Spooky or Science: Michigan's Paulding 'Ghost Light' Investigation

October 28, 2014; 7:56 AM ET
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In the small town of Paulding, Mich., there is a popular legend of a "ghost light" haunting a road on US 45. On some nights, a mysterious flickering light appears with no apparent cause that many spectators attribute to a ghostly encounter.

The original incarnation of the story explained the lights thrill-seekers witnessed were the swinging lantern carried by the restless spirit of a person killed by an oncoming train. Although this aspect of the legend is easily debunked since no train tracks have ever been built there, the physical cause of the appearing light still remained unexplained.

In fact, the SyFy television program, "Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files," investigated in 2010 and found no scientific cause for the spectacle.

The believed "ghost light" on US 45 in Paulding, Mich. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Bos.

Therefore, the Michigan Technological University student members of the Society of Photo Optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE), led by then-PhD candidate Jeremy Bos, sought out to determine the cause of this urban legend.

Their research discovered the cause is less spooky and more scientific.

The faculty advisor for the research, Professor Mike Roggeman, explained in an interview with AccuWeather.com that, "I can't say there is no ghost there for sure, but I can say everything we saw was perfectly explainable."

"The light is arriving at the observer's eyes from an unusual direction so it is an experience that most people consider odd. The first time you see it, it is a little weird," Roggeman said.

Jeremy Bos, then a PhD candidate at Michigan Tech, looks through a spectrometer at the Paulding Lights site. Photo courtesy of Michigan Tech.

The flickering lights appearing from nowhere are created by headlights from cars traveling on US 45 that have been refracted due to the partially blocked lane of sight to the road. Using a spectrometer and two-way radios, the students were able to confirm that the "ghost lights" matched the timing and light spectrum of the oncoming headlights.

"So there was the timing and the optical spectrum that confirms, at least what we saw, is headlights," Roggeman said.

Their research also found that the deceptive unpredictability of the lights, which contributed to the mysteriousness of the encounters, is actually due to certain weather conditions that cause a reverse mirage effect.

"What you'd need to see it, would be a warm day that cools down fast so the cold air basically is channeled underneath the warm air above it to create the channel inversion," he explained.

Although Roggeman acknowledges, "The irregularity of its appearance [due to weather conditions] would enhance that kind of legend."

The student's research was able to conclude the puzzling "ghost light" was merely a confluence of natural, not supernatural, phenomenons.

Even with the scientific proof presented by MTU, many paranormal enthusiasts prefer to believe the lights have ghostly origins, but it seems the student chapter of SPIE at Michigan Tech has pulled away the cobwebs on this spooky spectacle.

Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Erin Cassidy at cassidye@accuweather.com. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.


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