Fata Morgana - The Superior Mirage Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Fata Morgana - The Superior Mirage

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Sounds a bit like a sacred or exotic ritual doesn't it? Well, in reality it does have a certain other worldly quality which has been the source of much conjecture and many legends.

In ancient times it was believed that fata morgana were the work of witches and sorcerers so they were named in honour of King Arthur's half sister Morgan Le Fay. Morgan or Morgen, as she was known then, was a shape shifter and sorceress, a diligent student of Merlin, and generally a magical being.

This extraordinary illusion has cost men their fortunes; chasing phantoms only to find it was all a mirage. In fact, a fata morgana is the mirage to beat them all.

The Mechanics of a Mirage

A fata morgana is basically an awesome optical phenomenon which occurs rather like a regular mirage, only on a much grander scale. The terms 'superior mirage' and 'inferior mirage' indicate the position of the observer in regard to the surface of the reflection - a superior mirage is above the observer, whereas an inferior mirage is below the observer.

A mirage or fata morgana occurs when two layers of air of different temperatures meet. The basic, or inferior mirage of the sort we see in summer on the roads, arises when the cold air above begins to warm as the heat rises from the hot road surface. This causes the boundary where the layers meet to appear to shimmer like water when viewed from a certain angle. This is due to light refraction, or bending really, and instead of seeing the road, we see the reflection of the blue sky which appears like water.

When these different layers of air meet in the sky, and the boundary is curved, rather than level, the effect not only produces a mirror image, but can also act as a lens to magnify anything that lies many miles beyond the horizon. When this happens and there are several layers of alternating cold and warm air, the images are superimposed one upon the other, creating a multi-layered shimmering vision. The ground air must be cooler than that of the levels above to create a true fata morgana, so this is more commonly seen at sea or around coastal areas. This effect has 'created' cities in the deserts and mountain ranges, phantom ships at sea, and more latterly UFOs.

Some Famous Fata Morgana

The legend of the Flying Dutchman is thought to be based on sightings of a fata morgana, where a ship beyond the horizon has been reflected and the image appears floating above the water. It could easily be seen as a portent of doom as usually a fata morgana will appear prior to a storm at sea.

When captured by a fata morgana the planet Venus can behave remarkably like an UFO, shimmering, bouncing around, covering vast distances and of course disappearing without trace in the blink of an eye. The Min Min lights of Australia may also be caused by this same phenomenon, and by all accounts make a very convincing and frightening UFO.

However, one of the most costly documented cases of a fata morgana is that of the American Museum of Natural History. Following a report from Robert E Peary after his expedition in 1906, the museum funded a further expedition to the North Pole in search of 'Crocker Land'. This 'land' was named after one of his financial backers and was located some 120 miles offshore from the extreme north west of North America. A king's ransom of $100,000 later, the expedition realised what the Eskimos had known all along - that they were chasing poo-jok, which translates as 'mist'.

View a Fata Morgana

While the fata morgana phenomenon is relatively rare, there are places where it appears more often. Alaska can usually conjure up a fata morgana in winter, Finland can also provide a spectacular vision in spring or early summer, as can the Straits of Messina, another 'preferred' site.

'Though it may sound as if opportunities for capturing this phenomenon on film are rare, there are many photographs available of the fata morgana showing everything from cliffs, mountain ranges, ships and castles to cities in the sky.

The term fata morgana appears throughout the arts in poetry, literature, music and film; why not check out the Werner Herzog 1971 collection of footage of superior mirages from the Sahara desert?

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