Sunday, December 7, 2008

from Nature, 1893

(page 76)

An Atmospheric Phenomenon in the North China Sea

During a recent wintry cruise in H.M.S. Caroline in the North China Sea, a curious phenomenon was seen which may be of interest to your readers. The ship was on passage between Shanghai and the western entrance of the famous inland sea of Japan. On 24th February, at 10 p.m., when in latitude 32° 58' N., longitude 126° 33" E., which, on reference to the map, will be seen to be sixteen to seventeen miles south of Quelpart island (south of the Korean peninsula) some unusual lights were reported by the officer of the watch between the ship and Mount Auckland, a mountain 6,000 feet high. It was a windy, cold, moonlight night. My first impression was that they were either some fires on shore, apparently higher from the horizon than a ship's masthead, or some junk's "flare up" lights raised by mirage. To the naked eye they appeared sometimes as a mass; at others, spread out in an irregular line, and, being globular in form, they resembled Chinese lanterns festooned between the masts of a lofty vessel. They bore north (magnetic), and remained on that bearing until lost sight of about midnight. As the ship was passing the land to the eastward at the rate of seven knots an hour, it soon became obvious that the lights were not on the land, though observed with the mountain behind them. 

On the following night, February 25th, about the same time, 10 p.m., the ship having cleared Port Hamilton, was steering east, on the parallel of 34°, when these curious lights were again observed on the same bearing, at an altitude of 3° or 4° above the horizon. It was a clear, still, moonlight night, and cold. On this occasion there was no land in sight on a north bearing when the lights were first observed, but soon afterwards a small islet was passed, which for the time eclipsed the lights. As the ship steamed on at a rate of seven knots an hour, the lights maintained a constant bearing (magnetic) of N.2°W, as if carried by some vessel travelling in the same direction and at the same speed. The globes of fire altered in their formation as on the previous night, now in a  massed group, with an outlying light away to the right, then the isolated one would disappear, and the others would take the form of a crescent or diamond, and hang festoon-fashion in a curved line. A clear reflection or glare could be seen on the horizon beneath the lights. Through a telescope the globes appeared to be of a reddish colour, and to emit a thin smoke. 

I watched them for several hours, and could distinguish no perceptible alteration in their bearing or altitude, the changes occurring only in their relative formation, but each light maintained its oval, globular form. 

They remained in sight from 10 p.m. until daylight (about 5.30 a.m.). When lost sight of the bearing was one or two points to the westward of north. At daylight land 1300 feet high was seen to the north and north-north-west, distant fifty miles, the mirage being extraordinary.

Thus, these lights were seen first in longitude 126° 33' E., and last in longitude 128° 29' E. At first the land was behind them, but during the greater part of the distance run it was forty-five or fifty miles away to the north; and the bearing of the lights for at least three-fourths of the distance did not change. 

On arrival at KobĂ© I read in a daily paper that the "Unknown light of Japan" had, as was customary at this season of the year when the weather is very cold, stormy, and clear, been observed by fishermen in the Shimbara Gulf and Japanese waters. The article went on to say that these lights were referred to in native school-books, and attributed to electrical phenomena. On mentioning the matter, however, to the leading Europeans in Yokohama and Tokio, they appeared to have no knowledge of the matter. 

Captain Castle, of H.M.S. Leander, informed me that, not long ago, the officers of his ship saw lights in the same locality which they thought at first were caused by a ship on fire. The course of the vessel was altered at once with a view of rendering assistance, but finding that the lights increased their altitude as he approached, he attributed them to some volcanic disturbance, and being pressed for time, resumed his course. 

The background of high land seen on the first night dispels all idea of these extraordinary lights being due to a distant volcano. The uniformity of the bearing renders the theory of their being fires on the shore most improbable. I am inclined to the belief that they were something in the nature of St. Elmo's fires. It is probable that there are travellers among the readers of your interesting journal who have seen or heard of this phenomenon, and will be able to describe its origin and the atmospheric conditions necessary for its appearance. 

Chas. J. Norcock, H.M.S. Caroline, Hongkong, April 10.

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