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Was the Loch Ness Monster an Aurora?

© Norm Sperling 1994. Originally published in The Planetarian, vol. 23, no. 4, December 1994, 5, 53.

Astronomical effects influence a lot of fields. But specialists in those studies don't always know enough astronomy to recognize what's really happening. Here's an example on a famous topic that no one would expect to have an astronomical dimension.

The highly-publicized hunt for "Nessie", the Loch Ness Monster, interests scientists and skeptics as well as the "crypto-zoologists" who hope that, in addition to the millions of small species that (naturalists assure us) remain to be cataloged, there may also be some unusually big ones. Discovering big new animals wouldn't violate anything scientific, and it would definitely be cool.

Nessie's setting is well known. In Scotland there lies a long, narrow, deep lake, Loch Ness, famous for its opaque waters. Sporadic reports from locals and tourists suggest that a large aquatic animal lives there, only rarely surfacing. A few ambiguous photographs and a lot of folklore support Nessie. The local hotels hope the hype continues to draw even more tourists than the pleasant landscapes and local culture earn on their own. Similar phenomena include "Champ" in Lake Champlain, Vermont, and "Ogopogo" in Okanagan Lake, British Columbia.

Just what the creatures might be, if real, remains to be demonstrated. I often heard plesiosaurs suggested, though these large marine reptiles are thought to have met extinction at the same time as dinosaurs, the end of the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago. No plesiosaur fossils have been found in any later rocks.

"Remember the coelacanth!", the advocates remind us. These large primitive fish were also thought to be extinct, and now we have specimens of 2 species caught live - one species near the Comoro Islands and South Africa in the Indian Ocean, and the other in Indonesia. But the main reason to suspect a plesiosaur was its similarity to the "surgeon's photo", now admitted to have been a 1930s hoax.

A number of expeditions have sought Nessie, using more or less technological devices, and techniques of varying sophistication and likelihood of success. The one that produced the strangest result - often cited as the best scientific evidence for Nessie - was conducted in the summer of 1972. A sonar transducer (which converts sounds into electrical signals) was submerged 35 feet in the dark waters, connected by a long wire to analytical equipment aboard a boat. The transducer's signal traveled along that wire to amplifying electronics aboard the ship. If Nessie swam by the sonar detector, it would say so, even if Nessie stayed out of sight of the nearby submerged cameras. That is objective and neutral: no large signals means no large object, no Nessie; large signals can mean Nessie is there.

An hour after midnight on August 9, 1972, the sonar produced the peculiar strip-chart recording which is most often cited as showing the Loch Ness Monster. Though published1, this strip-chart is so different from conventional sonar output that even pro-Nessie studies quote the opinions of authorities, and several of those hedge2. Items by Rikki Razdan and Alan Kielar in the Skeptical Inquirer have disputed the positioning of the transducer (free-swinging or stationary), the stimulus for looking there and then (a dowser's signal), and the interpretation of the strip-chart. The matter remains controversial.

Despite the decades since then, I remember vividly where I was and what I was doing that week. I was in Springfield, Vermont, at the most famous astronomical convention in America. "Stellafane" is intended for people who make telescopes, but every year thousands who don't grind their own flock there too. I was attending my first Stellafane that very weekend. The sky was clear and dark. The Milky Way shone prominently. But everybody's attention was on something else. Brilliant green aurora - "Northern Lights" - flitted all around the sky. This was the finest display I have ever seen - the longest, the brightest, the most detailed and the fastest flickering, covering the most sky, right down to the south horizon.

In fact, this was one of the strongest auroras in decades, occasioned by one of the strongest solar flare outbursts recorded to that time. The Sun had just spat out a lot of charged particles, and they whipped Earth's magnetic field around, causing quite a lot of havoc. The storm induced electric currents in long wires, with many reports of damaging voltage and amperage variations. There were surges in the Canadian electric power grid; a big transformer exploded; short-wave radio communications were gravely disrupted; and sensitive electronic equipment was subjected to surges and flutters and spikes of current. Sky & Telescope magazine covered the event with no less than 5 articles, and J. A. McKinnon compiled a whole monograph on the event.

Much of Europe reported aurora and other electromagnetic phenomena from this solar storm. Loch Ness lies closer to the zone of greatest auroral intensity, the "auroral oval", than most of Europe.

The peculiar sonar reading occurred at just the time of the second-greatest peak of magnetic intensity. But the Loch Ness investigators didn't report the aurora. Most likely it was cloudy there, as it is about 90% of the time. Even had it been clear, their attention would have been focused down toward the waters, and it would be entirely understandable if they didn't notice diffuse phenomena occurring behind them and apparently unrelated to their interests. They did, however, note that "the hair went up on the backs of their necks" - an effect well-known in electrical demonstrations - though they interpreted that as "primitive instincts" that "there was something ominous in the loch that night"3.

One sensitive electronic instrument, using a long wire, did give a peculiar reading just when an exceptionally strong gust of solar wind swept by Earth, just when hair rose on their necks. The least-strange interpretation is that this sonar recorded the magnetic storm, rather than the Loch Ness Monster. This might explain why the reading from the Loch Ness equipment is so strange that it requires expert interpretations, and why those say different things.

If so, the Loch Ness investigators may deserve a more charitable treatment than some skeptics have given them. They reported what their instrument told them, and that instrument gave a reading that is possible to interpret as data confirming an unusually large object or creature. The hair-raising clue alone was too little to pick up on. The aurora was probably hidden by clouds, and even if visible would not likely attract their attention, let alone their suspicion. And while atmospheric scientists and astronomers would connect the aurora to the strangeness of signals riding long wires, few other scientists would suspect their instruments of telling them anything beside what they're designed to tell.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so you can still root for Nessie. But the scientific evidence (with the sonar reading resulting from aurora, and the "surgeon's photo" an admitted hoax) is very meager.

Everything people deal with is embedded in a cosmic setting. The better people understand the cosmos, the better they can deal with it.

1. Scott and Rines, 1975, p 466; Rines et al., 1976, p 31.
2. Rines et al., 1976, pp 36-7.
3. Rines et al., 1976, p 30.

* Klein, M., and C. Finkelstein, Technology Review, vol. 79, no. 2, 1976, p. 3.
* McKinnon, J[ohn] A[ngus], August 1972 Solar Activity and Related Geophysical Effects, Technical Memorandum ERL SEL-22, Space Environment Laboratory, Environmental Research Laboratories, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Boulder, Colorado, December 1972.
* Razdan, Rikki, and Alan Kielar, "Sonar and Photographic Searches for the Loch Ness Monster: A Reassessment", Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 9, no. 2, Winter 1984-5, pp. 147-158.
* -, "Loch Ness Reanalysis: Authors Reply", Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 9, no. 4, Summer 1985, pp. 387-9.
* Rines, Robert H., Harold E. Edgerton, Charles W. Wickoff, and Martin Klein, "Search for the Loch Ness Monster", Technology Review, vol. 78, no. 5, March-April 1976, pp. 25-40.
* Rines, Robert, et al., "Loch Ness Reanalysis: Rines Responds", Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 9, no. 4, Summer 1985, pp. 382-6.
* Scott, Sir Peter, and Robert Rines, "Naming the Loch Ness monster", Nature, vol. 258, 11 December 1975, pp. 466-8.
Sky & Telescope magazine articles on this magnetic storm appear in October 1972, pp. 214, 226, and 237; November 1972, p. 333; and February 1973, p. 130.

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