AskDefine | Define mirage

Dictionary Definition



1 an optical illusion in which atmospheric refraction by a layer of hot air distorts or inverts reflections of distant objects
2 something illusory and unattainable

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. An optical phenomenon in which light is refracted through a layer of hot air close to the ground, giving the appearance of there being refuge in the distance.


See also




mirage (plural mirages)

Extensive Definition

this the optical phenomenon 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. The word comes to English via the French mirage, from the Latin mirare, meaning 'to appear, to seem'. This is the same root as for mirror. Like a mirror, a mirage shows images of things which are elsewhere. The principal physical cause of a mirage, however, is refraction rather than reflection. A mirage is not an optical illusion. It is a real phenomenon, and one can take photographs of it. The interpretation of the image, however, is up to the fantasy of the human mind.


Cold air is denser than warm air, and has therefore a greater refractive index. As light passes from colder air to warmer air it bends away from the direction of the temperature gradient (the "normal" in the figure on the left); when it passes from hotter to colder, it bends towards the direction of the gradient. The diagram on the left shows a light ray coming from the sky toward the hot ground. If the air near the ground is warmer than that higher up, the light ray bends in a concave upwards trajectory. Once the ray reaches the viewer’s eye, the eye traces it as the line of sight, which is the line tangent to the path the ray takes at the point it reaches the eye. The result is that an inferior image for the above sky appears on the ground. The viewer may incorrectly interpret this sight as water reflecting the sky. In the case where the air near the ground is cooler than that higher up, the light rays will of course curve downwards, producing a superior image.
The 'rest' state of the Earth's atmosphere is with a vertical gradient of about -1 degree Celsius per 100 metres height. (The value is negative because it gets colder when you go higher.) For an actual mirage to happen, the temperature gradient has to be much greater. According to Minnaert the magnitude of the gradient should be at least 2°C per meter, and the mirage will not get strong until the magnitude reaches 4 or 5°C per meter. These conditions can occur when there is strong heating at ground level, for example when the sun is shining on sand or asphalt.

Inferior mirage

The model given above explains the cause of the inferior mirage, called inferior because the image seen is under the real object. The real object is the (blue) sky or any distant object in that direction, meaning we see a bright bluish patch on the ground in the distance. For exhausted travelers in the desert it appears as a lake of water. On tarmac roads it may seem that water or even oil has been spilled. This is called a desert mirage or highway mirage. Note that both sand and tarmac can become very hot when exposed to the sun, easily being more than 10°C hotter than the air one meter above, enough to cause the mirage.
Light rays coming from a particular distant object all travel through nearly the same air layers and all are bent over about the same amount. Therefore rays coming from the top of the object will come less high than those from the bottom. The image usually is upside down, enhancing the illusion that the sky image seen in the distance is really a water or oil puddle acting as a mirror.
Inferior images are not stable. Hot air rises, and cooler air (being more dense) descends, so the layers will mix, giving rise to turbulence. The image will be distorted accordingly. It may be vibrating; it may be vertically extended (towering) or horizontally extended (stooping). If there are several temperature layers, several mirages may mix together, perhaps causing double images. In any case, mirages are usually not larger than about half a degree high (same apparent size as the sun and moon) and from objects only a few kilometers away.

Highway mirage

A highway mirage (asphalt mirage, hot-road mirage or road mirage) is an inferior mirage seen on roadways almost every day and night. Of course hot-road mirage is much more prominent on the hot sunny days. Warm air is less dense than cool air, and the variation between the hot air at the surface of the road, and the denser cool air above it creates a gradient in the refractive index of the air. Light from the sky at a shallow angle to the road is refracted (bent) by the index gradient, making it appear as if the sky were reflected by the road's surface. The result looks like a pool of water on the road, since water also reflects the sky.

Superior mirage

A superior mirage occurs when the air below the line of sight is colder than that above. This is called a temperature inversion, since it does not represent the normal equilibrium temperature gradient of the atmosphere. Since in this case the light rays are bent down, the image appears above the true object, hence the name superior. They are in general less common than inferior mirages, but when they do occur they tend to be more stable, as cold air has no tendency to move up and warm air no tendency to move down.
Superior mirages are most common in polar regions, especially over large sheets of ice with a uniform low temperature. They also occur at more moderate latitudes, however, although in that case they are weaker and not so smooth. For example a distant shoreline may be made towering, looking higher (and thus perhaps closer) than it is in reality, but because of the turbulences there seem to be dancing spikes, towers and so forth. This type of mirage is also called the Fata Morgana or in Icelandic halgerndingar.
Superior images can be straight up or upside down, depending on the distance of the true object and the temperature gradient. Often the image appears as a distorted mixture of up and down parts.
If the Earth were flat, superior images would not be interesting. Light rays which bent down would soon hit the ground, and only close objects would be affected. Since the Earth is round, if the amount of downward bending is about equal to the curvature of the Earth, light rays can travel large distances, perhaps from beyond the horizon. This was observed for the first time in 1596, when a ship under the command of Willem Barents looking for the Northeast passage got stuck in the ice at Novaya Zemlya and the crew had to endure the polar winter there. They saw their midwinter night ending with the rise of a distorted sun about 2 weeks earlier than expected. It was not until the 20th century that Europeans understood the reason: that the real sun had still been under their horizon, but its light rays followed the curvature of the Earth. This effect is often called a Novaya Zemlya mirage. For every 100 km the light rays can travel parallel to the Earth's surface, the sun will appear 1° higher on the horizon. The inversion layer must have just the right temperature gradient over the whole distance to make this possible.
In the same way ships which are in reality so far away that they should not have been visible above the geometric horizon, may appear on the horizon, or even above the horizon as superior mirages. This may explain some stories about flying ships or coastal cities in the sky, as described by some polar explorers. These are examples of so called Arctic mirages or hillingar in Icelandic.
If the vertical temperature gradient is +11°C per 100 meters (reminder: positive means getting hotter when going up), horizontal light rays will just follow the curvature of the Earth, and the horizon will appear flat. If the gradient is less the rays are not bent enough, and get lost in space. That is the normal situation of a spherical, convex horizon. But if the gradient gets larger, say 18°C per 100 meters, the observer will see the horizon turned upwards, being concave, as if he were standing on the bottom of a saucer.


External links

Additional Images

Superior Mirages

Inferior Mirages

Sunset Mirages


Mirages of Astronomical Objects

mirage in Estonian: Miraaž
mirage in Spanish: Espejismo
mirage in French: Mirage
mirage in Icelandic: Hillingar
mirage in Italian: Miraggio
mirage in Hebrew: מיראז' (תופעה אופטית)
mirage in Lithuanian: Miražas
mirage in Malayalam: മരീചിക
mirage in Japanese: 蜃気楼
mirage in Polish: Miraż
mirage in Portuguese: Miragem
mirage in Russian: Мираж
mirage in Finnish: Kangastus
mirage in Swedish: Hägring
mirage in Turkish: Serap
mirage in Chinese: 海市蜃楼

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

apparition, appearance, bafflement, balk, bamboozlement, befooling, betrayed hope, blasted expectation, blighted hope, blow, bluffing, buffet, calculated deception, circumvention, comedown, conning, cruel disappointment, dash, dashed hope, deceiving, deception, deceptiveness, defeat, defrauding, delusion, delusiveness, disappointment, discomfiture, disillusionment, dissatisfaction, dupery, enmeshment, ensnarement, entanglement, entrapment, failure, fallaciousness, fallacy, fallen countenance, false image, falseness, fata morgana, fiasco, figure, fizzle, flimflam, flimflammery, foiling, fond illusion, fooling, forlorn hope, form, frustration, hallucination, hoodwinking, hope deferred, illusion, image, kidding, letdown, looming, outwitting, overreaching, phantasm, phantom, phasm, phenomenon, presence, putting on, self-deception, setback, shape, snow job, song and dance, sore disappointment, spoofery, spoofing, subterfuge, swindling, tantalization, tease, trickiness, tricking, victimization, vision, willful misconception, wishful thinking
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