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What a Science Channel story on Bermuda Triangle got wrong

The 1945 disappearance of 27 Navy airmen remains unresolved. The urban legend it gave birth to may not ever go away.

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    Chief Meteorologist Eric Elwell debunks story on the solving of the Bermuda Triangle mystery.
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Hexagonal clouds don’t explain the unexplained disappearances of planes and ships crossing through the Bermuda Triangle. But misleading editing might.

The Science Channel series “What on Earth?” ran a segment this week that cited Randall Cerveny, director of Arizona State University’s meteorology department, in linking a hexagonal cloud formation observed over the region to an unusual weather phenomenon that can suddenly generate big waves and winds of up to 150 miles per hour.

Dr. Cerveny told The Washington Post that in the clip where he appears, he had meant to provide a “straw man explanation,” though the show’s creators mistakenly accepted it as a legitimate.

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“The editing on this was horrendous,” he told the Post. “I was really upset when I saw this.”

The error shines a light on a myth that, despite repeated debunkings that go back to the 1970s, maintains an iron grip on public imaginations. Most researchers trace the origin of the myth to the 1945 disappearance of 27 Navy airmen during a routine training mission in the Bahamas, and a 1950 Associated Press article on several other ships and planes that vanished in the region, which encompasses a 500,000-square-mile area between Bermuda, Puerto Rico, and Florida.

The region's weather can be extreme during hurricane season, but compared to other places, it isn’t particularly perilous. It didn’t make the cut in a 2013 WWF list of the world’s most dangerous seas, and the US Coast Guard’s website features a tersely worded dismissal of the idea that the region poses a “specific hazard to ships or planes.”

“In a review of many aircraft and vessel losses in the area over the years, there has been nothing discovered that would indicate that casualties were the result of anything other than physical causes. No extraordinary factors have ever been identified,” the site reads.

The myth is also grist for scientists, who now and then try to link unusual atmospheric phenomenon to the mystery, often to the delight of journalists.

The “What on Earth?” segment notes that hexagonal “honeycomb” clouds – well-documented since the mid-1970s, and typically forming when masses of cold air move over warmer waters – have been observed in the North Sea, off the coast of the Britain, during an unusual weather phenomenon known as microbursts, or “air bombs.”

The latter can suddenly generate big waves and winds of up to 150 miles per hour. But the segment goes on to suggest that the presence of those clouds in the Bermuda Triangle could mean that ships and planes passing through those waters are swallowed by microbursts.

“If Professor Cerveny is right, and these strange hexagons are the signature of deadly air bombs,” the narrator says, “then this satellite image could ... solve the riddle of the Bermuda Triangle."

The problem, meteorologist Kevin Corriveau told NBC, is that the weather patterns of the North Sea can’t be used to make conclusions about patterns occurring in waters so far away.

"When I look at a hexagonal cloud shape in the Bahamas, this is not the cloud signature of what a microburst looks like," he told the network. "You would normally have one large to extremely large thunderstorm that wouldn't have an opening in the middle."

"I wouldn't say what we're seeing in the Bahamas is the exact same as in the North Sea.”

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