Strange phenomena, from Nessie to UFOs, may just be weird weather.
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The Independent Culture
`Suddenly I saw something rise out of the Loch in front of us - a long, straight, neck-like thing as tall as a mast, moving towards us. Then it began to draw its neck down, and I saw clearly that it was a large sea monster." So reported a doctor on the Isle of Skye in 1893, 40 years before the first sightings of the notorious monster in Loch Ness, 50 miles further east. Ten years later the "monster" was seen again on Loch Scavaig - this time as a 20ft-high tapering column, moving to and fro in the air. In 1910 the creature moved to the Orkneys, where it rose bolt-upright out of the sea, displaying a snake-like neck and head. Finally, in July 1930, it made its debut in Loch Ness. A fishing party heard a roaring noise and looked round to see spray flying and a column rushing towards them, pushing ahead of it a 3ft-high wave.

These and many other reports of lake and sea monsters are astonishingly similar. From Scotland to Southern Africa and Kashmir, monsters have been seen rising up from the water, with tapering necks, small heads and a frightening roar. These observations are all the more credible because they happened long before Lt Col Kenneth Wilson concocted his famous Loch Ness Monster hoax on April Fool's Day 1933: he produced a grainy photograph of a dinosaur-like creature.

Disappointingly for monster fanatics, there could be a simple meteorological explanation. Dr Terence Meaden at the Tornado Research Organisation (Torro) in Bradford-upon-Avon, Wiltshire, believes these monsters may be water- devils (whirlwinds that whip water into small columns) or their larger cousins, waterspouts (tall funnels of water sucked up by thunder clouds).

"Waterspouts are very long, reaching way up to a cloud above, but their trunks can be invisible for a great part of their length," says Dr Meaden. "Down at the water's surface, all you would see is a mass of fuming spray." Water-devils can dart around, pausing for a moment like a nervous beast; sometimes they bend over at the top like a dinosaur's head. Add to this a roaring noise, and you have the ingredients of an awesome beast.

The Sunday Express reported an interesting case in 1979 at Bala Lake, in the shadows of the Berwyn mountains in Wales. Anne Jones was gazing out on peaceful water when the surface began to foam and bubble. For a few seconds she saw what looked like a huge hump-backed beast. "I shall never forget it," said Mrs Jones. "All I saw was its huge back, and froth boiling around it."

On 11 May 1970, the Louth Standard reported a raging waterspout off the coast of Mablethorpe in Lincolnshire: "Suddenly it just appeared in the sea," said Gaynor Kirkby, manager of the foreshore office. "It was like steam rising off a boiling sea, and travelled parallel to the coast before veering out to sea and disappearing."

Meteorologists have helped torpedo a few other cherished legends. The area of sea bordered by Bermuda, Florida and Puerto Rico - the so-called Bermuda Triangle - is a place where ships and aircraft can disappear for no apparent reason. That, at least, is what the popular books would have you believe. What they rarely mention is that this is one of the world's worst hurricane regions, with winds that can gust up to 250mph and whip the sea into a frenzy of waves over 100ft high. Hurricanes and smaller tropical storms can blow up out of nowhere, head off in unpredictable directions and cause immense damage to shipping and planes. Small wonder that vessels caught unawares can suddenly vanish.

Winds might also explain the bizarre phenomenon of crop circles. Mysterious circles of flattened cereal crops were first reported in southern England in 1980; then thousands broke out all over the world. The whole phenomenon was floored in September 1991 by two middle-aged men, Doug Rower and Dave Chorley, who confessed to faking large numbers of crop circles. But there is evidence that some crop circles might be genuine phenomena created by unusual whirlwinds which have been mistaken for UFOs.

The earliest crop circle was recorded in 1678, and was uncannily like the modern ones - a neat circle with the crops flattened into a whirl, thought to be the work of devils. "My personal opinion," says John Snow, professor of atmospheric sciences at Purdue University, Indiana, "is that some crop circles are possibly due to the action of vortices - distant cousins to the dust-devil or whirlwind."

Vortices are particularly common around hills, and you can often see them "walking" around buildings on a windy day. But Snow recognises that ordinary vortices would not do the trick, because they move around too much. He, together with Tokio Kikuchi, professor of physics at Kochi University in Japan, and Terence Meaden at Torro, came up with a possible answer - a whirlwind spun off from low hills, which then collapses and burns on the ground as a circular ring.

Eyewitness accounts lend some support to the idea of strange whirlwinds at work. For instance, on 21 July 1990, David and Elaine Haines of Sturminster Newton, Dorset, were travelling home when they saw what looked like four beams of a high-powered torch. When they got closer, they could see "four swirling shapes, shining white. We turned off the car engine and could hear a whooshing noise. These four spinning shapes went round and round in a clockwise direction."

Weather phenomena might also explain many UFO sightings. Rotor or lenticular clouds, common over mountains and hills, look like colossal flying saucers hovering in the sky - often with circular rings around them, and occasionally luminous if the sun is shining from behind them.

Mirages can also play amazing tricks. Formed by still layers of cold and warm air which can bend images over the horizon like gigantic prisms, they create bizarre sights in the sky. On 30 September 1986, Yvonne Westgarth was gazing out of a window in her house in Edinburgh when she saw a large black- and white-banded cigar-shaped missile fly over the houses opposite. It made no noise and remained for a minute before disappearing.

The only aircraft in the area was a British Airways Boeing 757 landing at Logan Airport. Stewart Campbell, a local scientist interested in supernatural phenomena, had a hunch that Mrs Westgate might have seen a mirage of an upside-down image of the aircraft alongside a normal image, giving the appearance of a flying cylinder. The dark band in the middle was the double image of the aircraft wings. When Campbell showed her a picture of two halves of a Boeing mounted together, she agreed it was a good likeness.

Long before UFO sightings, flying ships were seen by mariners in the sky. Mirages can make ships appear to float in the sky, sometimes upside- down, inspiring legends like that of the Flying Dutchman which was supposed to haunt the waters around the Cape of Good Hope. Like many other paranormal phenomena, the explanation of the Flying Dutchman might have been weird weather.

! This article is based on `Weird Weather' by Paul Simons, published by Little Brown at pounds 15.99.