Once again, the mass media is filled with breathless nonsense about a "Ghostly mirage City" allegedly seen from Huanshan City in the eastern part of China over the Xin'an River. The phenomenon went viral starting with this dreadful piece in the London Daily Mail, which proclaims, "Ghostly apparition of entire city appears over Chinese river... but is it just a mirage?" In fact, it's neither, as we will see. This story was accompanied by an equally dreadful video, which has (thankfully) been removed because the user's YouTube account was terminated. Here is a non-sensationalized news report from ITN News:
Now these are obviously actual buildings that are being seen. The details are quite sharp. Mirages are very different. Mirages are not something imaginary or dream-like. They are a perfectly real phenomenon of meteorological optics: the behavior of light in the atmosphere, where temperatures can often vary dramatically, resulting in different indices of refraction, and hence non-straight light paths. Think "fun house mirror." Mirage images are never as detailed as these Chinese images, because the different atmospheric layers are not stable enough to produce details like that, and also mirage images always bring into view something many miles distant, not close-up like this.
My photo of an inferior mirage over Lake Michigan. The ship appears to be hovering above the water.
There are two different kinds of mirages, superior and inferior. The inferior mirage is caused by cooler air overlaying much warmer, creating images that appear lower than they actually are. It is by far the most common. Usually it results in a strip of the sky being bent downward below the horizon. It's often seen on highways on hot days, looking like distant water. The superior mirage is more interesting, and rarer, as objects appear higher than they actually are, resulting in things becoming visible that are normally beyond the curvature of the earth. That Chinese "Ghost City" is neither. Typically with a superior mirage you will see a double horizon: a false horizon, often slanted, is on top, with the actual horizon below it. The region between them represents a mirage image of distant water. The Weather Doctor has a pretty good explanation of mirages. When I was a student at Northwestern University I had a dorm room facing Lake Michigan. The double horizon and the superior mirage was actually a fairly common sight in the springtime, when warmer air would blow in from the south over the still quite frigid Great Lake. At night, images of lights of cities in Indiana and Michigan would occasionally become visible, normally below the horizon.
My photo showing the jagged double-horizon of the superior mirage over Lake Michigan. Between the two horizons is the mirage region, where the outline of an inverted ship can be faintly seen.
Any reporter worthy of the name would have followed through and determined exactly what was being seen: which buildings those were in the video, and their location. Certainly at least some people who live in that area would be able to identify those buildings, and show on a map exactly where each building is. If you are in Huanshan City, and you speak Chinese or have an interpreter, how difficult would it be to interview people and find out exactly which buildings are being seen in the video, where those buildings are located, and solve the "mystery?" Well, the Australian photographer and film producer Auki Henry did exactly that. He says
" the reality was bad Chinese translation combined with hyper-sensationalist reporting. All the buildings in the footage are real buildings, not visions, mirages or illusions, they actually physically stand exactly where they were filmed. The only thing out of the ordinary here is they are surrounded by floodwater and mist."
Mr. Henry has nailed down every significant detail. He gives us a map showing the location of each of the "ghost" buildings. And so far as I can tell he did it without even going to China, or interviewing anyone there! The Xin'an River was at flood stage, and the waters generated fog that obscured the bottom parts of the building, making the tops of the buildings appear to float in air. Wooooo - big mystery!
Why is it that no reporter bothered to do his or her job and get to the bottom of this story? News reporters don't want to get facts, they want to get ratings. And why let mere facts get in the way of a great story?