Clues point to cause of Vancouver's 'unexplained lights'

Photos, debris provide essential information

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

Published:

 

Aliens haven't landed in Vancouver, despite this being the last chance they may have to buy Twinkies for a while.

The Hostess company's bankruptcy aside, the cause of the mysterious lights reported over Highway 500 and Interstate 205 Wednesday night seems to be far more terrestrial.

The strange floating visitors even left some detritus behind on nearby golf courses.

"I was golfing with my friends (Thursday) at around noon, and on the 13th hole on the fairway there were several of these things that looked like a paper bag or fabric," said Jack Richard, who was at the Royal Oaks Country Club at the time. "One was blowing around in the air. I didn't see any candles or anything, but it looked like a little hot air balloon."

Alan Nielsen, the superintendant at Royal Oaks, said his crew found about a dozen of the odd objects strewn around the course. They also noticed several others at nearby condos.

"It wasn't really a nuisance or anything to clean them up," Nielsen said. "That's not the worst thing we get around here."

He didn't see or hear about the lights from Wednesday night, but the crashed balloon remnants seem to fit the bill, he said.

Barbara Reeves, who lives by Club Green Meadows, said she found some too -- a few days before the reports started coming in of strange lights floating in the sky over the highway.

"They were big white tube things, like thin nylon type stuff," Reeves said. "They were two feet long with a 12-inch circle of wire across the top of one end. It had a little black box thing that was hooked by this wire."

Jim Todd, planetarium manager at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, said he's pretty sure he knows exactly what the objects are after looking at some photos that readers sent to The Columbian.

"I believe these are the sky lanterns based on the pictures," Todd said. "Looking at the patterns and color of the objects (in the air), I feel confident."

Sky lanterns are basically miniature hot air balloons.

Chuck Long, a scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Atmospheric Measurements Lab, said the science behind them is fairly simple.

"Hot air rises," Long said. "If you capture it and contain it, the hot air will provide enough lift, which is the same principal as hot air balloons."

All you'd need to lift a lightweight device like those described is a candle, which would create enough hot air to fill the fabric balloon.

"It's not rocket science, but it is balloon science," Long said with a laugh. "The hot air is less dense, so it wants to rise. Particles in hot air are moving faster, so they knock each other apart, (which is what makes them less dense than the surrounding air)."

The Chinese have used sky lanterns since at least the third century, first as a signaling device in warfare, and later as a part of rituals and festivals.

Today they're viewed as a sign of good luck, and some people say it bodes well to make a wish when you see one.

No group or individual has yet come forward to The Columbian take credit for launching anywhere from 50 to 300 of the them this week.

But Vancouver resident Paula Leach said she saw some people setting up and launching them near the Westfield Vancouver mall around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

"We could see the table with the glowing lanterns on it and they were going up," Leach said. "From where we were standing we saw them lifted up in the air, not too far, and then go down over the freeway. They didn't go up all that high."