Gives new meaning to the term ‘airships’

We know that mirages occur in the desert or on highway and many of us have seen them ourselves. But I had never seen the effect reported in this article where a ship seems to float above the sea.

When the Cornwall illusion occurred, the BBC meteorologist David Braine said it was common in the Arctic but can appear “very rarely” in the UK during winter.

It is caused by a meteorological phenomenon called a temperature inversion. Normally, the air temperature drops with increasing altitude, making mountaintops colder than the foothills. But in a temperature inversion, warm air sits on top of a band of colder air, playing havoc with our visual perception. Both the Cornwall and Bournemouth instances were caused by chilly air lying over the relatively cold sea, with warmer air above.

Here is the explanation.

It is pretty cool. I would love to see one for myself.


  1. robert79 says

    I don’t buy it…

    By this explanation, the image of the water just below the ship should also be refracted upwards. Where does the discontinuity *just* at the water line come from?

    My guess is someone has been playing with photoshop.

  2. robert79 says

    Also, with most mirages that I *am* familiar with (usually sunsets) you get some pretty big distortions of the shape.

  3. Bruce says

    This is not due to photoshop. This is a true optical illusion.
    Note that the image does NOT break cleanly at the waterline.
    In fact, a bit of the bow wave turbulence caused by the ship is visible in the floating image. This shows the image is not a ship floating in air, and is not the easiest way to do an amateur photoshop. Of course, nothing about an image can ever definitively prove it was not photoshopped. But this image fits theoretical predictions, fits other cases of standard temperature inversions, and was also seen a couple of weeks later at the same place with a different ship. Those who reject this image have no basis ever to believe any photograph.

  4. Who Cares says

    I think it is a different illusion then the one used to explain what we are seeing.
    There is a cloud covering the water closer to the photographer (making that part of the sea darker) combined with veil type clouds behind the boat obscuring where the horizon is.

  5. ardipithecus says

    When I lived in Port Hardy on the north end of Vancouver Island, this phenomenon was common on sunny days. It never occurred to me that it was anything remarkable until these past few weeks with people posting photos of it.

  6. blf says

    Superior mirages are apparently quite common in colder regions (e.g., Arctic), which I presume includes the Vancouver area. They less common in somewhat warmer areas, such as the English channel, and I’ve never seen one here on the Mediterranean coast (and don’t really ever expect to, albeit it would be, as Mano says, somewhat ironically, quite cool).

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