliens hundreds of thousands of years ago,” he says, “someone would come from the savannah and take your land.”


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