The Strait of Messina between Sicily and Southern Italy has long been associated with one of the most fascinating mirages known: the Fata Morgana. Italian for “Morgan the fairy,” the phenomenon is named after the fabled fairy/witch Morgan le Fay — featured in Arthurian legends — who used her mystical powers to conjure up images of castles in the air. These fanciful visions bewitched sailors, leading them into danger. Some believed that one special optical illusion — a looming palace — was le Fay’s enchanted island dwelling.
Truth is, le Fay’s magic isn’t required to see this beautiful natural event, nor do we have to be on or near the sea … or in Italy. The phenomenon can occur at any longitude or latitude. All we need is for a string of complex variables to come together to create the right atmospheric conditions for this “castle” to appear. Seeing it also requires awareness and perseverance.
An elaborate type of “superior mirage” (meaning the mock object materializes above the position of the real object), the Fata Morgana forms during strong temperature inversions. When a layer of warm air blankets a layer of cold air, the combination causes a rise in the temperature with altitude, the opposite of a normal situation.
In the Fata Morgana, light rays from distant objects travel across the interface between the cold and warm air layers in disparate curved paths to reach our eyes. Consequently, the light from these objects smears out vertically. The rays also can be magnified, multiplied (with alternating erect and inverted components), and distorted. Classically, the Fata Morgana has three or more false images, which can change shapes in a matter of seconds. The shapes an observer sees also vary with position relative to the cold/warm air boundary.
“Not all inversions give a Fata Morgana,” explains Les Cowley, who runs the website Atmospheric Optics, “but when they do, we are confronted with a wondrous prospect of otherwise ordinary distant hills transformed into impossibly tall multilayered cliffs, towers, and buildings ever shrinking then climbing in the shimmering air. Even a distant frozen sea can rear up into a Fata Morgana, and early polar explorers eager to sight undiscovered lands were known to mistake this apparition for mountainous land.”
On December 2013, I had the fortune of spying le Fay’s handiwork from a hillside outside Fairbanks, Alaska. At first, I saw a series of inverted castles in the air above a distant peak. Two minutes later, the airborne castles had melted into a single fortress with two spires. Two minutes after that, the castle had deformed into a massive flat-topped plateau.
In written records, whispers of the Fata Morgana can be traced to at least 1531, when German magician and occult writer Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa recorded the phenomenon in his Of Occult Philosophy, Book III. An even earlier observation came from Italian scholar Antonio de Ferrariis in 1508, but it was not published until 1558. In his book about the region of Italy now known as Apulia, de Ferrariis wrote that the formations do not last long but change “as the vapors in which they appear, from one place to another, from one form to another.” Sometimes, he wrote, “you will see cities and castles and towers, and sheep and different colored cattle and images or specters of other things.”
By the way, the plot of Sergei Prokofiev’s 1921 opera, The Love for Three Oranges (based on an Italian fairy tale), included a curse from the witch Fata Morgana and the casting of a magic circle by the sorcerer Agrippa.
Get out there and try to detect this illusion. As always, let me know what you see and don’t see at email@example.com.