Fata Morgana

superior mirage

What is a Fata Morgana?

A fata morgana is an optical illusion caused by atmospheric conditions.  These complex superior mirages appear on the horizon.  They can be seen either on the sea or land and at different altitudes with some being observed from aeroplanes. These mirages can take all forms, mountains or towns on the sea, to ships that fly in the air.

What’s in a name

The name fata morgana comes from the Italian translation of Morgan le Fay, the sorceress from Arthurian legend who would shapeshift and conjour up images.  There is a belief that in the 17th century Father Domenico Giardina whilst sailing the Straits of Messina saw “a city all floating in the air, and so measureless and so splendid, so adorned with magnificent buildings, all of which was found on a base of a luminous crystal”.  He had possibly witnessed this special mirage and so it was named.

The science

For a fata morgana to occur you need a cold layer of air near to the surface of the sea or gound with a warmer layer of air above this cold layer.  This is called a thermal inversion (normally warmer air will be on the surface with colder air above).  When light passes through these layers of air it bends (refraction) in such a way as to distort a distant object.  The fata morgana can involve any far off structure or object, for example, a ship, an island or coastline.  The further you are from the object the bigger it will seem.  A fata morgana can also move and become distorted with parts of it being inverted and some zones that are stretched out or compressed.

Famous Fata Morgana

Flying Dutchman – The myth of this ghost ship may well have been a superior mirage.  Seafarers of the 18th century who would spot a ship floating in the air new nothing of the atmospheric phenomenon and attributed it to a ghostly apparition.

fata morgana

The Titanic – Some have suggested the sinking of the infamous Titanic could be blamed on a superior mirage.  The weather conditions on the night of the sinking support the theory.  The Titanic was moving from the warmer gulf stream waters into the frigid Labrador currents.  Unusually high pressure stopped fog forming so it was a clear night.

thermal inversion

A thermal inversion could have caused a fata morgana in the way of a false horizon, hiding the iceberg from the lookouts until it was too late.

fata morgana

Related Articles:  The Flying Dutchman and The Green Flash

Images courtesy of: Charles Floyd

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