1 year ago

UAH scientists brave curses, spooky anomalies to unravel secrets at Skinwalker Ranch

Two intrepid explorers from The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), Matt Turner, who holds a doctorate in Mechanical Engineering, and Aerospace Engineering graduate Kaitlin Russell, visited an extraordinary place last summer to perform experiments for a research team participating in a docu-series called “The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch.”

The name of the place alone conjures up creepy thrills for dedicated fans of the paranormal. Situated in northeastern Utah, this 512-acre parcel of picturesque desolation is famed as a hotspot for everything from poltergeist phenomena and crop circles, to UFO sightings, dangerous electromagnetic forces, dancing fireballs, and cattle mutilations.

If that’s not enough, the ranch is also said to be cursed by an ancient Navaho spell that summons terrifying werewolf-like shapeshifters called ‘Skinwalkers’ to menace interlopers.

Featuring UAH PhD Aerospace Engineer and Astrophysicist and TV veteran, Dr. Travis Taylor, the program is produced by Prometheus Entertainment and airs on the History Channel Tuesday evenings at 9 p.m. (CST).

“The billionaire Brandon Fugal has been investigating the ranch since he bought it in 2016,” Dr. Taylor says. “His first three years was a plan of observation only. When he decided to move to the next phase, he asked the History Channel what that should be. History asked Prometheus, who produces The Curse of Oak Island, Ancient Aliens, The UnXplained, The Tesla Files, and others, for History to talk with Mr. Fugal about next steps. Prometheus knew me from those other efforts and had me come meet with Mr. Fugal and the team. They were very intrigued by the ideas I brought to them (although maybe nervous in becoming active with the ranch rather than just observing), and in the end they asked me to come in and lead a new phase of research.”

Given his UAH background, it was natural for Dr. Taylor to look to homegrown expertise for help when it came to investigating Skinwalker Ranch.

Dr. Turner and Russell both support the STEM Projects Advancing Research & Collaboration (SPARC) Lab division of the Systems Management and Production Center (SMAP). As a Principal Research Engineer, Dr. Turner focuses on supporting contracts for the Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) and NASA, while Russell is a Research Associate who works primarily with the CubeSat (U-class spacecraft) miniaturized satellite program.

“[Matt] and I had graduate classes in AE together,” Dr. Taylor says. “Funny, he was also on my second PhD committee. I trust Matt’s work and pretty much daily work with him on other space program experiments.”

When a complementary set of measurements were required, it was again an easy choice for Dr. Taylor to tap the wealth of talent available at his alma mater.

“Kaitlin is an employee of SMAP that works on my space efforts also,” he says. “I have seen her work for a couple years now and am impressed with her enthusiasm and academic rigor.”

The particular expertise Dr. Turner brings to the show is in ballooning, while Russell brings a wealth of experience in amateur rocketry. To avoid audience spoilers, the precise details of their stays on the ranch are a closely guarded secret protected by a non-disclosure agreement. In general, they involved measuring the bizarre electromagnetic anomalies that plague the property.

“I’ve known Travis for 20 years,” Dr. Turner says. “We had grad school classes together at UAH. He wanted to do some testing out there that he couldn’t do by himself. That’s how it evolved. I’ve never launched a rocket; they don’t trust me with propellants,” he says, laughing. “That’s Kaitlin’s thing. But I’ve launched a couple hundred balloons. That’s what I did. And then Kaitlin came after me and launched her rockets.”

“I asked a room full of undergrad and grad students if they’d be interested in designing and building rockets for some experiments,” Dr. Taylor adds. “And Kaitlin is the one that took the initiative and did it. And she did a great job!”

“While I was a student at UAH I got into rocketry,” Russell says. “Not just the smaller kit rockets, but the ones you take out for certification. We did small model rocket type things [on the ranch], but they were heavily modified. I didn’t provide the instrument part, I just provided the ride.”

Dr. Taylor knew from personal experience that his two colleagues would be walking into a truly unique setting that could present serious challenges to the investigators, including potentially perilous conditions.

“I was excited to offer them an opportunity to get to see the very guarded location and what might be experienced there,” he says. “I was also a bit apprehensive and nervous, as the place can be quite dangerous. I warned them as best I could, but until you are there and exposed to the place, you truly don’t take the warnings serious. I didn’t. Believe me, I do now!”

Both of the new investigators did their best to prepare for operating in a place with such a foreboding reputation. “I started doing some research,” Dr. Turner says. “And then actually made a conscious decision to stop, because I wanted to make a measurement without any kind of preconceived notion about the results. I was expecting this very medieval type thing,” he goes on, making a spooky Twilight Zone noise and chuckling. “And when I got out there, they had trailers for television crews and stuff – it was very ‘business.’ I mean, it was a ranch, so there were dirt and animals, but it was not as mystical as I anticipated.”

Russell agrees. “I expected it to be creepier. I had never been in that area of the country. I was just taking in the sights, saying, oh, that’s cool, I want to go walk on the mesa! I’d never done anything like this before, and the whole TV crew thing was very new to me.”

For the TV novices, filming proved challenging, with a tightly packed schedule of activities. Though, like the underwater portion of an iceberg, most of the footage will never be seen.

“My first day alone we were outside doing stuff for a good 10 hours,” Dr. Turner says. “It was probably like two-and-a-half total days of filming. They got hours and hours of footage that I’m sure they didn’t use. There were multiple cameras working the whole time. It was all unique and kind of surreal.”

Both investigators had to adapt on the fly when adjustments were needed in a hurry.

“The stuff I did dovetails into stuff Kaitlin did,” Dr. Turner says. “What Kaitlin did is much more complex. She needed more time to prepare, and there was more hardware as well.”

“Not being able to know certain things until I was out there was kind of stressful,” Russell says. “There were a lot of on-the-field modifications before they got launched.”

Discussing what it was like to be on camera while trying to do the science, she grins, saying, “I’m still stressed! What is it going to look like? What are they going to put in there?”

Dr. Turner had his own qualms about being under the constant watchful eye of the TV lens.

“Absolutely! It was very intimidating and nerve wracking,” he says. “There were several times where they would say, let’s do this or measure that, or let’s change this to do this. And you’re like, okay, I’ve got to change everything about this payload now, and we’re out here in the middle of nowhere. Having 50 people looking at you with cameras the whole time and knowing this is costing money while you’re doing it is just asking you to sweat.”

Dr. Taylor offers a more seasoned perspective. “I am used to the cameras now, as I’ve done this type of experiment for years,” he explains. “But it does put a bit of pressure on you to be successful!”

Both of the newcomers appreciated having a friend who is also a TV veteran on the scene to lean on and enthusiastically power them over any bumps in the road.

“It was very high-energy,” Kaitlin says with a smile. “‘Let’s get this data,’ ‘let’s look at the data,’ ‘this doesn’t look right,’ that sort of thing.”

“It’s always a crazy ride with Travis,” Dr. Turner adds. “We’ve worked with him professionally at UAH for years. He’s data driven, which is why you’ve got to be on your toes. If something anomalous happens, you’ve got to say, let’s figure this out, and you’ve got to be able to change gears on the fly. Which is good, and I’m sure it’s great TV, because Travis is very inquisitive. But sometimes you’re like, ah! I don’t have all my stuff! I’m not ready to take that measurement!” he says, laughing. “So it’s always that kind of a ride.”

Dr. Taylor says he has learned to value the process when it comes to experimenting.

“I like having the cameras around from a scientist standpoint, in that it helps me document every little thing we do,” he explains. “Even with all the cameras, every now and then we do something that gets missed, and I can’t figure out how to reproduce it.”

One of the most exciting aspects of a docu-series is depicting how the cast deals with challenging setbacks, adding drama and fun for the viewer. “But from an engineer’s perspective, I like things to be just boring and predictable and for everything to work out,” Dr. Turner says. “That’s not always the case, especially when you’re in the field. I had several things that went wrong, and I’m curious how they are going to show that. Ultimately we made some good measurements.”

Asked if he sensed anything otherworldly at work, he says, “I had something occur with a sensor that has never happened before or since. So that was strange, and has yet to be explained. I’m an engineer: if I can’t measure it, if I can’t see it, then prove it to me. But something happened out there that’s never happened before.”

Russell hints her visit produced chilling surprises as well. “We had like two things happen,” she says. “One of them happened multiple times. But yeah, there was some weird stuff, and I can’t explain it.”

Dr. Taylor has seen enough of these mishaps and oddities to convince him something truly uncanny, whether curses or cosmic forces, is afoot on the property.

“In some cases, it was because the ranch affected the camera equipment and caused them to fail,” he says. “I know that’s hard to believe, but it happens all the time out there for no reason we’ve been able to find yet. Just ask Matt where that balloon went once it reached a mile high? As far as we can tell, it just disappeared!”

“I wasn’t creeped out,” Dr. Turner says. “Something happened that bothered me. That’s one of the reasons Kaitlin was out there – she can make more thorough measurements than I can. Because of all the mishaps and the anomaly that occurred, I’m insanely curious how they are going to put it all together.”

In describing her brush with the eeriness of Skinwalker Ranch, Russell offers yet another take. “Ours wasn’t reading-based, it was like stuff we visually saw that I couldn’t explain,” she says. “I don’t know if one of them was captured on film. It happened really quickly.”

Did the UAH colleagues ever fear for their safety?

“Not any more than being in southern Tennessee or northern Alabama, out in the woods,” Dr. Turner says. “We had a mishap with a balloon, where we were separated from it, and had to try to cross streams. But I never really thought I was in danger.”

Russell finds that kind of thing exciting. “But my sense of danger isn’t like…it’s not really regular,” she says, laughing. “I go sky diving. I like scuba diving, caving. I like exploring.”

“She fires off rockets a lot, so she’s got a high bar,” Dr. Turner says with a smile.

Would either of them ever do it again?

“I’d love to go back,” Dr. Turner says. “It’s a beautiful area. It was fun, it was hectic. I don’t know if I could do it as much as Travis. They work insane hours. But I really like being outdoors.”

Russell agrees. “It would be neat to go back and see more.” But when it comes to future TV stardom, she has certain stipulations: “I prefer shows like that where it’s mostly science-based. I am no actor!”

(Courtesy of University of Alabama in Huntsville)

3 mins ago

In Alabama, conservation is for the birds

Whether it’s the Yellowhammer State or the Cotton State, whatever you call the state of Alabama, an abundance of birds call it home. “Yellowhammer” in fact refers to the common name for the northern flicker woodpecker — which just happens to be the state bird of Alabama.

Specifically, coastal Alabama is home to a treasure trove of avian species that nest on the beach and use the area for stopover on their migratory journeys around the world. Coastal Alabama is a particularly vulnerable area, as well as the other four Gulf state coasts. The Gulf’s coast is subject to battering from hurricanes and storm surge, land loss from a lack of sediment transfers, and increased development — making coastal restoration projects all that more important.

The incredible amount of bird habitat in the Yellowhammer State is good news for outdoors enthusiasts. Birding trails and hunting opportunities are prevalent, and per Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism, birding as a sector of tourism is huge. Roughly $17.3 billion is spent on wildlife-watching trips and related expenses, with an estimated 20 million Americans traveling for birding.

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“While our 32-mile stretch of sugar-white sand beaches is what draws people to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach for their vacations, the broader nature and outdoors are part of our core marketing focus, especially in the last year with the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Beth Gendler, Chief Operating Officer of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism. “The Tourism Office learned during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill just how vital it is that we protect our special environment for residents and visitors to enjoy and appreciate in the future. Birding and bird conservation efforts are a key component of this because our area is part of the winter and spring migration routes.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) Gulf Restoration Office is working to implement projects ensuring these opportunities continue to exist far into the future. Within these efforts, some Service biologists are focused on land restoration, while others are looking to the sky — literally — as they track birds’ migration patterns.

Dauphin Island’s West End

Amid settlement negotiations and cleanup efforts from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which occurred in April 2010, one spit of land remained in focus for some Service biologists. Roughly 840 acres of coastal habitat, which until recently was privately owned, is known as the West End of Dauphin Island. Located near the mouth of Mobile Bay, Dauphin Island is a 15-mile long barrier island. The U.S. Census Bureau has designated the area as 166-square-miles, which includes about 96% open water. It offers invaluable habitat for coastal bird populations.

A major milestone on the path to restoring the Gulf of Mexico was marked recently as the state of Alabama acquired the West End of Dauphin Island. The acquisition conserves habitat for coastal bird populations that are dependent on the area. The Dauphin Island West End Acquisition project was approved as part of the Alabama Restoration Plan III and Environmental Assessment in December 2019. The 840 acres is a diverse coastal habitat made up of dunes, marshes, and beaches. Sea turtle and several bird species use these habitats for nesting. Migratory birds use the area as a prime resting spot during migrations. The Service’s team will work in close coordination with the State of Alabama and Mobile County to restore this valuable property.

“Public ownership of the West End of Dauphin Island will allow for the protection and management of its habitats,” said Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “Through the collaborative work of the Alabama Trustee Implementation Group, and the local stakeholders, the acquisition of this land will have a tremendous benefit for coastal and water birds injured by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

Among the bird species present at the West End are the piping plover and red knot. These two shorebirds are a threatened species within their Alabama range, and are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Piping plovers frequent Alabama’s quiet shoreline throughout fall, winter and spring. Red knots are known for their more than 9,300-mile annual migration, one of the longest-distance migrants in the animal kingdom. Conserving this parcel of land will ensure that the sensitive coastal habitat is protected for years to come.

Tracking birds on the go

Conserving bird habitat is vital for species conservation, but so is knowing where Alabama’s coastal birds are going and staying. A project to track seasonal movements and habitat use of two species of colonial wading birds is providing valuable information for future planning to restore wading bird species in Alabama still recovering from the Deepwater Horizon spill. The project relies on the use of electronic transmitters attached to captured birds.

The Colonial Nesting Wading Bird Tracking and Habitat Use Assessment project has been underway since last July. Biologists will use the information to better understand important colonial wading bird foraging, resting and nesting areas in coastal Alabama which will allow for more efficient and effective restoration.

“This project gives us an important way to understand the many impacts that affect colonial nesting wading bird populations, including human disturbances such as the Deepwater Horizon spill. The data provided through this project will help us to more effectively restore bird species injured by the spill,” said Kate Healy, a Service biologist who works in the Gulf restoration office.

13 hours ago

WBRC’s James-Paul Dice signing off after 26-year career in television

One of the most familiar faces on Alabama television is signing off the air tonight.

WBRC-TV’s James-Paul Dice has been the chief meteorologist at the Birmingham TV powerhouse for 13 of his 26-year career in television.

The beloved weatherman is starting a new career as a corporate pilot, flying Gulfstream IV business jets for Birmingham-based Drummond Company.

Dice will deliver his final weather forecast Friday night at 10 p.m. on WBRC TV Fox-6.

In a tweet, WBRC thanked Dice and wished him well on his new journey.

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15 hours ago

Gov. Ivey announces final recipients of Public School and College Authority bond

Governor Kay Ivey (R-AL) on Friday announced the remaining $23.5 million of the Public School and College Authority (PSCA) bond issue to five entities across the Yellowhammer State.

“I’m pleased to announce the more than $23.5 million to worthy infrastructural projects and upgrades to our educational facilities,” Governor Ivey said. “These remaining PSCA funds will make needed improvements to our public educational facilities, which will have a lasting impact on future generations of Alabamians. I am extremely grateful to Alabama’s retiring Finance Director Kelly Butler for his diligence on this project to ensure we are investing wisely in meaningful education and workforce efforts.”

“There is no question these dollars will provide a positive return on investment to the citizens of Alabama,” Kelly Butler said. “Despite the challenges of the last year, Governor Ivey and the members of the Alabama Legislature displayed great leadership by pursuing this important and meaningful initiative to transform our educational institutions.”

The PSCA projects announced today are as follows:

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University of Alabama:

The $16.5 million for the Smart Communities & Innovation Building will provide the critical research infrastructure for the transportation industry in Alabama. Ivey said the investment will position Alabama to be a national leader in innovation relating to mobility and be able to power and connect smart and resilient communities. This project will facilitate a public-private partnership between the state, the University of Alabama, Alabama Power Company and Mercedes-Benz U.S. International with the likelihood of additional partnerships in the near future.

Senators Greg Reed (R-Jasper), Gerald Allen (R-Northport) and Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) applauded the announcement.

Reed says the investments will strengthen the state’s research efforts relating to automotive manufacturing.

“I fully believe that this investment by the state will modernize Alabama’s research and development in the next generation of electric vehicle technology in a manner responsive to industry and with an eye for future growth,” said Reed.

Allen praised the teamwork that was necessary to make the project come to fruition.

“This is great news for the Tuscaloosa community, the University of Alabama and our state as a whole,” said Allen. “A number of highly motivated people and organizations have come together and created a mission to set our state on a path towards a bright future in this important, fast-growing industry.”

Singleton says the investment will place the state in a strong position to supply global markets.

“Alabama will be on the forefront of this technology, which will lead to new and greener jobs for the people of our state,” said Singleton. “The international community is demanding battery-powered vehicles and this investment by the state will make West Alabama a global leader in this field.”

Snead State Community College:

$4 million to assist in establishing a regional workforce training center in Marshall County.

Talladega County Schools:

$1.75 million to create the East Alabama Rural Innovation and Training Hub.

Alabama A&M University:

$508,754.17 to be applied toward various capital improvement and deferred maintenance projects.

Alabama State University:

$763,600.00 for the Southern Normal School in Brewton (Escambia County) is the oldest African-American boarding school in Alabama. This investment will provide immediate improvements to seven buildings on the campus.

During the 2020 State of the State, Governor Ivey announced her support of SB 242, the PSCA Bond Issue for public schools to use toward construction, safety improvement or technology upgrades. The PSCA is comprised of Governor Kay Ivey, State Finance Director Kelly Butler and Alabama Superintendent of Education Dr. Eric Mackey.

SB 242 authorized the PSCA to sell up to $1.25B in bonds and allocated money to every city and county K-12 school system and to higher education institutions. 73% of the funds went to K-12 schools and 27% to two-and four-year colleges.

Due to low interest rates, the bond sale resulted in the PSCA receiving over $300 million in premium revenues. The true interest cost of the bonds is 2.145% over the 20-year repayment period.

Dylan Smith is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News

16 hours ago

Landing commits $1 million to growth of Birmingham tech ecosystem

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Landing, a fast-growing company building a nationwide network of furnished apartments available to members, today announced a $1 million investment in Birmingham’s expanding tech ecosystem as it hosted officials at an event to unveil its new headquarters.

The announcement follows last month’s announcement that the company planned to move its headquarters from San Francisco to Birmingham, where it will hire over 800 people as it accelerates its growth plans.

“Landing has seen incredible growth since the company launched in 2019, and we couldn’t be more excited to share that success with Birmingham,” said Landing Founder and CEO Bill Smith, a founder of grocery delivery marketplace Shipt, also based in Birmingham.

“We are proud to be part of one of the fastest-growing tech hubs in the country, bringing new jobs and economic opportunity to the region,” he added.

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Smith joined Governor Kay Ivey and local officials today at Landing’s new headquarters in the John Hand Building in downtown Birmingham.

“We are delighted to welcome Landing to Alabama,” Governor Ivey said. “We hope this is a message to the citizens of Alabama and people everywhere that we, as a state, are focused on driving innovation and opportunity.”

DEVELOPING TECH TALENT

Landing said it is committed to serving as a leader in the evolution of Birmingham’s workforce and the city’s booming technology industry, bringing 816 new, full-time jobs and $1.3 billion in payroll to the city over the next 20 years.

“Landing’s decision to accelerate its growth plans in Birmingham speaks volumes about the potential the company sees there,” said Greg Canfield, Secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce.

“We hope this project becomes another milestone development that points the way for expanded innovation opportunities in Birmingham and across the state.”

Landing’s $1 million investment will be used to continue to nurture the city’s technology and innovation community by developing top tech talent across the region and attracting high-potential tech startups.

Alongside recruitment efforts, Landing will launch Landing Fellows, a two-year, advanced fellowship program for early career applicants, recent grads and career changers who will work full time in Landing’s Birmingham headquarters. Recruitment for this fellowship program will start in the area in the fall, with the program launch slated for next summer.

“We are a rapidly expanding tech hub here in the Magic City,” Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said. “It’s fitting that Bill is again a part of growing our technology industry, as Shipt propelled Birmingham’s tech reputation and now Landing continues that growth with elite recruitment and training opportunities.

“Birmingham is quickly becoming a destination for some of the top tech talent in the country, and this significant investment by Landing will continue adding to our ever-growing workforce,” he added.

Birmingham has already seen investments in its tech ecosystem from global giants like Apple, which is growing a diverse STEM workforce in Birmingham through local nonprofits including Ed Farm and TechBirmingham.

The Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) this month recognized Birmingham as the one of the nation’s Top 10 metro areas for month-over-month tech job postings during the first half of 2021.

“The addition of Landing and Landing Fellows is a huge win for Birmingham,” said Ron Kitchens, CEO of the Birmingham Business Alliance. “We cannot wait to continue growing Birmingham as a haven for businesses and a destination for some of the top talent in the state and the region.”

“Landing’s move to Birmingham offers us a chance to showcase Jefferson County,” added Jefferson County Commissioner Steve Ammons. “We are proud to continue supporting businesses that bring jobs to Birmingham from around the country, and particularly those that invest proactively in tech talent and ecosystems.”

(Courtesy of Made in Alabama)

19 hours ago

Outdoor Alabama Photo Contest opens August 2

The 2022 Outdoor Alabama Photo Contest will begin accepting entries on Monday, August 2, 2021. This year’s contest is a joint project between the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) and the Alabama Tourism Department. The deadline to enter is October 31, 2021.

The 2022 photo contest will focus on traditional photography techniques and the use of hand-held cameras. No cellphone, smartphone, game camera, or drone photography will be chosen as winning photos for nine of the 10 categories. Smartphone and tablet photos will be accepted in the Young Photographers category.

The photo contest is open to state residents and visitors alike, but qualifying photos must have been taken in Alabama in the past two years. Any amateur photographer not employed by ADCNR is encouraged to enter.

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A total of eight photos per person may be entered in the following categories. You may enter all eight in one category or among several categories.

2022 Outdoor Alabama Photo Contest Categories:
• Alabama State Parks
• Birds
• Bugs and Butterflies
• Cold-blooded Critters
• Nature-Based Recreation
• Scenic
• Shoots and Roots
• Sweet Home Alabama
• Wildlife
• Young Photographers (ages 17 and under)

First, second, third and one honorable mention will be awarded in each category. Winning images will be featured online and in an exhibit traveling to various venues across the state during 2022.

Art teachers are encouraged to incorporate participation in the Young Photographers category into their art instruction this fall.

An exhibit of the 2021 winning photos will be on display at the Johnson Center for the Arts, 300 E. Walnut St., in Troy, Alabama, from August 11, 2021 – September 11, 2021. To view the winning photos online, visit here.

For complete 2022 category descriptions and contest rules, visit www.outdooralabama.com/outdoor-alabama-photo-contest.