Lake Erie Mirage Effect


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Kyrila Scully

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I saw an article on Yahoo News this morning about the Lake Erie Mirage Effect and the scientific explanation for it. The more I read, the more I thought about that "mystery ship" theory and wondered if this same mirage effect could have been in place on the Atlantic in 1912? Consider what the scientists are saying here:

Scientists say it's a mirage, but others swear that when the weather is right, Clevelanders can see across Lake Erie and spot Canadian trees and buildings 50 miles away.
"The whole sweep of the Canadian shore stood out as if less than three miles away," a story in The Plain Dealer proclaimed in 1906. "The distant points across the lake stood out for nearly an hour and then faded away."

"I can see how this could be possible," said Lawrence Krauss, chairman of the Physics Department at Case Western Reserve University.

Krauss and Joe Prahl, chairman of the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at Case, said mirages can occur during an atmospheric inversion, in which a layer of cold air blankets the lake, topped by layers of increasingly warm air. When this happens, it can cause the light that filters through these layers from across the lake to bend, forming a lens that can create the illusion of distant objects.

The scientists said the air has to be extremely calm for the mirage to appear. If the wind blows, it distorts or dissolves the image.

Prahl and Krauss said such a mirage is rare. But Tom Schmidlin, a meteorologist in the Geography Department at Kent State University, said it's hardly unheard-of.

"It's not terribly unusual. Sailors are always exposed to this kind of thing," he said.

Prahl, who regularly sails his 30-foot sloop Seabird from Cleveland to Canada, has never seen it.

But Bob Boughner, a reporter for the Chatham Daily News in Ontario, said he's seen Cleveland from across Lake Erie twice, the first time four summers ago while driving along a road near the lake. He saw it again two summer ago while driving along the same road.

All of a sudden, there was Cleveland, just off the Canadian shore, as if it were just across a river, he said.

"I happened to look across the lake and, geez, I couldn't believe the sight," he said. "I could see the cars and the stoplights. I could even make out the different colors of the vehicles. It lasted a good two or three minutes."

Boughner said he remembers his aunt Melba Bates, who lived all her life on Lake Erie and recently died in her late 90s, talking about being able to see Cleveland, but he didn't believe her.

"I thought she was making up stories," he said. "But sure enough, I could see the same damned thing. When it shows up, it looks like you can touch it."

###

I'm not saying I follow the theory that there was a third ship between Titanic and the Californian, but this mirage theory and the elements that need to be in place for it to occur sound very much like the elements that were apparent on April 14, 1912. Thought the information was worthy of discussion.

Kyrila
 
Feb 7, 2005
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I read this story when it appeared in the Plain Dealer last Thursday, Kyrila--fascinating stuff! I live on the west side of Cleveland and have been to the lake shore many times, but I've never seen Canada from this side of the lake (approximately 50 miles distant). You're right that the conditions necessary for the mirage to appear on Lake Erie sound very much like those experienced on the night of April 14/15, 1912.

If the third ship ("mystery ship") WAS a mirage--which ship was it? Could a mirage appear to "move," or would it remain stationary and then, when conditions changed, simply disappear? Is this a daytime phenomenon, or can these type of mirages also happen at night? And what about the "haze" they saw--was that a mirage, too?

Lots of questions--wish I knew enough about this to provide some answers!

Denise
 
Oct 28, 2000
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I've seen the Canadian shoreline from a small boat with an eye level of under 6 feet when lying less than two miles off the Cleveland harbor. This "mirage" has appeared to me on more than one occasion and not always in perfectly still air.

I have also seen the Lorain, Ohio lighthouse enlarged at least 100 times and "moved" 90 degrees to the north on the western horizon from Cleveland. This lighthouse is not visible from where I was at the time. It is hidden behind Avon point. The mirage mirage lasted perhaps 90 seconds, maybe longer, then was gone.

Something else I've seen is freighters approaching Cleveland upside down in the sky. As the ships get closer, the inverted image comes closer to the horizon until it merges with the actual ship and disappears.

Sober, stone cold sober every time. All the time.

-- David G. Brown
 

Tad G. Fitch

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I have never personally seen Canada from the shores of Lake Erie and I have lived here all of my life, but I have enough friends who have claimed to have seen the shoreline of Canada that I believe this mirage effect does exist.

My sister-in-law's sister's boyfriend works on the lake, and he has said that on a few occasions he has seen Canada's shoreline from a relatively close distance to our shore. A friend of mine swore up and down that he once saw Canada from a marina near Cedar Point and I can't say that I disbelieve him.

I wouldn't go as far as to say that this exact effect may have been a factor regarding the Titanic and Californian, but anything is possible. It is important to remember that humidity/weather interactions, motion and action of the water, etc. of the ocean versus a very large lake, while similar in many ways, are also quite different. Weather over Lake Erie is unique in some ways, leading to conditions that are only found at the same level in two other places in the nation.
 
May 12, 2002
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Hi Kyrila,

If such an temperature inversion existed, it would have increased the distance that the vessels in the area could have seen another vessel. In simple terms, the inversion bends the light a little bit around the curvature of the earth, thereby increasing the distance to the horizon.

I've argued before that Gibson's observations place an upper limit on the Californian - Titanic distance of 15-16 miles. This is specifically with no mirage effect. If a simple layered inversion existed, like the one you refer to, this upper limit would be increased.

Cheers

Paul
 
Oct 28, 2000
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Overnight I thought about this "Lake Erie mirage" effect. Yes, I have seen what appeared to be Canada across the 54 miles of water from the Cleveland shoreline. But, was it really Canada?

The north side of Lake Erie is rather featureless. There are no mountains or unusual buildings. Just glaciated flat land raised on a slight bluff over the lake level. I'm thinking that the illusion of "Canada" is really nothing more than an inverted image of the observer's visual horizon. Sort of like those steamboats I mentioned floating upside-down in the sky. Such an inverted horizon would be the greenish color of Lake Erie and probably a bit "bumpy." All-in-all, it would be a pretty realistic impression of the Canadian shoreline.

From my experience, these optical illusions are short in duration and appear only to people in limited geographic areas. My experience with the Lorain Lighthouse was not a minute in length.

Some of these illusions are one-way. For instance, the islands in the western end of Lake Erie seem to "stand tall" just before a storm front comes through. They appear to grow vertically in height to double their normal height. Sometimes, they appear closer to the mainland as well. Yet, from the islands the mainland does not exhibit such a visual phenomenon--or at least it is not as pronounced.

-- David G. Brown
 
Aug 10, 2002
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I have seen the lighthouse on the side of Mount Carmel at the Port of Haifa from 70 miles off shore. This happened about 0230, a little later it disappeared and we arrived there ( Haifa) at 0630.
Regards,
Charlie Weeks
 
Oct 28, 2000
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Sam-- excellent suggestion, but that's not what's happening. I believe the effect is called "towering." The air acts like a Cinemascope lens turned on its side. It stretches everything vertically, but the horizontal dimensions are relatively untouched. It is a pure optical illusion unlike the moon which is more of a brain illusion.

Sometimes, during this sort of event the islands actually seem to float just above the water with a band of sky running beneath them.

Captain Morgan does not have to be aboard when these illusions occur.

-- David G. Brown
 
Oct 17, 2002
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With this effect, the atmospheric conditions have to be in place. In the case of the North Atlantic in April of 1912 there has to be no wind (check), a layer of cold air right above the water (check) increasingly warmer air as the altitude rises (????) seems more of a summer effect than one of mid spring, doesnt it?

Any meteorology students out there?
 
Oct 28, 2000
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Andrew-- Strange as it may seem, the ice may have been warming the air in contact with it. In addition, the air over the ice may have contained more moisture than the air over the sea because of this warmth. The lack of air movement would have allowed any "lense effect" to remain in effect for some time. From what I've read and seen, there is no reason to think that a mirage did not occur that night. Even so, we have no physical evidence that any mirage did exist. At best, atmospheric effects have to go into a footnote about the seeing conditions.

-- David G. Brown
 
Oct 17, 2002
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Point taken, David (by the way I loved your book. I still wonder though if there was even enough light present to cause the illusion. Especially considering it is the "bending" of this light that would cause the "mirage".

Also, I think the Ice would have possibly kept the air at a constant temperature at most. Which basically would even out the cooling effect that is usually present within the troposhperic level.

If anything, the air may have been warmer only over the ice as there was an obvious dense amount of molecules to absorb heat and keep the air warm. Also, the aft bridge or stern bridge mentioned the halos around the lights pointing to ice molecules in the air.....Im not really sure what effect this would have in retaining heat as Im not necessarily sure that the presence of this effect points to denser air more saturated with water molecules or if its a matter of the temperature itself dropping enough to crystalize the moisture in the air.....long story short: I just dont know.
 
Oct 28, 2000
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Note Sam's table. The ambient air temperature tracks rather closely the water temperature. This tends to support that the general atmosphere was reasonably uniform--a prerequisite for a mirage caused by a local anomaly in humidity/temp/etc.

One word of caution, however. The water temperatures were not taken directly from over the side. At 22 knots lowering a bucket was a physical impossibility. Titanic was supposed to carry a streamlined leather case for a thermometer so that it could be streamed at the ships operating speeds. However, that case was not aboard and instead they were taking temperatures by drawing water into an old tin out of a spigot on the boat deck. Thus, the water temperatures were not accurate as the piping could have been warmed by heat from the ship.

Also, a mirage requires that a "pillow" (non-scientific word, but it's graphic) of air is somehow different from the surrounding atmosphere. As light moves into and out of this "pillow" it can be refracted, causing the mirages we are discussing. I suggest that the air directly above the ice field would not necessarily have been the same density (temp/humidity) as the surrounding atmosphere--leading to a possible mirage.

Then again, there is no proof this was the case. I'ts just speculation. Fun to consider, but not something to build a valid argument upon.

-- David G. Brown
 
Mar 22, 2003
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I should have mentioned that the temperature table was a partial listing from readings taken on the Californian and submitted by letter later to the American Inquiry. Certainly the last two readings were from a stopped ship in more or less the same location.

I agree with Dave, this all makes for great speculation. There were some strange things reported by a few that night.
 
Oct 28, 2000
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The strangest sight that I've ever seen from a boat on Lake Erie was a big ape climbing Cleveland's Terminal Tower.

-- David G. Brown
 
Mar 22, 2003
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Must be the same ape that comes to NY every so many years.
113076.jpg
 
Oct 28, 2000
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Agreed, Cleveland is pretty strange. Especially the Marsol region.

By the way, I did see an ape on the side of the Terminal Tower. It was really there, but it wasn't a real King Kong. It was some sort of inflated advertising balloon for a purpose that I never learned. From the lake it looked real enough except that it never climbed up or down--just sort of hung around.

-- David G. Brown
 
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