Thursday, November 17, 2005

Fata Morgana and the Legend of Ultima Thule

Giant ice castles floating in mid-air, vast forests in the midst of ice floes and grotesque hairy dwarfs are among the many wonders to be found in the land of Ultima Thule – that is if you ask any of the 15th century explorers who returned with these fantastic tales.

Ultima Thule is, of course, a mythical land but the stories are real. Thule is located the northernmost region of Greenland and the sailors who witnessed these incredible sights were under the spell of another very real phenomenon, the Fata Morgana, named after the fabled medieval enchantress.

“Ancient mariners were literally spellbound by the landscapes they witnessed when searching for the allusive Northwest Passage, hundreds of kilometres beyond the Arctic Circle,” says Stewart Campbell, “what they didn’t realise was that these visions were actually complex optical illusions created by the unique qualities of the chilled arctic air.”

Even today, the mind-and light-bending effects of the Fata Morgana perplex the most experienced navigators and captains.

“The Fata Morgana mirage only occurs where alternating warm and cold layers of air exist near the ground or water surface, “ explains T. Neil Davis, a seismologist with the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, “Instead of travelling straight through these layers, light is bent towards the colder, hence denser, air. The resultant light path can produce a confusing image of a distant object.”

The exploration of Greenland is, as it was then, a wonderful, bewitching experience. Only today this once hazardous adventure can now be undertaken in the comfort of modern ice-strengthened cruise vessels with state-of-the-art navigation and safety equipment.

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