Mys­tery over Mur­ray Har­bour

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - WEATHER - CINDY DAY Cindy Day is Saltwire Net­work’s Chief Me­te­o­rol­o­gist.

As you can imagine, I re­ceive lots of won­der­ful pho­tos from ev­ery corner of At­lantic Canada. Sort­ing through them is one of the high­lights of my day!

Just over a week ago, I came across a very in­trigu­ing photo. Deb­bie Hill sub­mit­ted the pic­ture and was look­ing for some kind of ex­pla­na­tion. She took the photo on New Year’s Eve day in Mur­ray Har­bour North, on Prince Ed­ward Is­land. Deb­bie says it was be­tween 3 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. and the sun was go­ing down be­hind her.

Some­times you see things that don’t seem to make any sense … or that you just can’t work out. I’m so grate­ful that Deb­bie snapped a few pho­tos, so I could at­tempt to ex­plain the bizarre for­ma­tions she ob­served above the water that af­ter­noon.

What Deb­bie saw – and what you’re see­ing in the photo – is an op­ti­cal il­lu­sion, known as a mi­rage. A mi­rage is a nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring op­ti­cal phe­nom­e­non in which light rays are bent to pro­duce a dis­placed im­age of dis­tant ob­jects or the sky.

There are sev­eral types of mi­rages; this one is a su­pe­rior mi­rage. It oc­curs when the air below the line of sight is colder than the air above. The light rays are bent down as they travel through the in­ver­sion, and so the im­age ap­pears above the true ob­ject; that’s why it’s called a “su­pe­rior” mi­rage.

Now to take it one step fur­ther, Deb­bie’s su­pe­rior mi­rage is known as Fata Mor­gana, a com­plex and rapidly chang­ing form of a su­pe­rior mi­rage.

A su­pe­rior mi­rage can be made up of sev­eral in­verted and up­right im­ages stacked on top of each other; they are usu­ally warped and often un­rec­og­niz­able. Often the im­age re­sem­bles a dis­torted mix­ture of up-and­down parts that ap­pears to be float­ing above the hori­zon.

Fata Mor­gana is the Ital­ian name for Morgan le Fay – King Arthur’s mis­chievous sis­ter. It was be­lieved Morgan pos­sessed mag­i­cal pow­ers and was often ac­cused of caus­ing strange mi­rages over bod­ies of water. To­day we know that such op­ti­cal il­lu­sions are re­ally caused by at­mo­spheric con­di­tions, but we still some­times use “fata mor­gana” as a syn­onym of “mi­rage.”

So, what are we see­ing in Deb­bie’s photo? The re­flec­tion of dis­torted clouds, the Mur­ray Har­bour Is­lands, ves­sels off in the dis­tance … or the work of Morgan le Fay.

What do you think Deb­bie Hill saw the af­ter­noon of Dec. 31 over Mur­ray Har­bour, P.E.I.? What­ever it was, sci­ence played a role in it.

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