The Paulding Light: A US mystery you can see but not touch

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Whatever the story, the Light has put the tiny town of Paulding on the map, and locals and travellers keep coming to see what might be the most punctual ghost in the world, with shops and restaurants keeping them fed, watered and clad in Paulding Light hats and T-shirts. 

“I have seen the Paulding Light several times,” said Sarah Bakker, an employee at the nearby supply shop Sylvania Outfitters. “I didn’t think it was supernatural, but it is cool to see. Some people say they definitely see car headlights, but others swear they see something else that can’t be explained.” 

Eventually, the scientists came along to explain away all the fun. In 2010, Michigan Tech University (MTU) electrical engineering PhD candidate Jeremy Bos led a student expedition. Equipped with everything from cameras to light meters to high-power telescopes, their sole mission was explaining the Paulding Light with supporting proof. 

They came away with empirical evidence of what many less-fanciful Paulding visitors already expected. It’s cars – distant headlights combining with atmospheric effects to create a shimmering mirage. 

Bos earned that PhD and is now an associate professor in Michigan Tech’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. Despite his team’s efforts to offer the community a clear cause of the sightings, the legends persist. 

“I ask people who saw the light what they saw and what they think they saw,” Bos said. “If they ask me to explain, I do. Most people say they see yellowish or red lights that appear to move. If there is some motion, most of what they are seeing is due to an auto-kinetic effect. I use similar explanations for mirages and hot roads in the summer.” 

Michael C Roggemann, Michigan Tech Emeritus Professor of Electrical Engineering, was the original faculty advisor on the student expedition. He suggests that scientific explanations of the light can be as interesting as paranormal claims, if people choose to embrace them. 

“A ‘regular’ mirage is really just light that originated from the sky refracted upwards towards your eye due to a sharp temperature gradient in the air close to the surface,” Roggemann said. “I ask people who see the lights if they have ever heard of temperature inversions that occur when the temperature of air – as a function of altitude close to the surface of the Earth – decreases and then increases.” 

Roggemann suggests the geography and local weather around the viewing path supports frequent temperature inversions in the early evening when there’s always traffic on the highway. The result is an “upside-down” optical illusion – car headlights from the pole line of view in Paulding lining up with the highway while refracting and bending back toward the ground. The effect happens to be uniquely visible from the spot where fans gather. 

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