Today we're going to visit central Arizona in the American Southwest, along a wet green valley cutting through the red rock desert. This is the town of Sedona, once a humble ranching and retirement community, later popular with art galleries, and today a full-blown, prices-through-the-roof home to the rich and famous and opulent resorts, overrun with private jets and Range Rovers. What catapulted this remote hamlet into stardom? In large part, it was Sedona's reputation among the New Age elite as a mystical Mecca, a place where the Earth breathes its energy in and out, invigorating the enlightened and enriching the meditative. For the city of Sedona is virtually synonymous with what the faithful call an energy vortex.
Normally, the plural of vortex is vortices, but people in Sedona have a slightly abnormal view of what a vortex is. Accordingly, they refer to them in the plural as vortexes. Although most vortex believers are genuine, a huge tourism industry has been built up around these mystical constructs. Most tourist maps describe four main vortexes in Sedona: the Airport Vortex, the Boynton Canyon Vortex, the Cathedral Rock Vortex, and the Bell Rock Vortex. What exactly are they? Sedona Vortex Tours says:
A vortex is a place of concentrated energy that people can sense.
The energy resonates with and strengthens the Inner Being of each person that comes within about a quarter to a half mile of it. This resonance happens because the vortex energy is very similar to the subtle energy operating in the energy centers inside each person.
Sedona.net even warns of potential physical effects:
...You may feel a range of sensations from a slight tingling on exposed skin, to a vibration emanating from the ground when you encounter a vortex. Most often a vortex is felt by palpable sensation across the nape of the neck and the shoulder blades.
Sedona has a very long history, with evidence that ancient peoples lived there more than 10,000 years ago. Vortex proponents say the ancients were drawn here because it is a spiritually powerful place, but the primary assumption this is based on (that people were drawn here) is flawed. The earliest people probably lived throughout the region, not just in or around Sedona. The earliest Clovis and Folsom cultures were nomadic and left no more evidence in Sedona than they did anywhere in the American southwest. The culture that followed them in Sedona, the Hohokam, was broadly distributed throughout central Arizona and was contemporaneous with the Anasazi and Mogollón cultures from Utah down through northern Mexico. Sedona lies along the Verde River, the length of which provides ample resources; and Sedona does, just as we'd expect, bear the same type of evidence of ancient occupation as the rest of these sites. There is no archaeological evidence that a statistically disproportionate number of people were ever "drawn" to Sedona.
A vortex is an exquisite manifestation of fluid dynamics. You see them around the edge of your paddle when you canoe; you see them in the storm clouds of Jupiter; you see them when someone blows a smoke ring; you even see them when you stir your coffee. Vortices can occur in any fluid; air, water, magma, so long as there is some force stirring it. A vortex is the most common way that a fluid converts the energy put into it by the stirring motion into potential energy. Pressure is highest at the edge of the stirring spoon, the tip of the aircraft wing, or whatever is doing the stirring. As the pressure is reduced the further you go from the axis, these differentials in pressure cause movement at different speeds. The formation of vortices follows Bernoulli's Principle, set forth in Daniel Bernoulli's 1738 magnum opus on fluid dynamics, Hydrodynamica.
If you were swimming in a vortex and you were facing north, you would face north all the way around, since the inner water is spinning faster than the outer water. From your position inside the vortex, every point around you would seem to be spinning like ball bearings following your outer contour, where each point's angular velocity is described by what we call its vorticity. The whole point of the vortex is for the fluid to most efficiently dispel the turbulence and seek its lowest energy state. Every vortex you see in nature is an example of the system trying to settle itself down.
So from a physics perspective, we see there are two necessary ingredients for a vortex to exist: first, a fluid; and second, some stirring influence. When we try to match up a real vortex with the Sedona version, we quickly find there are no matches to be made. The "energy field" described by the vortex proponents is not the air or anything else that has the physical properties of a fluid; therefore there can be no pressure differentials or fluid dynamics in play. Since the fluid is not there, there is no canoe paddle or stirring spoon or uplifting warm air against falling cold air to initiate turbulent flow. Physically, anyway, a Sedona-type vortex does not exist. If there's no physical fluid, there are no fluid dynamics.
But many vortex proponents will be the first to acknowledge this. It is a vortex of spiritual energy, not of any physical force. You're not likely to have any success trying to pin down a vortex believer by discussing the properties of this alleged energy field. The whole idea is, of course, completely unscientific; as we discussed at length in the very first Skeptoid episode #1, New Age Energy. Energy is simply a measurement of work capability, it is not a physical thing unto itself. It is not a glowing cloud of power. It's a measurement, not a fluid that swirls and flows. There is no such thing as an energy field. Yet, a few vortex proponents buck the trend and do attempt to ascribe physical properties to them.
The usual suspect is magnetism, as discussed at length by independent researchers such as Ben Lonetree, who has gone to great lengths to analyze US Geological Survey magnetometer readings of the region. A 2002 USGS report says:
Volcanic rocks are the most prevalent magnetic lithology of this region, and we expect high-amplitude, short-wavelength anomalies over volcanic terranes, especially in the Black Hills and the area between Page Springs and Sedona.
This is referencing paleomagnetism. When volcanic lava comes to the surface as liquid, its ferromagnetic particles align themselves with the Earth's magnetic field like so many tiny compass needles. As it cools and hardens into rock, these alignments become fixed. When later tectonic processes disrupt the placement and orientation of this rock, a magnetic anomaly results, which is basically just a tiny variance in the local magnetic field.
The problem with trying to associate such magnetic variances with the vortexes is that Sedona's variances are not especially remarkable, certainly not unique, and certainly nowhere near the magnitude of much greater variances all around the world. Anytime you're standing next to a car, or other large metal object, you're experiencing a larger variance. It simply strains credibility to suggest that Sedona's variances uniquely produce a powerful physical effect that's not experienced anywhere else. Even if Sedona's vortexes were demonstrated to be detectable and measurable some day, they certainly do not correlate with geomagnetic variances.
Pete Sanders Jr., in his self-published book Scientific Vortex Information, credits string theory for the vortexes. This is a tough one to support; string theory was developed as a possible explanation for particle physics, and has never made any mention of energy vortexes or anything like them. A cynical response to Sanders' suggestion might be that he simply threw together some sciencey-sounding words without fully comprehending them himself.
Many sources say that juniper trees in Sedona uniquely twist in accordance with the whirling of the vortexes. If you see a juniper tree whose bark is twisted, that means a vortex must be near. (For some reason, believers like to stack rocks onto the branches of such trees.) Of the five species of juniper found in Sedona, the two most common (Utah and one seed junipers) are twisted wherever they are found throughout their ranges in North America. Twisting of most any tree species is a function of prevailing wind, and this is the case for the Utah and one seed junipers as well. Nowhere have the botanical sciences found the twisting of tree bark to correlate with hypothesized energy fields.
The Sedona vortexes can perhaps best be explained by a quality of the region we haven't yet mentioned. The Verde Valley in which Sedona is nestled is incredibly beautiful. Staggeringly, shockingly, bone rattlingly, jaw dislocatingly beautiful. Its red rock formations would make Wile E. Coyote envious, and its lighting displays of clouds and shadows and colors would shame Piccadilly Circus on New Year's Eve. No visitor comes to Sedona without being a little stunned by the spectacular scenery. What does the human psyche do in such a circumstance?
As our brain always does in every situation, it references its experiential database to explain its perceptions in terms it's familiar with. Sedona's beauty is such that many people can only compare it to a powerful spiritual experience. To visit Sedona you either have to recalibrate your sense of awe, or your brain interprets the experience as literally supernatural. If you're inclined to believe in the supernatural, then it's normal and expected for human psychology to determine that a higher power is in effect in Sedona. The concept of the "energy vortex" is, for whatever reason, the popular explanation that took the strongest hold there; and the magnitude of the experience of Sedona is palpable enough that many of us tend to accept the vortex explanation as plausible. The feeling is strong, thus the evidence seems to support the suggested explanation.
In his 2011 book Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness, evolutionary psychologist Nick Humphreys argues that it is not the beautiful thing in nature that is endowed with any special powers, but rather that it is us ourselves who confer upon it that marvelous quality:
...It is precisely this misattribution of phenomenal qualities that gives conscious human beings the impression that they live surrounded by things of unaccountable loveliness in their own right. What matters is psychological impact, not philosophical rectitude. And, psychologically, the result is that you come to inhabit an enchanted world.
Our own ability to be astounded is sufficient in itself to experience the spiritual impact of Sedona, and other places like it, without trying to shoehorn in a misunderstanding of vortices, the concept of energy, or the growth pattern of juniper trees. Illumination comes not from the outside, but from within ourselves.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Sedona Energy Vortex." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
11 Jun 2013. Web.
6 Feb 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4366>
References & Further Reading
Bernoulli, D. Hydrodynamica. Argentorati: J. R. Dulseckeri, 1738.
Editors. "Sedona Vortex - What the Heck is a Vortex Anyway?" Sedona.net. Southwest Media Communications, 14 Aug. 2007. Web. 5 Jun. 2013. <http://www.sedona.net/webpage.php/swmc/webpagesandarticles/sedonavortex>
Langenheim, V., Hoffmann, J., Blasch, K., Dewitt, E., Wirt, L. USGS Sedona Magnetic Anomaly Survey. Washington, DC: United States Geological Survey, 2002.
Little, E. "Digital Representations of Tree Species Range Maps from "Atlas of United States Trees" by Elbert L. Little, Jr." Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center. United States Geological Survey, 9 Jan. 2013. Web. 6 Jun. 2013. <http://esp.cr.usgs.gov/data/little/>
Sanders, P. Scientific Vortex Information. Sedona: Free Soul Publishing, 2005.