ALRESFORD, England — Farmers in Britain may be surprised to find scientists wandering around their fields this winter looking for circles in the snow.
Mysterious circles, some almost 100 feet across, have been appearing in increasing numbers in cornfields in southern England for several summers, and some researchers are continuing their quest for the causes into the winter.
The government takes the view that the circles--corn flattened and swirled into precise, symmetrical patterns--are a natural phenomenon.
After ruling out whirlwinds, UFOs, vandals on motorbikes, fighting deer or helicopters as possible causes, two engineers studying the circles are convinced that they are neither man-made nor within the realm of conventional science.
"There is something there that we cannot account for," says Colin Andrews, an electrical engineer.
"And it's gathering momentum," says Pat Delgado, a retired electromechanical engineer.
The two, who have written a book on the subject, expect to find more crop circles and probably larger and more intricate ones.
About 270 circles appeared during the summer of 1989, 50 of them in new sites.
The 98 circles reported in 1988 and about 50 in 1987 were confined to a narrow band across the southern counties of Hampshire and Wiltshire, Andrews and Delgado say.
But in 1989 they spread to seven other counties, and in many cases people whose families had farmed the land for generations said they had never seen them before.
The government is aware that the circles have been appearing, a spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture said, but it takes the view that "this is much more likely to result from a combination of wind and local soil fertility conditions."
Physicist and meteorologist Terence Meaden, editor of the Journal of Meteorology and head of its subsidiary Ceres, the Circles Effect Research Unit, says circles are caused by wind vortices, which resemble ocean whirlpools.
"Hills interrupt wind flow . . . there's turbulence on the downward side and a vortex forms in that turbulence," he says.
Crops are flattened by the death throes of a whirling mass of wind, says Meaden. He says electric charges set up by the main vortex are powerful enough to induce more charges which form rings around the circles. They can also charge the surrounding air to form glowing balls of light.
Asked why vortices and circles are not more widespread, he says: "The rolling downs of Hampshire and Wiltshire are just big enough."
The Welsh mountains, for example, would be too big, he says.
Andrews and Delgado have been collecting data in Britain and abroad for more than five years and have amassed photographs and measurements, interviewed farmers and eyewitnesses and sent numerous plant and soil samples for analysis.
They now believe the circles are created by some sort of energy force but are at a loss to pin it down.
"It is something completely unexplored and unexplained," Delgado says.
The aspect that makes them uneasy is a growing conviction that this energy is being "intelligently manipulated."
The circles are not random, they say, and the phenomenon is constantly developing, with new patterns appearing.
The corn is undamaged and forms perfect symmetrical patterns flattened radially out from the center, spiraled clockwise or counterclockwise, sometimes twisted and even braided into several layers.
In several cases where corn has started to grow back it has formed seven concentric circles with 48 spokes.
The circle ends abruptly but often there are one or more concentric rings around it and sometimes two to four satellite circles around those, they say.
The measurements are precise. Satellites are typically 10 to 12 feet in diameter and spaced at exactly the same distance from the main circle.
Marine geologist Robin Wingfield also has taken an interest in the circles.
"As a scientist . . . I think they are well worth investigating. It's extremely difficult to see how they could be hoaxed.
"I'm extremely reluctant to say this . . . but they appear to be caused by some form of intelligence," Wingfield says.
He cites as evidence the circles' near-perfect symmetry and limited numbers.
Plotted on a graph, the incidence of circles seems to be growing by squared numbers, which is very hard to explain in terms of natural phenomena, he says.
Circles are usually formed at night and in a handful of cases people have reported seeing unidentified flying objects, or at least spherical amber lights in the sky.
But Delgado insists: "UFOs are not connected with this phenomenon in any way."
Delgado, who says he can sense energy in the way a water diviner detects underground springs, says there are hundreds of thousands of energy lines covering the Earth like a giant net.
Andrews and Delgado now think the circles are linked to these energy lines.
They say that several times they have seen flashes or heard thunder-like bangs while measuring circles, and a television crew recorded loud crackling while filming one.
Animals seem to be more sensitive to abnormal energy levels than people.
Andrews and Delgado say they have twice taken dogs with them when they have gone to measure circles. One refused to enter the circle and the other was violently sick and had to be taken out.
Andrews and Delgado say they have heard of a number of circles in other countries.
In Britain, they say, whatever it is that is flattening ripening crops may be active all year round and be more widespread, but passing unnoticed.
"It just needs something to register in," Delgado said.
Andrews added: "We'll be looking very closely at the snow cover this year."