Never Never Land

Never Never Land

Almost everyone who has driven on desert highways during hot days has stared in occasional disbelief at the road ahead, for the driver seems to be heading straight into a body of water on the highway. The apparent waterhole can be any size, from a puddle, pool, or pond to a lake. But when the driver approaches the water, it appears to retreat ahead of the vehicle or to dissipate when the car reaches the liquid zone. Hikers in the open desert often witness similar illusions. On a distant flatland it is not uncommon to see a large shimmering body of water. The lake will appear to change in its outline as the observer changes direction and will often simply vanish, leaving the desert sands for all to see. All of these watery sightings are mirages!

In Cochise County, Arizona, a ten—mile lake lies alongside a railway. During the winter water fills the lakebed, but under the summer sun it is bone dry. In those hot months the light from the sky is refracted by the air above the sun—baked lakebed and gives the illusion of abundant water. A pilot who remembered having seen the lake in winter tried to land a seaplane on it during a hot August day. As he began his landing approach, the phantom water suddenly disappeared. The plane disintegrated as the pilot tried to crash—land, and he died shortly from his injuries.

Mirages are illusions created when light passes through adjacent layers of air of different temperatures and densities. The light is bent, creating deceptive images reflected from the sky or sea. Because mirages are so common in the deserts of the world, many people believe such illusions occur only in the hot, arid deserts. One of the most spectacular mirages ever recorded was sighted in the heart of the frigid Arctic and was witnessed by a number of explorers.

In 1818 British explorers John and James Ross were searching the Arctic seas for a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They gave up when they found the way blocked by mountains and reported, upon their return to England, that a Northwest Passage did not exist. Almost a hundred years later American polar explorer Robert Peary confirmed the existence of an unmapped Arctic mountain range. "We saw the mountains and called them Crocker Land," he announced.

Throughout the years that followed, the mountains aroused world—wide curiosity. What treasures did these mountains contain? Did unknown tribes of people live there? In 1913 the American Museum of Natural History mounted an expedition in search of Peary's Crocker Land Far into the icy Arctic Ocean the expedition ship sailed. But where Peary said the mountains were located the explorers found only icy wasteland. Undoubtedly a miscalculation, they surmised, and the search continued. Eventually the explorers did find Peary's Crocker Land, but to their astonishment it was nearly 200 miles west of where it had been presumed to be, but looked exactly as he said it would.

Sailing as close as possible, they dropped anchor, and a select crew of men set out on foot over the ice. As they approached the mountain range, it receded. When the men stood still, so did the mountains, always beckoning to them. In the polar sunlight they could see dark valleys promising great mineral wealth. The men redoubled their efforts and approached a valley enclosed by several high mountains. They felt sure of success, but by now the Arctic sun had begun to sink below the horizon. The men stood dumbfounded , watching the mountains dissolve with the setting sun as if by magic. A layer of warm air far above the frigid water had cast an image high above the sea. They were all standing on a vast, flat expanse of ice. As far as the eye could, see, there was nothing but ice in all directions — Peary's Crocker Land was a mirage! It is not recorded how long the men just stood there staring and not saying a word to each other.

Nature's trickery with mirages hasn't always been so inhumane. The illusion created by one particular mirage resulted in a merciful incident during the First World War. One day a British officer ordered an artillery barrage on a Turkish position. Before the order could be carried out, an illusory landscape suddenly appeared before the eyes of the artillery men. It became necessary for the officer to rescind the order; the mirage had completely masked the enemy's location.

The illusions created by the mirages include an amazing array of distorted views, from the imaginary mountains of Crocker land to the refreshing puddles of no water on desert highways to the delightfully entertaining vision of two Eiffel Towers, one balanced neatly on top of the other, upside down!

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth