Phenomena

Superior Mirage

A superior mirage shows a tanker ship appearing to float in the sky.

This photograph of a ship seemingly floating far above the water is not some Photoshop fakery; it’s physics creating the illusion. It’s an example of what’s known as a superior mirage — superior because the mirage appears above the object’s actual location, unlike the mirages you see above the road on a hot day.

In this case, the air layer near the water is cold — colder than the air above it, thanks to a temperature inversion. Cold air is denser and has a higher index of refraction, so light traveling through it gets bent downward. To a far off observer, this downward bend makes objects appear higher in altitude than they actually are. The effect is most common in polar regions, where the right conditions can actually allow images of objects completely below the horizon! (Image credit: D. Morris; via The Guardian; submitted by Alec)

One comment
  1. Kieron McNulty

    This is not an example of a superior mirage. It is an optical illusion caused by the sea nearer the ship reflecting the colour of the sky leading to false horizon.

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