Friday, March 18, 2011

Fata Morgana or Hillingar?

This evening while driving towards the Point, I noticed this arctic mirage. The cliff of ice is the distance doesn't really exist and after a couple of minutes, it started to slowly vanish. Initially, it looked like I was in the middle of a crater as this "cliff" ran most of the way around. This is similar to a mirage in the desert but is caused by very cold air near the ground layered with warmer air higher up. This is the reverse of the norm where the air temperature gets cooler the higher up you go. Light bends towards the higher air density (colder air) so the ice features which are probably well below the horizon appear to be floating in the sky. It is an interesting effect and I had not noticed it on earlier visits. This view is looking roughly southeast towards the Elson Lagoon and since it is much shallower and protected by the Point from the recent storm surges, there are fewer ice features. I'm told that arctic mirages are referred to as hillingars. Fata morganas are a specific type of mirage common in the arctic where both an upright and an inverted image are seen and I think that I can see that in these images.

It was actually a very cold, very bright evening and I just couldn't get the color of the sky to come out right. I probably needed to play around with the exposure but just standing outside for a couple of minutes seemed way too long to be outside. In this photo, the road looks paved but in reality it is snow covered gravel shaded by the 15' snow berm on the ocean side of the road. This section of road has been rebuilt numerous times over the last year due to storms. You will notice in this Google Map image that this strip of land is not much wider than the road with the Arctic Ocean on one side and the Elson Lagoon on the other.


  1. Always figured mirages were something one see's in the heat waves of a desert....thanks for clarifying that and how it's created.


    Redleg's Rides

    Colorado Motorcycle Travel Examiner

  2. That is quite interesting. I was aware mirages occurred in this environment either. Just snow-blindness... just kidding! Great image capture.


  3. Good grief. Here I sit doors and windows open, breeze blowing through the house and you can't stand outside for a couple of minutes? Jeez.

  4. I've never heard of this type of mirage. Yeah the heat/desert thing I've heard of, but how interesting to know there is a similar effect with cold air.

  5. Dear Richard M.:

    I was out driving through flat fields to the horizon last week, and saw a mirage of Angelina Jolie beckoning to me from the side of the road. I stopped, as I wanted the vision to linger. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it was Angelina Jolie, and she wanted me to give her a lift.

    What the hell could I say, than, "Get in."

    I used to think I knew winter, coming from Upstate New York. Alaska appears to be not for the faint of winter heart.

    Fondest regards,
    Jack • reep • Toad
    Twisted Roads

  6. Dom, Lori & Kari:
    I was pretty intrigued by the mirage which prompted me to do a bit of research on it. It was a pretty cool effect and I wasn't too sure how it would show up in a photo. That was a 200mm lens with a crop sensor so about 300mm effective focal length.

    Other than that, there isn't too much difference between the Arctic and Key West. After we seem to get a lot of bikes coming through here wanting to ride between those two endpoints.

    Jack Riepe:
    I've heard that upstate New York gets real snow. Around here the stuff just seems to blow back and forth. Actual precipitation is pretty modest.

  7. Indeed, almost like the beaches on Maui ;-)
    I am getting colder and colder while staring at your pictures.

  8. RichardM:

    It's really hard to define scale as your first photo didn't look like a 300mm shot, so the cliff was really far away. There are no landmarks to judge distance. Not that you would want to but, can you walk on the ice ?

    with a 300mm lens you must have had a really long step ladder to get that last shot of the empty beach.

    Riding the Wet Coast

  9. Thanks for sharing about the mirage. That was totally new information.

  10. SonjaM:
    I've never been to Maui. At least I now know that I need to bring snowshoes.

    Yes, the cliff looked really far away, essentially over the horizon. And, yes, it must've been a very tall ladder for the last image.

    In Fairbanks, you can see the effect in the winter when it is clear and calm. Normally, just the upper part of Denali is visible but sometimes you can "see" the entire mountain from base to peak.