UAP Reports Involve the Ocean Too, NASA Investigator Reveals

Meet Paula Bontempi, the oceanographer and former NASA leader who has embarked on a mission to explain unidentified anomalous phenomena (UAP).

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Wild sea with stormy clouds on the background
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Last year, NASA announced that it would convene a team of selected experts across many professions, all at the peak of their fields, to figure out a roadmap for a topic the agency has traditionally avoided: UAP, shorthand for “unidentified anomalous phenomena.”

UAP has become the official government parlance for UFOs, and NASA wanted to know what to make of the several dozens of UAPs reported by military personnel yet without an explanation. But to know what to make of it, analysts need to know what to look for in the first place.

In a public meeting on May 31, team members announced that a full report from the 16-person team — encompassing, among others, astrobiologists, cosmologists, and even a former astronaut — would be forthcoming in July. The report will place all their various recommendations for the Pentagon’s All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) on how to solve these cases going forward.

Weather balloons are frequent triggers for UAP sightings, according to the Pentagon.

The Washington Post/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Paula Bontempi, an oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island and former acting deputy director of Earth science at NASA, is one of those team members. She tells Inverse she was initially surprised by the invitation.

Inverse spoke with Bontempi about the ocean’s role in our study of the cosmos, how to decide what’s normal, and Earth’s climatic “cholesterol.”

Inverse: How were you approached to be part of the UAP Independent Study team?

Bontempi: One day I got an email invitation. And I thought, do they really mean me? At the time, [UAP] was defined as “unidentified aerial phenomena” and then the National Defense Authorization Act redefined the “A” from “aerial” to “anomalous.” And that [new word] was to be all-inclusive in maybe reporting underwater [UAP] as well as in space; it wasn’t just Earth’s atmosphere where UAPs have been reported.

I reached back out to Dan Evans, who was the NASA official in charge of the independent study team. And I had a chat with him, and they wanted me to participate as an oceanographer and as an Earth scientist who had a career at NASA. So, it seemed like a really exciting opportunity. The really cool thing was I probably never would have interacted with that group of people and expertise prior to this. That was one of the advantages of the study team, which all came from just a huge range of backgrounds.

How often do you meet?

Everything to this point has been sort of preliminary, but we have had a few briefings and meetings. But this was our first real deliberative meeting. It was nice to do that fully publicly. And I appreciate very much that NASA has been completely open and transparent about the process.

What will happen between now and later this summer when the report from the group is ready?

We will take the deliberations and the discussions, and we turn that into a report. That report will be publicly released sometime in the middle of summer — hopefully in July 2023. That will all be open and transparent and publicly available.

When you introduced yourself, you said you study how light interacts with the ocean’s surface. Why is this important as a scientist to investigate? Could this knowledge help the team or the AARO understand the anomalous UAPs?

In optical oceanography, in general, we study the propagation of light — electromagnetic radiation from the Sun — through the atmosphere and then through the air-sea interface.

Think about it: if you’ve ever been diving into a swimming pool or swimming underwater, and you open your eyes. The further down you go, the darker it gets.

Divers at a 100m depth in the ocean.

Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Sometimes you can even see the interplay of the light with stuff that’s in the water. It’s almost like seeing the rays of the Sun penetrating the ocean.

Using satellites, we can detect sunlight in the upper layer of the ocean. We can also tell what's in the ocean from satellites. Which is kind of mind-blowing, if you think about it, right? We can tell what’s living from what’s dead. Sometimes we can tell what types of algae or other organisms are in the ocean.

NASA is continually developing new technologies and approaches to actually detail that information about our Earth system better. NASA explores the furthest reaches of the universe, and also the deepest depths of what’s happening on our planet. That’s very exciting.

The UAP [team] could actually use that information. We aren’t a research panel, we are just trying to figure out what is a UAP, and can NASA data and technology be used to understand this.

Data is the key to the explanation. For instance, it could be optical illusions, where you’re like “Oh my God, what was that? What was that I just saw?” And you know, what you see in that split second that you think you see something can really fool you into thinking something was real.

That doesn’t mean somebody didn’t report that as a UAP, and maybe we have the data to explain that, and maybe not. But that was what the May 31 panel was about: Can we gather more data? What data should we be gathering to actually look at some of these reported events?

Are you ever struck by the oddities of the ocean, and how much we don’t know?

Yes I am. All the time. We’ve explored more of the surface of the Moon than we have of the deepest depths of our ocean. The ocean covers 71 percent of Earth’s surface, and it’s 96 percent of the available living space on the planet. We’re discovering new species and new things on our home planet all the time.

One of the interesting things is there are initiatives at NASA called Oceans Across the Solar System. It asks, could Earth be an analog if and when we discover oceans or remnants of oceans on other worlds? Will we have learned enough about our planet and will studying those other worlds and the potential oceans there lead us to understand more information about our home planet? So it’s really an interesting field to think about, but yes, our oceans are a big mystery in many ways still.

You spent a lot of your career addressing the climate crisis. From the UAP NASA team’s public meeting on May 31, I took away that the scientific method is the answer to solving the UAP unsolved mysteries, but also something many people in the public don’t often think about. If they are convinced that alien life is causing UAP, they’ll stick to their beliefs; and if someone sees UAP news as sensationalized events, they won’t engage with it at all.

What does your experience tell you about how the public engages with the scientific method? Especially in the context of climate deniers, who don’t acknowledge the climate has gotten warmer due to human activity.

The way I like to explain this to people, and this is relevant to UAP as well, is, how do we get information about what’s normal?

The example I like to use is that it’s like going to the doctor and getting your cholesterol checked every year. If you just went one time you might know where you stand at that moment in time or that year. But if you go every year, you create a time series of information.

We do the same thing with gathering data about Earth. And if you show a plot of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the major greenhouse gas, or you show the warming of the Earth itself and it’s going up, and in the last 10 years we’ve had the majority of our warmest years ever. If your cholesterol looked like that, you would be like, “Oh my God, I have to do something about my health.”

Well, that's what the Earth is showing us. Yet we’re still denying that our cholesterol is going up. We have a crisis, and it’s not pending, it’s here. So the same thing with UAP. Gathering enough data to know what’s normal so we can actually understand what is anomalous in our data. That is what NASA and scientific integrity is about.

Author’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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