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F is for Fata Morgana

A ghost story is only as believable as the teller, and few witnesses ring as true as crusty ol’ hardbitten sea captains.

This could be one of the reasons tales of ghost ships have been passed on for hundreds of years. Who could forget the Flying Dutchman?

As it turns out, those sailers were telling the truth. They were seeing ships that floated above the water, flickering in and out of view, or disappearing completely.

It just had nothing to do with ghosts.

Enter Fata Morgana. Ms. Morgana is a super mirage named after the treacherous fairy, enchantress, and half-sister of King Arthur. (Tarkabarka should like this reference.)

As the sun warms the air above the ocean, it creates a gradient of temperatures. The air closest to the ocean is still cool, but sitting above that is a layer of warmer air.

Light doesn’t necessarily travel in a straight line. When it comes in contact with two layers of atmosphere that are different temperatures (and therefore different densities), it bends and travels through the new layer at a different angle.

The rest of the effect is caused by how the brain works. When light reaches your eyes, your mind assumes it arrived there in a straight path between you and the object reflecting the light. So if light is bent on its way toward you, your brain will think the object is where it would be if the light’s path was straight. This explains why objects under water will appear to be in a different spot than they really are.

To create a fata morgana mirage, light reflecting from something in the distance, like a ship, bends downward as it passes through the colder, denser air near the surface of the ocean. Your brain places the object where it would be if the light came to you in a straight path—higher than it actually is. This bending effect can even work with the curvature of the Earth if conditions are right, which is why some fata morgana images can be refracted cities and ships from beyond the horizon.

Pretty cool, huh? However, those ships that turn up with mysteriously missing crews or that disappear completely? You’re on your own.

Scientific gobbledygook courtesy of Wired.com.

Have you heard of the mysterious Fata Morgana? Were those sailors seeing super mirages? What do you think?

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51 Comments

  1. Physics is such a great thing, and what a great name for an optical effect.

    Although, yeah, it can’t answer everything like deserted ships. Haunting tales of the sea can be especially scary, because when you’re isolated on a boat there’s nowhere to run!
    Sophie
    Sophie’s Thoughts & Fumbles | Wittegen Press | FB3X

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, and even though I know there’s a rational explanation behind it, it would still be pretty freaky to see a ghost ship!

      Reply
    • JH

      Yes, it doesn’t explain everything…but it’s a good start. 🙂

      Reply
  2. The story of Fata Morgana is one I’ve never heard before. It offers a logical explanation for how sailors could see phantom ships; not quite as chilling as believing in ghost ships, though.

    Gail’s 2016 April A to Z Challenge
    Theme: The Fun in Writing

    Reply
    • JH

      No, sadly, it does take some of the chill out of those stories. But there are still tales like the Mary Celeste to give you nightmares!

      Reply
  3. Most interesting J.H. thank you! I love your simple and clear description of light upon the sea and how things appear where they actually are not!

    Reply
    • JH

      I have to thank Wired.com for that. I paraphrased a bit, but the clear descriptions are theirs. I’m definitely not a scientist, although I do find it extremely interesting.

      Glad you liked it as well.

      Reply
    • JH

      Hmm…now I want to know what you see! Great cliffhanger comment, Ellen. 🙂

      Reply
  4. Really didn’t enjoy my physics classes (thanks to a sexist instructor) so if this was taught, I missed it. Thanks for the explanation.

    Reply
    • JH

      Sorry to hear, Denise. There’s still too much sexism in the world.

      I doubt they taught this in class, but it’s very cool. I was more of a biology girl myself.

      Reply
  5. Spooky! I don’t know what to think…but it definitely could be a mirage.

    Reply
    • JH

      Some of them most definitely are. So rare to get explanations, let alone scientific, for any of this stuff.

      Reply
    • JH

      You’re very welcome, Alex. Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
    • JH

      No, but how cool is that? Thanks for sharing, Dianne!

      I didn’t realize that many people would see the same mirage in that way. No wonder the ghost ship myth was so widespread.

      Seeing a fata morgana would be just as remarkable.

      Reply
  6. Science is such an awesome thing, but it can’t explain everything–well, not yet anyway.

    This still gives me chills despite the explanation for the phenomenon.

    Reply
    • JH

      It’s so interesting. I think it would be almost as rare and amazing to see a fata morgana as it would be to see an actual ghost ship.

      Reply
  7. I’ve heard about fata morgana, didn’t know the whole explanation how it occures, thank you for the info! 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      You’re very welcome! Thanks for reading. Hope you found it interesting.

      I just heard about it this year.

      Reply
  8. Fata Morgana … things that seem there but are not. I’ve met some politicians like that! Thanks for teaching me something new today. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      No problem, Roland. It’s nice to return the favour now and then.

      Unfortunately for Americans, it appears Trump is here to stay. At least for now…

      Reply
  9. I too am doing the A to Z challenge. Now your type of books are exactly the kind that don’t put me to sleep. I do really like to read, but only if it holds my interest and these do. I don’t like blood & gore that turns me off & I’m gone, but spirits and things in that area I will read. I need to look around your blog & so far I do find a few things that interest me. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • JH

      Welcome, Marie. I’m glad you found me. My horror is very much psychological and suspenseful.

      I don’t do blood and gore, although occasionally there is some violence.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
    • JH

      Ha! 😀

      Reply
  10. I’m trying to visualize a world were large portions of it remain to be discovered (by Europeans), and ocean travel is long and dangerous. Imagine the horrors and fears one could conjure up, alone at night, on lookout, a black ocean as far as one can see. The daytime would be equally harrowing. I find it scary and intriguing.

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, it would be terrifying. I imagine it’s still daunting to be out in the middle of the ocean with nothing around for miles and miles (or leagues and leagues).

      Movies like Open Water always scare me, because I can only imagine how frightening it would be to be abandoned out there.

      Reply
  11. We never experienced fata morganas while sailing the wide open oceans. We actually rarely saw other boats at all in some parts of the world, but the experience with objects under water is a very familiar one. When snorkeling, and trying to hold on to a rock or piece of dead coral to stay stable and take a photo, I more than once missed my target! And, the conch and fish always looked so much bigger from above the water surface than when we actually caught them and saw them up close!

    Liesbet @ Roaming About – A Life Less Ordinary

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks for returning, Liesbet! It’s cool to hear from someone that has real-life experiences with this phenomenon, even if you haven’t seen a ghost ship yet.

      Is it scary to sail on the open ocean with nothing around you for miles?

      Reply
    • JH

      There’s plenty of those on this blog…this post is a change for me.

      Reply
  12. Nice post! And thanks for the shout out 🙂 I do love ghost ship stories. They are probably my favorite type of ghost story. There is also a sailing boat class called the Flying Dutchman, the only class Hungarians ever won an Olympic gold in 🙂

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    The Multicolored Diary
    MopDog

    Reply
    • JH

      Cool! I was thinking you’d like the King Arthur/fable aspect.

      Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Heather!

      Reply
  13. Very cool, indeed. I liked the science behind this ghostly ship. It makes me feel a bit more secure about venturing out to the open sea.

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s awesome, Lee. Imagine how cool it would be to see one, explained or not.

      Reply
  14. Wow, that’s some really neat science! I still believe in ghost ships though…. 🙂

    Michele at Angels Bark

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s cool. 🙂

      Reply
  15. That explains it really well. Although I still would be pretty freaked out if I saw a ghost ship!
    Debbie

    Reply
    • JH

      Me too, Debbie. Even knowing it’s science doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be scary as hell.

      Reply
  16. Very interesting! I always thought they saw this sort of thing because they were drunk.

    Reply
    • JH

      Ha! Best comment EVER. 😀

      Reply
  17. Love this mix of scary + science.
    Super cool phenomenon. Thanks for explaining it. Entertaining read.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Lise! Hope all is well with you. <3

      Reply
  18. This sounds a bit scientific because my head is hurting:) I read this more than once and I do believe I get it but I wouldn’t bet on it either. I think of the Mary Celeste also which is still a mystery

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, I linked to that case in the post. That one can’t be explained away by science.

      Reply
  19. My Dad saw the Flying Dutchman when he was in the Merchant Marine in 1945. I don’t know if he knew the science or not–probably not, with just a high school education at that point (I’m sure he figured it out later, but he liked to tell us kids just that he’d seen the Dutchman). It was a sailing ship, but at that time, there were still sailing ships in regular use, especially with so much shipping destroyed during the war.

    A related bit of physics that’s still totally cool is the green flash. I’ve seen that, since I live on the west coast and it can be seen from land. That’s a separation of the spectrum of light as the sun sets (and its light thus passes through the thickest slice of atmosphere). What I’ve never been clear on is why green is the last one visible (also after the sun has actually set, so it’s affected by that curvature of light mirage too).

    Reply

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