When a four-part crop circle pattern roughly resembling a Mickey Mouse head appeared last week in a wheat field in eastern Washington state, farmers Greg and Cindy Geib were surprised — but not shocked.
After all, it was not the first crop circle in the area; several others had appeared in previous years, mostly chalked up to mischievous youth. The pattern was noticed by a neighbor driving on a nearby highway who soon called the Geibs on July 24 and told them they'd been punked. The mysterious circle had apparently been made overnight, with no obvious signs of hoaxing.
People are always surprised by crop circles (especially when it happens to them), but in fact they're not as rare as often assumed: According to an article by Richard Taylor published in "Physics World" (August 2011), "these patterns appear around the world at a rate of one every evening," making them literally an everyday event.
Many hundreds of crop circles have appeared over the years, usually in hotspots such as Great Britain, and according to Taylor their designs are getting ever more complex as a result of the technology available to crop-circle artists.
Theories and explanations
Crop-circle enthusiasts have come up with many theories about what creates the patterns, ranging from the plausible to the patently absurd. One explanation in vogue in the early 1980s was that the circles were accidentally produced by the especially vigorous sexual activity of mating hedgehogs. As the patterns became more complex that idea was abandoned, but some of the theories that replaced it were equally outlandish. Some people have suggested that the circles are somehow created by incredibly localized and precise wind patterns, or by scientifically undetectable Earth energy fields and meridians called ley lines. [ Photos: Mysterious Crop Circles ]
Many who favor an extraterrestrial explanation claim that aliens physically make the patterns themselves from spaceships; others suggest that they do it using invisible energy beams from space, saving them the trip down here. Still others believe that it is human, not extraterrestrial, thought and intelligence that is behind the patterns — not in the form of hoaxers but some sort of global psychic power that manifests itself in wheat and other crops.
While there are countless theories, the only known, proven causes of crop circles are humans. Many people believe that crop circles have been reported for centuries (for example mistakenly suggesting that a 1678 woodcut of a folkloric legend about Satan harvesting wheat is evidence of a crop circle); but in fact the first ones appeared only in the 1970s. Their origin remained a mystery until September 1991, when two men confessed that they had created the patterns for decades as a prank to make people think UFOs had landed. They never claimed to have made all the circles — many were copycat pranks done by others — but their hoax launched the crop-circle phenomenon. Most crop-circle researchers admit that hoaxers craft the vast majority of crop circles. But, they claim, there's a remaining tiny percentage that they can't explain.
Crop circle features
The basic features of most crop circles are also actually pretty standard, and this latest is quite typical. While there are always a few exceptions, virtually all crop circles share a set of common characteristics. [ Photos: Mystical Fairy Circles Grace African Desert ]
Circles: They almost always involve circles — rarely triangles, rectangles, or squares, though some designs contain straight or curved lines. Perhaps not coincidentally, a circle is the easiest pattern for hoaxers, or anyone, to create.
Nocturnal creation: Crop circles are formed overnight, often sighted by farmers or passers-by the next morning. Though there seems no logical reason for extraterrestrials or Earth energies to only create patterns at night, it is obviously a great advantage for hoaxers to create the designs under the cover of darkness; full moon nights are especially popular.
No obvious human trace: Most crop circles show little or no signs of human contact or handiwork. While many people consider this very mysterious, in fact it's quite logical: Hoaxers who devote the time and effort required to design and create the (often complex) crop circles are unlikely to carelessly leave obvious signs of their activities. What's the point of pulling off a newsworthy hoax like a crop circle if those who see it know right away it's faked?
Tramline intersection: Crop circles almost always have tramlines leading to and through them. Agricultural tramlines are the long, straight lines of dirt or crushed plants that allow farmers to drive through their fields to fertilize and spray their crops without damaging the plants. These lines — typically a few feet wide — also allow hoaxers access to the center of a field without disturbing or leaving marks in the surrounding crops (including footprints), making them all the more mysterious.
Visibility from, and access to, roads: Crop circles usually appear in fields that provide reasonably easy public access, close to roads and highways. They rarely appear in remote, inaccessible areas. Because of this, the patterns are usually noticed within a day or two of their creation by passing motorists. And, of course, nearby roads allow hoaxers to get in and out quickly without being noticed.
All of these characteristics appeared in the latest Washington crop circle. Indeed, Cindy Geib believes that their crop circle was the work of pranksters who, she told local news station KHQ, "had to be fairly young," because the hoaxers picked a spot some distance from the nearest road — but in an ideal location to be noticed the next morning by drivers along Highway 174. After all, every artist wants an audience.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and wrote about crop circles in his book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His Web site is www.BenjaminRadford.com.