Flying Ship and the Superior Mirage

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Aka the 'Fata Morgana' fake news


When I saw this stunning photo of a ship "flying in the air" with the Superior Mirage explanation emerging in the medias (the species called "Fata Morgana"), I was shocked: the fact is that we rarely (never) have a mirage without a certain level of distorsion or "glitches" in the resulting image. The refraction surface or conditions are never "perfect".

Thank to Mick West, a user from this misconception has been rapidly 'debunked'. It's worth seeing the video:

But maybe to late? In fact, the propagation of this "fata morgana" fake news is quite impressive! It is not only due to tabloids: the same explanation has been copied/pasted in all the medias, including scientific channels which share a part of the responsibility giving their approbation to this "Fata Morgana" frenzy.

We should be more conscious that our personal beliefs are our daily driver of our actions and interpretations of the reality. As we cannot verify everything every days, these insidious convictions tell us when an information should be True (or False). As a result, we let (naturally) our convictions driving most of our choices. For example: "Scientists people are very serious, so what they say is True". The Milgram experiment is the result of this kind of cognitive conditioning.

Most of people define the reality in this manner, even scientists are subjects to bias ( Scientists acknowledge the information of others scientists, or "well formatted" information (when you respond to the standards of a community you rise your chances to be believed : see how nonsense papers can end up in respected scientific papers: or )

And when most people are saying that something is "True", then it is the whole reality of humans which is redefined. Back to our subject: when a meteorologist ("the man of science") say about this viral photo that it is a "Fata Morgana" it will trigger an uncontrollable propagation of this "fake news".

In fact, who is likely to give a "good" opinion on this type of phenomenon ? Not a meteorologist but much more a specialist of optic and refraction calculation. These specialists are rarer and this is where the Metabunk tool for refraction calculation is wonderful!
This refraction tool let you simulate the visual effects of the atmospheric condition on an object 

Another thing is very annoying in this story: we do not have the original photo (the photo is extremely reduced in size) and meta-datas. Alas, it is often a signature of "fakes" and, in any cases, this makes any further analysis more difficult.

Why all this frenzy? Essentially, because the photo has been extremely zoomed and then "croped" to hide the environment. This is adding to the subjective impression of distance between the ship and the horizon.

So, if it is not a 'Fata Morgana' what is it ?

In fact, my question was to decide between two hypothesis:

  • A photo montage? (a pure fake)
  • Or a false horizon?

In this second case, the horizon is "just" confounded with the sky due to reflection of the sky light. And a way to decide between the two hypothesis was to find / reconstruct the "exact" position of the horizon line.

Luckily ITrailblazer user on found the "good place" and this fit perfectly with two larger versions of the photos initially published by the BBC:

BBC enlarged photography 1
BBC enlarged photography 2

Using these photos in superposition we are able to verify the position of the "real horizon". We are using the line of rocks emerging from the surface on the upper right side of the 1st BBC photo.

Click to zoom in

We superimpose the photo of the BBC in the environment (see below) and Yes! It appears that the real horizon extends beyond the one seen in the original photo. When shown in context, this band of water which reflects the light is really tiny, located very far on the horizon. The published part of the photo is highly zoomed, which enhanced the visual effect.

Click to zoom in

For a larger picture you've the links. I've used an old version of Photoshop so my superposition is hand-made / not perfect: to realize a better adjustment you can use the "warping tool" of one of the last Photoshop versions - but in any cases, you'll have some limitations because the surfaces of the rocks are not flat! The "must" would be to go in the same place to take a photo with a good weather.

Click to zoom in

The line between the sky and the sea is almost visible in the second photo of the BBC as the hue of blue is changing (via the "egalization tool" in Photoshop).

Finally this is the location where these photos has been made: