Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Fata Morganas Studied, Seen and Found


Q: What is a fata morgana?

A: A fata morgana is an elevated, distorting mirage that usually appears over large bodies of water, grass or sand, though apparently it can be seen anywhere, even in the air from an airplane if the conditions are right. In a fata morgana mirage, islands or ships at sea appear to lift off of the water or to be stretched and stacked upon the water, typically in great layercakes alternating right-side up and upside-down forms.

Sometimes, fata morganas make objects appear where none are. One day off of the west coast of Greenland, for example, we saw, in the distance, what seemed to be a large modern city rising out of the sea. It looked as if Panama City had suddenly sprung up north of the arctic circle. No such thing was there of course; nothing at all was, although for a time, it looked as if numerous glass and steel towers clustered on some edge of land to our east.

This was not the first time sailors in the far north thought they saw things where there were none: in 1818, while hunting for the Northwest Passage, Sir John Ross arrived in Lancaster Sound and thought he saw a mountainous mass of land.  Several of his officers argued that he was seeing a mirage, but he would not heed them,  and because he thought he could not pass, turned around and sailed back to England. He named his vision Crocker Mountains, after a man who was then First Secretary of the Navy. A year later his first mate, William Edward Parry sailed through those mountains and further west, into the Northwest Passage, leaving the reputation of Sir John Ross in tatters.

Nearly a century later, in 1906, Robert Peary sighted what he believed was a land mass, which he placed at about 83 degrees north latitude and 100 degrees west longitude. Ironically enough, he called his vision "Crocker Land," though his Crocker was not the same Crocker, but a fellow in the Peary Arctic Club. Seven years later,  in 1913, at great expense, Donald Baxter MacMillan launched the "Crocker Land Expedition," to find and chart Peary's imaginary landmass. They thought they found it; according to MacMillan's notes they saw "hills, valleys, snow-capped peaks extending through at least one hundred and twenty degrees of the horizon.” Piugaattoq, an Inuit hunter traveling with the expedition told the explorers that what they were seeing was "mist," an illusion, but, naturally, in typical arctic explorer fashion, they didn't believe him and pressed on for days through dangerous breaking sea ice. Finally they gave up, admitted Piugaattoq was right, and turned around.

Q: What causes a fata morgana?

A: Typically, warm air lies in a layer over the earth, while cooler air rises into the atmosphere.  But sometimes, in calm weather, this order is inverted, and a layer of warm air lies above a significantly cooler surface layer.  The sharp temperature gradient between these two layers may create conditions where what is called an atmospheric duct, a zone of refraction between the two layers, functions like a lens, bending light rays more strongly than the curvature of the earth.  When this happens, you get fata morgana effects, in which reflections from the water or ice or land or air are refracted upward, from denser cool air towards less dense warmer air and stacked on top of one another or otherwise distorted.  These can be photographed because they are not simply optical illusions, but real atmospheric effects.

Q: Where does that name, fata morgana, come from? What does it mean?

A: According to writer Morgen Jahnke, "Fata Morgana is the Italian name for Morgan le Fay, the half-sister of King Arthur in Arthurian legend. Reputedly a sorceress and able to change shape at will, Morgan le Fay was sometimes said to live below the sea in a crystal palace that could also rise above the surface. The fata morgana effect was so named for the superstitious belief among sailors that she created illusory visions to lure men into a false port and to their death."  

The term was in usage in English in 1818, to describe a "peculiar mirage" that appeared in the Strait of Messina, a narrow body of water between Sicily and the southern Italian region of Calabria, and was locally ascribed to "a fay Morgana."  Soon however, the use of the term was more widespread.  Thus, for example, in 1873, in his poem, "Fata Morgana," a tiny fragment of a much longer work entitled Birds of Passage, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writes:

The weary traveler sees
In desert or prairie vast,
Blue lakes, overhung with trees
That a pleasant shadow cast;

Fair towns with turrets high,
And shining roofs of gold,
That vanish as he draws nigh...

FATA MORGANA SEEN--Look, that island is standing on its head!

8 February 2012

Glittering sunshine, cold blue air.  An edge of Ship Island lifts up off of the water like the sole of a shoe coming unglued. Not yet a fata morgana, but when the water gets colder, it will be. Funny how light shimmers in the heat or mimics water, tossing illusory puddles in the road, but elevates in the cold and mimics air, building fantasy castles and other odd forms.

I wonder if we find ourselves fascinated by mirages because they fight against the notion that our senses impart truths to us about the world.  But when our senses show us things that aren't "really true," or "really just as they seem," it is perhaps not our senses that are out of order, but our interpretive capacities.

The positional information we receive from our senses rarely designates "true points," as any navigator knows. Everything is perspectival; everything lies in parallax. As you approach any object or island or land mass, shortening the angle of your view, the object's position seems to shift.

This is one of the pleasures and wonders and dangers of seeing. And drawing. What you see or what you sense is not as you think it should be, but as it is, elsewhere, according to some other logic, which is what you must then discover.  Such labour of discovery is ultimately the work of living. Truly. Deeply. And yes madly.  Who would want it any other way?


Because it's shifting.  And enchanting.
Werner Herzog, Fata Morgana, 1970 (

Photo: Beaver Harbour Light, Harbour Islands seen from Sober Island. January 2012
Andy Young, "An Introduction to Mirages,"
Morgen Jahnke, "The Fata Morgana Effect" Interesting Thing of the Day, July 24, 2006,
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Fata Morgana," 1873,

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