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Close Encounters and the Pandemic: 2020 Canadian UFO Survey

There are a lot of things that went away from our lives in 2020, due to the COVID-19 global pandemic that literally put all of our lives into a pause: gatherings with friends and family, restaurant dinners, movie nights, church services, rock concerts, sports events with full stadiums, and (for misanthrope types such as yours truly) the need to come up with good-enough excuses as to why you can’t go out with your buddies for drinks –sorrymaybenextime?

Getting this in XXL…
Chris Rutkowski

But some things that did not go away were UFO sightings. In fact, according to the recently released 2020 report by the Canadian UFO Survey –released each year by astronomer Chris Rutkowski and UFOlogy Research (formerly UFOlogy Research of Manitoba)– there actually was a notable increase in UFO reports from Canada last year (46%) in comparison to 2019; making 2020 one of the years with the highest incidence of UFO reports since the survey began, in 1989.

Which of course, raises the question: might there have been some sort of correlation between the social anxiety caused by the pandemic, and the apparent increase in UFO activity? The report tackles the issue in a cautious manner:

[…] The most significant findings of the 2020 Canadian UFO Survey were the comparisons with 2019. Data showed that during the early stages of the pandemic, during the first quarter of 2020, UFO report numbers surged significantly from 151 in 2019 to 259 in 2020.

As the pandemic took hold in Canada in the second quarter of 2020, UFO report numbers surged to 354 cases, up from only 222 in 2019. This trend continued throughout 2020, slowing somewhat, but overall the number of UFO reports in 2020 was remarkably high, possibly recovering from a downward trend during the past few years.

[…] Numbers of reported UFO sightings remain high. Several theories for this can be suggested:

more UFOs are present and physically observable by witnesses; more secret or classified military exercises and overflights are occurring over populated areas; more people are unaware of the nature of conventional or natural objects in the sky; more people are taking the time to observe their surroundings; more people are able to report their sightings with easier access to the Internet and portable technology; or even that the downturn in the economy is leading to an increased desire by some people to look skyward for assistance [emphasis mine].

The data gathered by the survey goes to show that, when studied geographically, Ontario led all Canadian provinces with 30% of all Canadian UFO reports in 2020, followed by Quebec and British Columbia. And sure enough, if one compares the UFO report data with the data of COVID-19 infections last year, we find that those provinces are among the most affected by the coronavirus in that country.

[Source: the Canadian UFO Survey]
[Source: Google]

But then again, this tantalizing correlation could be easily explained by the fact that those provinces are also the most populated regions in the Canadian territory, meaning it could all just be a coincidence caused by a numbers game –the more people in an area, the more UFO reports and COVID-19 infections coming from that area.

No wonder some researchers have toyed with the idea that UFO flaps behave very much like a transmissible disease fueled by media attention on certain notorious cases, which prompts other witnesses to come forward and share their stories, increasing more attention until eventually interest/activity wanes away, with the cycle repeating itself after a time elsewhere. Is the phenomenon cyclical then, or is that an illusion caused by our transitory attention span? These are questions that nobody really can fully answer, yet addressing UFOs as a sort of memetic virus is something researchers should probably pay more attention to,

But getting back to the 2020 survey, the report shows two distinct peaks of UFO reports in the months of April and August. Once again, if we correlate this with the progression of the COVID-19 spread in Canada, we do notice that by April the number of infected were beginning to increase dramatically, and by mid-April Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was warning his fellow citizens that the lockdown would still last “many weeks” and that if the economy was reopened too soon, all their efforts and sacrifices would have been for nothing.

[Source: the Canadian UFO Survey]

By August of 2020 the number of cases were beginning to plateau, and the situation seemed to be fully under control; however, the second wave of the coronavirus hit Canada –like most other countries– pretty hard, with the numbers of infected skyrocketing by December when people were easing the safety measures because they wanted to enjoy the Christmas holidays. So, if there is some sort of correlation between the pandemic-induced social anxiety and UFOs, why don’t we see a peak of reports in December? The survey explains that historically most sightings in Canada tend to cluster in the summer months and wean during the winter, when people tend to spend more time indoors due to the extremely cold temperatures.

The survey further notes:

It is tempting to blame this anomalous trend on the pandemic or lockdowns. Another possibility is that misidentifications of the Starlink satellite constellations* might have been responsible to the April and August peaks, but there were launches in June as well, without such a peak.

In my essay for Robbie Graham’s UFOs: Reframing the Debate (which you can read for free here) I speculated with the idea that times of deep social unrest coincide with an increase in reported paranormal activity –which should not be exclusively interpreted as paranoia or mass hysteria, but regarded from the point of view of liminality as proposed by authors like George Hansen in his book The Trickster and the Paranormal. The 2020 Canadian UFO survey seems to give some weight to the social anxiety hypothesis**, but of course it is but an incomplete glimpse of the larger picture, since we should also analyze UFO sightings from many other countries.

And what about other areas of Forteanism? Did Bigfoot or ghost sightings also increase during the pandemic? And what about precognitive dreams or synchronicities? These are the type of questions other like-minded colleagues are trying to answer, like my friend Susan Demeter, who founded the Facebook group Paranormal Experiences and the Pandemic, as a way to gather anecdotal data during the social crises caused by the coronavirus.

But unfortunately, these types of data analysis are becoming a thing of the past, since it seems that despite the fact modern technology and social media has made the gathering of reports easier than ever, fewer and fewer researchers bother to contact these witnesses to confirm their accounts or gather more information. This worrisome trend is also noted by the 2020 survey:

It should be noted that the preparation of this Survey is becoming quite challenging. Few UFO investigators or researchers actually submit case directly data to UFOROM, despite requests, requiring considerable searching of online sources. And, although many sites post information about UFO sightings, very little actual UFO investigation is being conducted. In fact, it could be said that the science of good and thorough UFO investigation has nearly become extinct, if it existed at all. This does not bode well for an area of study that is under constant criticism by debunkers wishing to prove the unscientific nature of the subject.

Since 2017, American UFOlogy has entered into a worrisome stage of passivity: Many people in the field are expecting all their questions to be answered by former Intelligence agents and Defense contractors, and instead of conducting original research like their predecessors did in decades past, they instead devote their time to propagate the posts of Lue Elizondo and Chris Mellon while impatiently waiting for that highly-expected official report that is said be released by June –if it’s not inconveniently delayed, that is…

Perhaps the UAP Task Force’s report will be every UFO buff’s wet dream, and will make efforts like the annual Canadian UFO Survey obsolete. Or perhaps it will be much ado about nothing, and UFO researchers will reluctantly be forced to stop waiting for the Great Pentagon Pumpkin to reward them for being such good boys, and get back to work to get some sort of answer by themselves. In which case, Chris Rutkowski and his colleagues’ contribution to the field will remain an invaluable asset, and will perhaps help us realize someday that when things go cray-cray in our lives, the things that go bump in the time become way less timid.


(*): The Starlink is a constellation of small satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, with the objective of offering Internet services for exploratory, scientific or military purposes. Many scientists worry that the Starlink satellites will severely undermine astronomical observations with surface-based telescopes.

(**): It is interesting to note how in the Survey, the only year that surpassed the amount of UFO sightings reported in 2020 (1243 in total) was 2012 (1982 reports), which might have been the result of the so-called ‘Mayan Doomsday’ effect which caused such a frenzy that year.