Jul 25, 2019 I Micah Hanks

The Circle Effect: Crop Circles and Claims of “Natural” Flattened Formations

"Crop circles" are the popular name for a variety of artful assault on agricultural properties, which take the form of large-scale, complex patterns that appear mostly in wheat fields.

Occasionally cropping up (no pun intended) from time to time, the proponents of a paranormal theory behind their occurrence argue that large, intricate patterns like these couldn’t be made by humans; at least not in the short amount of time between sundown and sunrise during which they appear. It is an argument that has caused the circles to remain one of the more controversial sub-items in the broader UFO debate over the years. 

It is often claimed that crop circles have been reported for centuries, owing to a 1678 woodcut illustration depicting a “mowing devil,” which has been borrowed and appropriated into the modern mythos. Historians argue, however, that the mowing devil of the 17th century has nothing to do with modern crop circles, nor ideas about the supernatural forces behind their creation.

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The Dreaded "Mowing Devil": Why would anyone protest a devil appearing and offering to mow their yard for them?

Other accounts say that crop circles didn’t appear until the last few decades, the earliest report involving a witness who claimed to have seen a flying saucer rising over a field where the circle was later found (early reports of similar UFO landing sites were given the rather humorous nickname of “saucer nests”).

The true origins of crop circles might be a perplexing mystery indeed, if not for the fact that it is widely known today just how easily they can be produced by small—but highly coordinated—groups of individuals. Each year, a number of professional “crop circlers” that take to the fields, particularly in various parts of the United Kingdom, producing these dazzling displays under cover of darkness.

I recall mentioning the subject to a friend in South London a number of years ago (and one, I will note, with an appreciation for the more “mystical” aspects of life). When I asked his opinion on the crop circle mystery, he chuckled knowingly, advising me that he had actually met many of the makers of these circles.

“It’s fairly well known,” he told me at the time. “Although nobody really talks about it.” They’re a lot like graffiti, in other words, or any other kind of public art that is made quietly, in the dark, and below the radar.

And many residents—farmers in particular—consider them a menace.

The problem reached critical mass in the summer of 2017, when Wiltshire police issued a warning to future crop circlers, advising that it was destruction of property to depress any portions of crops grown in area fields, which is punishable under the law.

“A spokesman said creating a crop circle was criminal damage and an offence,” the BBC reported in 2017. “Damage caused means a loss in revenue to the farmer and landowner.”

One farmer, Tim Carson, said crop circles had caused £120,000 in damages to wheat, which could not be harvested after being flattened under the circles.

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Close up of flattened area in crop-circle (credit: Wikimedia Commons).

While the mechanism behind these elaborate, and often destructive displays in the United Kingdom is pretty well understood, that isn’t to say there haven’t been circumstanced that involved genuinely strange alterations to vegetation similar to the “crop circle” effect.

An unusual incident was described in 1992 by Y-H. Ohtsuki, a Tokyo-based physicist at Waseda University, Tokyo, who wrote for the British Journal of Meteorology about a large circular depression that appeared in a field on the property of a Radio Nippon transmitting station in Tokyo. However, this wasn’t your everyday kind of crop circle report: in this case, the circle appeared within a doubly-fenced compound, and reportedly occurred coinciding with instrumental anomalies that were logged at the station at the time of its apparent creation.

According to Ohtsuki’s account:

“It was the night of 31 August 1991 when the survey protection equipment (electromagnetic-noise warning detector) of the transmitting system of the Radio Nippon station in Kisarazu, Chiba prefecture, worked seventeen times during 40 minutes from 2.00 a.m. (that is, on 1 September). This is a wholly abnormal occurrence because the survey protection goes off only once a week on average.


“Next morning one of the staff discovered a 10-metre circle in the doubly-fenced ground of the Radio Nippon station. The grass in the ground was pushed down, but without leaving a clear spiral mark. The ground area is approximately 20,000 m2 , and three antenna towers are located in the ground. The fences are formed by 2.5-m-high wire netting and the station was watching for 24 hours. There were only two men in the station, and they were in a watching room for eight hours from 10.00 p.m. to 6.00 a.m.”

“Moreover,” Ohtsuki added, “I can add that neither of the men had ever heard of the circles effect at that time, so that after the discovery of the grass circle the next day they did not report it for 40 days. By the way, there are no roads or railway which a hoaxer could have used to approach by car or train.”

“This shows that the circles effect is not simply a matter of hoaxing,” Ohtsuki concluded.

What Ohtsuki describes seems far less elaborate than the annual displays that appear in Wiltshire fields every year. Is it possible that there are indeed other mechanisms—natural or otherwise—that might account for the appearances of flattened areas in fields in such a way, and further, that such natural formations could have even served as the inspiration behind the modern, and far more intricate crop circles that are made today?

Micah Hanks

Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.

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