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UFO Spotting Has Replaced Bird Watching as Pandemic Obsession

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 9/1/2020 Te-Ping Chen
© Yuri Smityuk/TASS/ZUMA PRESS

In the wake of the coronavirus, sports stadiums have fallen silent, shopping malls have been turned into ghost towns, and bars have emptied. But the skies—depending who you ask—have gotten a lot busier.

Hannah Levine was outside with her dog around midnight in April when she saw a curious yellow light glide across the sky and vanish, one that didn’t resemble a plane. Puzzled, she pulled up a night sky app on her phone to check whether it might be a satellite or the International Space Station, but nothing came up.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I saw a UFO,’ ” says Ms. Levine, 26, a nanny in the Detroit area. “I mean, it was definitely unidentified.”

With more people at home, this is shaping up to be a banner year for extraterrestrial encounters, according to data from the nonprofit National UFO Reporting Center, which reports sightings this year are up 51% so far over the same period in 2019. Among 5,000 incidents recorded this year, 20% occurred in April at the height of the nation’s lockdown.

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At Peter Davenport’s home in Harrington, Wash., the phone rings all day long, and into the night. Mr. Davenport has served as the group’s director since 1994, collecting firsthand accounts through his website and by phone, answering 25 to 50 calls a day. The group is an independent, two-man shop that consists of Mr. Davenport and a webmaster, both volunteers, whose work is well known among the UFO-watching community.

“It’s a herculean task,” says Mr. Davenport, 72, who turns off the phone’s ringer at night to try to get some sleep. “It’s literally taken over my life.”

Reports of aliens haunting the skies have waxed and waned over the years. Interest in extraterrestrials boomed in the 1990s, fueled in part by pop-culture phenomena such as “The X-Files” and “Men in Black.”

Talk of UFOs has gotten a boost in recent months, with the Navy releasing three archival videos of unidentified flying objects glimpsed by pilots and the topic getting highlighted by podcaster Joe Rogan and the History Channel, which has devoted a new show to the subject.

Most Americans who witness something strange never report it, says Mr. Davenport, who cautions that most of the reports have another identifiable cause: a drone, for example, or a plane. In particular, he says, the 2019 l aunch of the Starlink satellite constellation being built by SpaceX to provide internet access has meant many more false sightings.

“One might think an increase would be exciting to me, but from my vantage point, it’s just more work,” says Mr. Davenport, who edits reports for grammar and clarity and sifts out obvious hoaxes before posting them online, adding that he implores people to use spell check when they write their accounts.

He is loath to speculate about the reasons why sightings have increased lately. He says he glimpsed his first UFO at the age of six while riding in a car with his parents. He served in the U.S. Army and helped found a biotech firm in the 1980s before taking on his current role, which occupies him full-time.

What we see in the skies tends to mirror reality on the ground, says Matthew Hayes, an instructor at Northern Lakes College in Alberta, Canada, who studies public fascination with UFOs. He notes that interest in the phenomenon first arose during the Cold War, amid deep public anxieties about the world and its new destructive technologies.

“In a time of crisis, we look elsewhere for salvation, even if it means looking to the stars,” he says.

A January poll by Ipsos, a research firm, found that 57% of Americans think there is intelligent life on other planets, while 45% believe UFOs exist and have visited Earth.

On a recent day on his porch in White Bluff, Tenn., Hunter Clark, 32, was surprised to see two swift-moving dots in the night sky that appeared consecutively, traced the same path, then vanished. “I’m a logical person, very matter-of-fact,” says Mr. Clark, who lost his construction-industry job amid the pandemic. “But I’ve never seen an object disappear in a snap of a finger like that.”

He didn’t report what he saw to Mr. Davenport’s group, but discussed it on social media.

Jeff Champagne, 40, a consultant, says that while in the backyard with his wife in their suburb of San Antonio, the duo recently spotted a silvery, stationary object in the sky, too high up to be a drone. A self-identified NASA geek who previously served in the Air Force, Mr. Champagne is used to identifying satellites and the like, but this one left him baffled.

“We’d be foolish to believe we’re the only existence out there,” he says. He typed up a description of the experience so he wouldn’t forget it.

Those intrigued by UFOs got a boost in August when the Pentagon announced a task force to study “unidentified aerial phenomena,” or UAPs, and detect any that could pose a national security threat. The U.S. government has previously looked into the topic, including a study by the Air Force, Project Blue Book, that began in 1952 and ended in 1969 without finding evidence that UFOs sightings were in fact extraterrestrial vehicles.

Ravi Kopparapu, a NASA planetary scientist who recently penned an op-ed in Scientific American calling for more research into UFOs, says he and his co-author sat on the piece for a year and a half before publishing, fearful of its reception. “There’s a great taboo associated with UFOs,” he says, adding that he prefers the term UAP because it sounds more academic.

Write to Te-Ping Chen at te-ping.chen@wsj.com

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