Popular Culture

Floating City Above China Is Actually Just A Cool Optical Illusion


A strange phenomenon has been witnessed by thousands in China over the past few weeks: a seemingly floating city in the clouds above the cities of Jiangxi and Foshan in China. So many people witnessed the sight that the Chinese news outlets picked up the story, leading to the striking footage above to go viral. The video seems to show a shadowy city above the clouds.

In fact, it’s sort of beautiful.

When people first saw the sight, with no other explanation, conspiracy theories abounded. Some think it’s evidence of a project called “Project Blue Beam,” a government plot to establish a new world order “with the antichrist at its head.” Other people thought, more simply, that it’s a glitch in the matrix.

Well, it turns out that neither of those explanations are true (we know you were worried there for a second). It’s just a good ol’ fashioned mirage.

The type of mirage is called Fata Morgana, a rare type of optical illusion that occurs when specific weather conditions bend light rays. When the sun heats up a layer of atmosphere but the layer below it remains cool, different layers of the atmosphere are different temperatures, creating a kind of gradient. This also means that each layer is a different density.

So when light hits the boundary between two layers with different temperatures and densities, the light is refracted and enters the next layer at a different angle, sort of why a straw tends to look all wonky when you see it through your glass of water.

But the optical illusion occurs because our eyes can’t really see the exact way the light is getting refracted, so our brain simplifies the sight and makes us think the light traveled in a straight path. So we see objects as if the light had run straight.

Confused yet? Apparently, so were people throughout the centuries. IFL Science reports that this phenomenon is far from new, and that people have been seeing floating stuff in the sky for a long time. Named after Morgan le Fay, an enchantress in Arthurian legend, the Fata Morgana mirage is believed to be the explanation behind the story of the Flying Dutchman, and sailors’ stories of floating castles that led men to grisly deaths.

Is this why we build castles in the sky?

Lisa Lo Paro
Lisa is a freelance writer and bibliophile living on the outskirts of New York City. She likes 2 a.m. with a good book, takes cream in her coffee and heavily filters her photos. Check out her blog The Most Happy, her Instagram, and Twitter.

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