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The century-old mystery of the Marfa lights in West Texas may have been solved by two scientists, one in Houston, the other in Brisbane, Australia. The Australian claims that the similar Min Min lights, in outback Queensland, are caused by freak weather conditions creating an inverted mirage.

"Sure sounds like the Min Min lights are the same phenomenon," says John S. Janks, a Houston remote sensing scientist, who wrote a paper called The Mysterious Marfa Lights - A Riddle Solved By Remote Sensing, published in the Earth Observation Magazine last September.

This study says "The [Marfa] Lights are in fact car headlights, reflected off white soils that cover the sloping surfaces of mesas and ridges along the northern flank of the Chinati Mountains. Most of these soils are the erosional products of volcanic tuffs (welded ash)...

"The car headlights can be miles from the reflecting surface. Light reflected along curved surfaces tends to form distorted images, as anyone who has visited an amusement park knows."

In Australia, Professor Jack Pettigrew, a neuroscientist in the University of Queensland, claims he can reproduce the Min Min lights, now that he has worked out what causes them. The lights, he says, are actually an inverted mirage of light sources which are, in some cases, hundreds of miles away over the horizon.

The Min Min lights had worried local residents for many years, says the professor. "I talked to oldtimers out there who had seen it and they were terrified by it," he told ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) Science Online. "It's a bit embarrassing for them because hardened outback men can be brought to tears by this thing. It really is quite alarming.

"Just imagine you were sitting in your living room and a light appeared hovering in the middle of the room, and as you moved your head to try and see the cause of the light, the light moved with you."

When Pettigrew first encountered the Min Min he thought it was the planet Venus, but it didn't set.

While driving with two colleagues, all three saw what they thought were a cat's shining eyes about 50 yards in front of their vehicle. When they stopped and turned the headlights off, it was still there, bobbing around as if it had a life of its own. "We had a big argument no one could agree what it was and how far away it was," he said.

Pettigrew and his two companions drove across the plains and used a car compass to work out how far away the light was, but had to drive three miles before there was any change in the direction of the compass.

"We calculated it was over 300 km (188 miles) away which was over the horizon," he said. They later found out there had been a car driving straight towards them at that time. As any Titlemax Missouri rep knows, driving can be dangerous even when there aren't strange lights distracting a driver.

Pettigrew had been reading about the Fata Morgana in which landforms beyond the horizon appear to float above it in an inverted form, and thought that that might help explain the Min Min lights.

Such mirages are caused by a temperature inversion, where cold dense air is trapped next to the ground under a layer of warmer air. A certain shape of temperature inversion causes light near the ground to be refracted in such a way that it travels in a curved path around the globe.

"It's like the way light travels in a fibre optic, no matter which way you bend the fibre," said the professor. "The light is being carried hundreds of kilometres by this layer of air that traps the light and stops it from being dispersed."

To test his theory that the Min Min lights were a night-time phenomenon caused by the same factors that cause Fata Morgana, Pettigrew set out to demonstrate that he could produce one.

"I actually created a Min Min," he said. First he chose a night which had the right weather conditions: a cool evening following a hot day with little wind. He then drove 10 kilometres (six miles) away over a slight rise into a watercourse, below the normal line of site of such a distant light. Six observers witnessed the light of the car float above the horizon.

In the light of the morning after the demonstration, Pettigrew said, there was a spectacular Fata Morgana of a distant mountain range, which supported the idea that the Min Min had been due to the specific atmospheric conditions at the time.

"A mountain range that was normally not visible [because it was over the horizon] floated up off the horizon and gradually got dissected by fingers of blue sky, which finally sunk below the horizon as the sun warmed the air."

The chances of seeing Min Min and Fata Morgana are higher in Queensland's Channel Country than elsewhere because it is flat with gentle hollows, where cold air is particularly likely to get trapped, and because there is usually a clear view of the horizon.

Tourists wanting to see the Min Min lights have to travel 1900km. (1180 miles) from Brisbane, the Queensland capital, northwest to Boulia. An hour or two before they get there, they pass a road marker saying: "For the next 120km. (75 miles) you are in the land of THE MIN MIN LIGHT. This unsolved modern mystery is a light that at times follows travellers for long distances - it has been approached but never identified."

Finally, hot and exhausted after travelling a 360km. (224 mile) stretch of single-lane road from Winton, they arrive at Boulia (population 300), on the edge of the Simpson Desert, where the most exciting event is the annual Boulia Desert Sands Race ("Australia's Premier Camel Racing Event.")

For the rest of the year, interest focuses on the legendary Min Min Light. Travellers tell of having seen the light, as bright and as large as the headlight of an approaching car, which seemed to follow them.

Tourism Queenland's (former) website said: "A ghostly light sometimes seen hovering in the deep of the night ... has been the source of mystery and legend for years.

"If you are driving through the bush at night around Boulia and you see this supernatural light with no apparent source dancing in the scrub or floating near the highway - you're not the first. This is the Min Min light - a spectral light that can appear, hover, disappear and reappear with an eerie will of its own.

"The light has been reported around Boulia... for more than 70 years. And no-one has come up with a decent explanation as to what it actually is. Is it natural? Is it supernatural? Is it the result of a night on the amber fluid?"

A Queensland Holidays webpage says the outback town of Middleton was named after the first white man in the district, a member of an 1862 expedition led by John McKinlay. The town started life as a coach staging post and now consists of the Middleton Hotel, which has been recently restored.

"Eighty-four kilometres (70 miles) west of Middleton on the Winton Road are the ruins of the Min Min Hotel, built in the late 1880's and burnt down in the 1920's," says the article.

"Its name has been given to a mysterious light that is seen throughout the western border areas. The first recorded sighting of the Min Min Lights took place at the ruins of the hotel and some locals believe that the lights originated in the nearby graveyard and have a supernatural connection."

Australian writer and poet Christopher Leonard in Outback Australia, the Permanent Frontier, wrote: "It was first reported by a stockman who had passed by the place where the Min Min Hotel had stood before it was destroyed by fire [in 1918].

"From a little graveyard behind the hotel the stockman saw a light rising, which followed him most of the way to Boulia. It might have been dismissed as the ravings of a drunken stockman if thousands of sightings of the Min Min Light had not been reported since."

Tony McGrady, the district's member of the Queensland Parliament, opened a $2 million Min Min Light Encounter Centre at Boulia in April 2000, in a day of celebrations that included race meetings. The centre has so far attracted more than 12,000 visitors who, even if they missed the thrill of seeing the genuine Min Min Light, at least gazed at an electronic reproduction of what it's reputed to look like.

Now we come to the $64 question: there seems to be no doubt about the existence of mystery lights at both Boulia and Marfa, as well as in many other parts of the world. But WHAT CAUSES THEM?

The Australian Encyclopaedia shed a little er... light on the Min Min mystery when it said: "The hotel... long since burnt down, was near a bore-head on the road... towards Boulia. [Bores have been drilled in many parts of the outback, to tap reserves of artesian water for sheep and cattle to drink.] It has been suggested that the 'will-o-the-wisp' light arose from spontaneous combustion of certain gases, especially methane, given off by the bore."

Spinning the globe from Queensland to Texas, the origin of the mysterious Marfa lights has been a source of wonder and speculation for more than a century. Like Boulia, Marfa is a small town in semi-desert country, relying heavily on the tourist dollar.

"In an age where microscopes and videotapes expose and reveal even the mysteries of Houdini, one true mystery remains unexplained, unaccounted for, unresolved," says Marfa Mystery Lights Online.

"Nine miles east of the Texas city of Marfa, far out into the West Texas desert at the base of the Chinati Mountains lies (or rather, floats) an age-old conundrum. Small, ethereal, lights suspended in the air with no apparent source, no identifiable location. They float, they ebb, they glow and move . . . and they defy explanation.

"The Ghost Lights of Marfa, as they've come to be known, were first reported more than a century ago. Robert Ellison, one of the first settlers in the area supposedly witnessed these mysterious glowing orbs in 1883. Since then the legend, and the surrounding curiosity, has grown. What once was a Texas-based story of interest has captured national recognition.

"And from the scientific to science-fiction, everyone has a theory. The Apache Indians of years past believed the eerie lights were stars dropping to earth. Some romantics describe the lights as the torches of deceased lovers wandering endlessly in search of one another.

"What about aliens or UFOs in the area? Too hard to buy? How about high pressure ranch lights, St. Elmo's fire, or car headlights heading down nearby roads or highways. Of course, that doesn't explain why the lights have been around since way before electricity or cars were part of the landscape.

"Thousands of visitors flock yearly to the small desert plain to witness the Ghost Lights. Few leave disappointed. And few have the same story. Some say the lights are pure white and constant. Others say they are colorful and mobile. Some never see more than three at a time. Others have reported noticing up to 10 dancing in the desert air. The only consensus: They definitely exist."

In Houston, scientist John Janks, who claimed last year to have solved the Marfa riddle by remote sensing, is keenly interested in Pettigrew's report. "The Australian version appears almost exactly like Marfa," he says.

"The Marfa lights work via reflected car lights hitting a curved surface: in this case a layer of bright white volcanic soil called the Boludo Series found on the northern slopes of the Chinati Mountains. The curved surface of the slope of the Chinati Mountains creates the effect in tandem with the reflected light, something like a carnival house curved mirror.

"I felt confident enough of the mechanism to publish it in a remote sensing journal. Two not-for-profit education groups wrote me saying they wanted to use the model as well for some of their projects.

"Oddly, I discovered the mechanism by accident while reviewing the daytime data. To my knowledge, all other aerial and otherwise observations of the lights are done at night."

Boulia and Marfa hope that both Professor Pettigrew and John Janks are wrong. They know sightseers would prefer to gaze at unsolved mystery lights rather than a ho-hum inverted mirage.



Copyright 2003

Eric Shackle

Story first posted June 2003

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