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Saturday, April 25, 2015

NASA's Burn Map Debunks NASA's Explanation of the Australia Mystery Lights

In 2012 NASA released a light map of planet Earth made from observations by an orbiting satellite. The map was made from data acquired over nine days in April 2012 and 13 days in October 2012. Most continents appeared as expected. For example, the map of the United States showed many lights around the east coast, but not much light around the Rocky Mountains.

But the light map had one big surprise: there were many lights shown over the eastern half of western Australia. The eastern half of western Australia has little population. So how could there be all these lights coming from such a sparsely populated area?

Credit: NASA

In 2012 NASA made an attempt to explain this mystery. NASA claimed that the abundant lights in the eastern half of western Australia were caused by wildfires. It is known that the eastern half of western Australia is pretty dry, so this explanation seems to have been accepted without challenge by the press.

There are two huge problems, however, with NASA's explanation. The first is historical. If there had been huge wildfires in the eastern part of western Australia during the time the data for the light map was collected (nine days in April 2012 and 13 days in October 2012), there would be a historical record of such fires. But there seems to be no such historical record.

 This wikipedia article discusses in depth the Australian bushfire season between 2012 and 2013. The article devotes 4 paragraphs to the month of October 2012, and mentions a huge wildfire in eastern Australia (in the Queensland region), one that consumed a million acres. But the only discussion of fires is western Australia is a discussion of a relatively tiny fire that only consumed 2500 acres. Such a fire can account for perhaps only one dot on the map showing “mystery lights” in western Australia. 

As for April 2012 this article discusses the fires between June 2011 and May 2012, but makes no mention of any fires in April 2012. Wildfires mostly occur in Australia between October and February.

I did a Google search for “fires in Western Australia” with the results restricted to between October 1, 2012 and November 1, 2012. I could find no mention of any fires in western Australia during this period, except for a discussion of the relatively small 2500-acre fire previously mentioned. I then did a Google search for “fires in Western Australia” with the results restricted to between April 1, 2012 and May 1, 2012. I could find no mention of any fires in western Australia during this period. Among the sites I found was one called wildfiretoday.com which allowed me to search results by an “Australia” tag. There were many detailed accounts of wild fires in Australia between 2011 and 2015, but none covering fires in western Australia in April 2012 or October 2012 (except for the relatively small fire previously mentioned).

In short, the historical record does not support the claim that there were huge wildfires in western Australia during the two months when the data for the NASA light map was collected. But NASA did provide something in an attempt to back up its claim that the “mystery lights” in western Australia were caused by wildfires. NASA provided a map supposedly showing “burn scars,” and claimed that there was a match between this map and the map of lights in Australia.

But there's a huge problem here. The “burn scar” map and the light map match up fairly well for northern Australia. But the maps miserably fail to match up for the eastern half of western Australia – the very location of the lights that are hard to explain.

The “burn scars” map is show below. I've added a rectangle around the eastern half of western Australia.

Credit: NASA
 
The composite below shows a comparison between the NASA light map and the NASA burn map. The green rectangles show the same part, a large region of the eastern half of western Australia. 

Australia mystery lights
 
Now, according to NASA's claims, the red spots in the rectangle on the top should match the yellow spots in the rectangle on the bottom. But there is no match. Fewer than 10% of the yellow spots in the rectangle on the bottom match the red spots in the rectangle on the top. There are no “burn scars” in 90% of the spots where the lights were observed in the green triangle area.

In short, NASA's own “burn scar” map debunks NASA explanation for the “mystery lights” in western Australia. Evidently the “mystery lights” in western Australia were not mainly caused by wildfires, for the burn scar map shows almost no trace of such wildfires. And as I discussed before, the historical record also indicates that such massive wildfires did not occur during the time that the light map was made (April and October 2012).

NASA's unconvincing attempt to justify its unbelievable explanation for the “mystery lights” in Australia was reported without question by the press. It is as if no one bothered to compare the light map and the “burn scar” map and see how little they match.

We apparently have here an important unresolved mystery. Unexplained lights were observed over a huge part of Australia, and we have no good explanation for them. I can merely note that as someone who regularly photographs unexplained lights in the night sky (as seen here), I do not find this surprising.