Fata Morgana


Fata Morgana

Fata Morgana


At certain times over the Strait of Messina, which divides Italy from Sicily, an elaborate scene of crystal castles, palaces, and streets shimmers between the water and the sky. This vision is named the Fata Morgana after King Arthur's half sister, the fairy Morgan le Fay, who according to legend lived in a shining palace beneath the sea. However, the beautiful structures are only a mirage. The mirage is caused by images of rippling waves and sometimes a combination of the sea and distant buildings, cliffs, and trees, all distorted by layers of hot and cold air over the channel. Changing winds also vibrate the images, causing the illusion to oscillate between sea, sky, brightness, darkness, castles, columns, and forests.

Similar mirages have now been sighted over large water bodies and ice fields. Also called Fata Morgana, they occur all over the world. For instance, the Silent City of Alaska surfaces every year on the Muir Glacier, and is claimed by some to be a long-distance mirage of Bristol, England (which is actually 2,500 miles away). It actually originates in Alaska's own jagged topography and transformed into a visual masterpiece by layers of air.

Fata Morgana, also known as Morgan le Fay, was a fairy enchantress skilled in the art of changing shape. In one traditional story she was King Arthur's sister and learned many of her skills from Merlin the Magician.

A special type of complex mirage, one that sometimes gives the impression of a castle half in the air and half in the sea, is named after Fata Morgana. She was known to live in a marvelous castle under the sea. Sometimes the enchantress made this castle appear reflected up in the air, causing seamen who mistook it for a safe harbor to be lured to their deaths.

The fate morgana mirage is one that can occur only where there are alternating warm and cold layers of air near the ground or water surface. Instead of traveling straight through these layers, light is bent towards the colder, hence denser, air. The result can be a rather complicated light path and a strange image of a distant object. A fate morgana actually is a superposition of several images of one object. Typically one image is upright more or less above two inverted images that may be mingled together. The images may undergo rapid changes as the air layers move slightly up and down relative to the observer.

In Alaska the best chance of seeing the relatively rare fate morgana is in winter when temperature inversions develop in the larger valleys. When seeing a complex mountain image out across a valley or bay one can attempt to sort out in the mind the paths that the light rays must have taken. Perhaps it's best just to acknowledge that it is Morgan le Fay beckoning.