UFO sightings say more about us than about aliens

A handful of researchers have spent years gathering data on UFOs, and their findings tell us a lot about human habits.
America's UFO highway
America's UFO highway Script & Seal

UFO sightings are a bit like lottery tickets. They can be thrilling, embarrassing to amass, and all it takes is one good encounter to change someone’s life (or life as we know it) forever. And boy, do people amass them. For decades, volunteers with the National UFO Reporting Center ­(NUFORC) and the Mutual UFO Network have cataloged sightings of flying saucers, black triangles, ringed orbs, and other baffling aerial phenomena. Many scientists dismiss these unusual accounts, but a few researchers analyze them to see what decades of purported encounters can teach us. Their work has organized what others consider the result of ­human error or whimsy into robust databases fit for serious study. When put together, these reports of strange lights in the sky often tell us more about the humans on the ground than the unidentified objects themselves. Here’s what these rogue scientists’ work has uncovered.

miltary base ufo connection
Base Reading Script & Seal

One data-analytics researcher found that 61 percent of NUFORC sighting reports occurred within 24 miles of a military installation, suggesting government aircraft as likely culprits. But the concentration may have more to do with population density than top-­secret jets. Many sites are mostly bases for outfits like the Air and Army national guards, which tend to be near human-dense areas and which probably aren’t hosting futuristic flight testing (and are likely not of particular interest to alien visitors).

daily ufo sightings
They come at night Script & Seal

Nearly three-quarters of saucer reports with a timestamp happen in the dark, but not necessarily because aliens hide in shadows. Humans are simply more likely to stare at the sky between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. Temperate weather, leisure time, longer nights, and higher populations are the biggest factors for UFO hotspots. The largest, most consistent groups of observers? Dog walkers and people on smoke breaks.

Though you might not have heard yet, the 37th parallel passing through Area 51 is rumored to be a veritable traffic jam of flying saucers, at least according to some UFO researchers and the Hollywood-optioned book The 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America’s UFO Highway. But recent data shows that the strip doesn’t see more activity than other lines of latitude: U.S. cities bisected by the 34th parallel reported 615 UFO sightings in 2018, while cities along the 40th saw 576. Cities across the purported highway tallied only 254.

annual UFO sightings
Summer Blockbusters Script & Seal

Between 2001 and 2018, there have been 2,863 UFO sightings ­reported on Independence Day—more than seven times the 24-hour average. But American alien lovers may just be over-eager, as most Fourth of July reports turn out to stem from stray fireworks. The data doesn’t prove that aliens have never visited on this national holiday, but it does suggest that festive ordnance occasionally misfires in weird and unexpected ways.

This story originally published in the Out There issue of Popular Science.