Cheryl Costa was working in the production department of a newspaper in upstate New York back in 2012 late one night when, after the presses were rolling with the next morning’s paper, she happened across an online headline that would alter the course of her career. “U.F.O. Sightings Decline,” the headline read. This, to Costa, just didn’t feel like accurate information.
“I wasn’t any kind of U.F.O. activist,” Costa tells NOW.SPACE. “I was just moderately well-read on a lot of things, U.F.O.’s among them.”
UFO Phil’s painting of the “Great Hollywood Pyramid.” Credit: Ufophil
Costa had always been curious, ever since, at the age of 12, her mother pointed to a silvery and spherical object in the sky and declared it a U.F.O. But now she dug in deep: After searching through a database of U.F.O. sightings online at the National U.F.O. Reporting Center, she made an initial Excel chart that revealed the exact opposite of what that online headline had claimed.
U.F.O. sightings were, in fact, on the rise in a major way—there were 3,479 in 2001, compared to 11,868 in 2015–and Costa set out to correct the record the best way she could.
Five years later, Costa has become a foremost authority on the frequency and characterization of U.F.O sightings–she writes New York Skies, a U.F.O. blog for the Syracuse New Times. Together with her wife, Linda Miller Costa, she recently published the 371-page U.F.O. Sightings Desk Reference, a comprehensive statistical summary of 121,036 eyewitness accounts in the United States, organized by county, from 2001 to 2015. The Costas’ book recently made headlines out west for the revelation that California had more U.F.O. sightings than any other state and they were recently featured in the New York Times. But for Cheryl Costa, this has become a crusade to get at a truth that she feels is being suppressed.
“Many experts within the U.F.O. research community know that approximately 1 in 10 persons actually reports what they see,” Costa says. “So consider 121,036 eyewitness U.F.O. reports, times 10. That’s 1.2 million in 15 years. And the American people can’t get a straight answer from our government on any level. There is a very large grassroots effort to try and bring about full disclosure about what’s going on over our heads.”
Costa obviously has her own viewpoint, but her book is purposefully objective, meant to serve, she says, as a sort of “U.F.O census.” (Many of the sightings in it turn out to be explainable, but a chosen few are not.) She’s hoping that other researchers will subject it to peer review and perhaps discover trends that she didn’t. But there was much that Costa did discover: For instance, that weather and proximity to water and days of the week affected the patterns of sightings and that sightings were often clustered in certain places.
All of which brings us to California, the U.F.O. capital of America, with nearly 15,836 sightings over the course of the 15 years Costa studied.
In a way, this isn’t surprising, given California’s size and population. But size and population did not prove a perfect correlation: Florida, for instance, has a smaller population than Texas but had more sightings (7,787) than Texas’ 7,058 (and California had more sightings than Texas and Florida combined). Washington state (5,226) was fourth, and Arizona (4,726) was seventh on the list of sightings, despite having far smaller populations than most of the other states in the top 10. The District of Columbia, with 9,856 people per square mile, had the fewest sightings (154).
Battle of Los Angeles, 1942. Source: Los Angeles Times via ProQuest
So why did California stand out so much?
“I really don’t know,” Costa admits. “There are a number of factors, and of course many unknowns.”
One of those potential factors: Latitude, which obviously impacts weather patterns. According to Costa, sightings in northern California peaked in the summer and fall months, when the weather is warmer. As you move further south in the state, the pattern of sightings tended to flatten out. Costa believes the small spike in Southern California in July and November could have been affected at least by tourism.
“This is about observers having nice weather to see U.F.O.’s, or tourists visiting seasonally, boosting the available observers with clear night skies,” she says. “We’ve seen this sort of winter spike in the generally flat Florida sighting profile—the ‘snow-bird tourists’ are taking mid-winter vacations.”
And what about those less scientific factors, like the fact that California is renowned for its, shall we say, open-mindedness toward new-age ideas—an open-mindedness that could potentially correlate toward more sightings? Despite the jokes that ensued amid Costa’s revelations about California, she insisted she saw nothing “that suggests California observers are any different than observers in any other locations. With perhaps one notable exception: Los Angeles County.”
It’s true: L.A. logged more sighting reports (3,212) by itself than 40 other states. And maybe you’d expect that from a place known for its willingness to suspend disbelief, but here’s one that might surprise you: Maricopa County in Arizona, home to the city of Phoenix, wasn’t far behind Los Angeles. And while Costa awaits the data to be further scrutinized, she was willing to offer a theory.
“This is the greatest story never told.”
“I saw a documentary a few months ago that said L.A., in terms of U.F.O’s, has a long history of sightings, dating back to before we had manned flight,” Costa says. “Add that to the great ‘Battle of Los Angeles’ sighting of February 25, 1942, and I think there might be an acute sense of cultural awareness among long-time Los Angeles residents.”
The same could be true for Phoenix, Costa says—in 1997, the city was subject to a huge mass-sighting known as the “Phoenix Lights.”
“Thereafter, for the past 20 years, there has been an acute sense of cultural awareness,” Costa speculates. “Folks are frequently looking to the sky, just in case they come back.”
Costa says she’s become accustomed to the skepticism any U.F.O reporting receives from the general public. She says a number of major media outlets greeted the publication of her book “with deafening silence,” and while she insists the goal of the book was merely to compile data in a single source, the refusal to report on such data led her to wonder if “the major media (is) just as culpable as the government in maintaining the raging silence on this subject.”
“From a mass media context,” she says, “this is the greatest story never told.”