When ns was a 4-foot-tall 7-year-old standing on the coast of Lake Michigan, I can see just 2.6 mile to the horizon. Come a kid, the felt prefer the distance to the moon. So, standing on a beach in southern Haven, Mich., while on a family vacation, why couldn"t I check out Chicago"s skyscrapers?

I"m 25 year older and also 2 feet taller, and I tho can"t check out Chicago as soon as I"m vacationing across the lake. But at night, the city"s bright on the horizon is intense and also unmistakable (weather permitting). Close sufficient to see the lights but not even one skyscraper: I"ve constantly wondered why that is.

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The lake is so much bigger than that seems. It"s the fifth-largest in the world, and contains about 1.3 quadrillion gallons that freshwater. Ns didn"t realize until I did the mathematics for this story just how huge that bigness really is.


At 6 feet tall, as soon as I stand on the coast in south Haven and also look throughout the lake towards Chicago, I can see only 4 percent that the method to marine Pier - the full distance is 78 miles, and also thanks come the curvature that the Earth, I can see simply over 3 miles.

But v every foot in height a human grows, the or she have the right to see a little bit farther. If ns were a foot taller, I might see around a quarter-mile farther. I"d be higher still if i stood at the sheet of navy Pier, which sits a few feet over the waterline. Assuming that is about 5 feet native the peak of the water to marine Pier"s floor, I might see 4.3 miles across the lake rather of 3.2.

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Credit: rick Tuma/Chicago Tribune

A keep in mind on methodologyThe formula I"m utilizing is √ height/0.5736 = distance, where elevation is in feet and also distance is in miles. I got it from HowStuffWorks, however there are other formulas out there. Here"s one indigenous NOAA, here"s one from find magazine"s bad Astronomy blog, and also here"s an virtual distance calculator from BoatSafe.com.These are all approximations since the earth is not perfectly spherical, also over open up water. Weather conditions and also a variety of other factors make the precise distance tricky to calculate, and also don"t adjust anything because that the functions of this piece. Please execute not use this information for anything life-endangering, not that i can even imagine what that would be.Click come expand, if you desire to get nerdy through me because that a minute.

Since south Haven is somewhat north of Chicago, ns selected another point directly east throughout the lake as well: The coast in Sawyer, Mich., is 68.5 mile due east of marine Pier, and only around 10 miles closer than southern Haven.

In the map below, the circles represent what"s visible to a 6-foot-tall human standing at the facility of each.


Not even close. You"d need to go up about two-thirds of a mile (3,488 feet) in the air to view Chicago from southern Haven. Though you"d really be seeing whatever"s at the water level the Chicago at the point; you"d only need to elevate a few blocks before you could see the an extremely top the the Sears Tower antennas (yeah, Willis, I said it).

Which isn"t to say that there"s nothing in ~ visual variety of the Chicago lakefront. The many noticeable features are most likely the 6 water cribs two miles out, brick homes on tiny artificial islands. The cribs pump water from the lake toward shore, two of them terminating alongside Navy Pier, in ~ the James W. Jardine Water Purification plant (the world"s largest, incidentally).

Farther south of marine Pier, if the weather cooperates and also you acquire a little bit off the ground, the stole mills in Gary become discernible. When the world"s biggest steel mill, U.S. Steel"s Gary functions is about 22.9 mile from the reminder of marine Pier - to see it, you"d have to be 300 feet off the ground, the equivalent of almost 20 story of a typical office building, follow to the the supervisory board on high Buildings and also Urban Habitat. Yet you"re not looking in ~ the ground, you"re looking at an massive steel mill, parts of which, and plumes native which, reach easily greater than 300 feet high - in other words, clearly shows from water level at navy Pier.


If i wasn"t able to view Chicago native the south Haven beach - if a aircraft on approach to O"Hare 2,600 feet off the floor isn"t high enough to check out that much - climate why is that so usual to view the lights of Chicago from 80 miles across the lake?

In part, it needs to do with exactly how light refracts across the sky - the same factor sunsets look for this reason cool. But the key reason is since Chicago is No. 1 in an regrettably category. Follow to national Geographic, due to the fact that 2008 Chicago has had actually the many light contamination of any city in phibìc America. Light pollution, the excess light emitted indigenous street lights and office buildings, diffusion in every direction, making that harder to view stars in the night sky. The also means Chicago has actually a visible emissary spreading throughout the horizon in every direction.

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irradiate pollution during April 2015, generated by NOAA national Geophysical Data Center, earth Observation team

I never realized how big the lake was since I never ever thought much about it. Together I"ve grown up in Chicago, the lake has always been large and present, and that"s about it. I"ve been on a tour boat or two and also gone out much less than a mile, I"m sure. I"ve swum in it, perhaps an ext than is healthy, and also I"ve frequently been grateful for that is existence when I drink a nice, tall glass of water indigenous the madness - or, much more honestly, when I perform the exact same someplace rather and notification how comparatively bad that other water frequently tastes.

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Lake Michigan is a colossus of nature that deserves our respect and gratitude. Every city on planet would it is in glad to sit alongside among the planet"s largest freshwater lakes, and in the coming water-deprived century that will certainly be even much more true. The vast blue expanse the sets our eastern border is just one of the wonders of the world, and our proudest high-rises nothing an ext than bumps at the water"s edge.