10 Optical Illusions and Phenomena Only Seen In Nature

10 Optical Illusions and Phenomena Only Seen In Nature

From time and time again, mother nature surprises us with her magnificent beauty. At the same time, she also reminds us of the sheer power that we often forget. While humans are known to create optical illusions, the ones you see here are not manmade and you’ll have to explore the outdoors to witness them. From underwater waterfalls, halos and auroras to optical phenomena that will make you do a double take, here are 10 impressive things that only mother nature is capable of.

1. At a certain time of the year, Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall looks like it’s on fire.

optical, illusions, phenomena, mother nature, Earth, planet, facts, science
Image: Katie Rodriguez

The Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the US as well as California’s most-visited. Every year, however, around the second week of February, mother nature creates something breathtaking and it only happens for a short period of time, under the right conditions. Around the second week of February, when the sun sets, the rays from the sun hits the Horsetail Fall at such an angle that it illuminates the waterfall. If the waterfall is flowing steadily, and the weather conditions are perfect, the illuminated water glows bright orange and red, as if it’s on fire. (source)

2. The Rakotzbrücke bridge in Kromlau, Germany, creates a perfect circle when reflected in the river below.

Rakotzbrücke bridge, Kromlau, Germany, facts, optical, illusion, nature, Earth
Image: Manny Pantoja

The Rakotzbrücke bridge was commissioned in 1860, by the knight of the local town and was built using locally available stones. The bridge is tucked away inside a small park and was built entirely by hand. It was also purposely built as half a circle so that when the conditions are right and the water is clear, the bridge creates a perfect circle. Although it was built more than a century ago, the bridge is still standing strong. However, crossing the aging relic is prohibited by the park authorities, as a measure to protect it. (source)

3. This might look like an artist’s rendition or a surreal piece of art but it is in fact a photo of Deadvlei in Namibia.

Deadvlei, Namibia, facts, desert, life, photography, nature, optical
Image: Marcelo Novais

Close to Sossusvlei, Deadvlei is a clay pan filled with camel thorn trees, contrasted against the white pan floor and tall dune in the background. The pan was created when the Tsauchab River flooded, which allowed the camel thorn trees to flourish. However, as the water dried out, the trees stopped growing and shed their leaves. They now remain as a reminder of what was once a place filled with life. For photographers, the place is a paradise, since the contrast between the pitch-black trees, the bleached-white pans, the rusty-red dunes and deep blue sky create surreal images. (source)

4. This is not a lens flare from a camera. It is an optical phenomenon called sundogs or parahelia, that is created when sunlight is refracted by ice crystals drifting in the air.

sundogs, halo, reflection, nature, optical, illusion, facts, science
Image: Wikimedia

Sundogs are basically patches of light that appear beside the sun. Scientifically, they are called parhelion or parahelia, meaning “beside the sun”. While the exact origin of the name is unknown, it is believed that they are called sundogs because they follow the sun like a dog follows its master. For decades, the reason behind the unusual light formation was unknown but today, scientists know that the phenomenon is caused by suspending ice crystals in the atmosphere. When the suns rays reflect on hexagonal ice crystals in the clouds during cold weather, the light is refracted horizontally; thus creating sundogs. (source)

5. At sea, objects can sometimes appear as if they are floating above the horizon. This eerie optical phenomena is known as Fata Morgana.

Fata Morgana, reflection, sea, horizon, facts, nature, optical, illusion, science
Image: Wikimedia

Fata Morgana is a complex type of mirage that occurs when air of different temperatures distort the light waves. The superior mirage is an optical phenomenon that occurs when light bends as it passes through a layer of air that is warmer than the layer below it. The sun heats up the atmosphere above the ocean but the air near the ocean stays relatively cool. Since light doesn’t travel in a straight line and hits the boundary between the warm and cold air patches, it bends, creating a mirage effect. Our brains however, interpret the light as if it is coming from a straight path, thus creating the fata morgana mirage. (source)

6. A giant shadowy figure appearing in clouds or fog below you is caused by an optical phenomenon called brocken spectre.

Brocken sceptre, mirage, clouds, shadow, facts, life, people, nature, optical
Image: Walter Baxter

Also called “mountain spectre”, the optical phenomenon occurs when your magnified shadow is cast on clouds or fog beneath you. When an observer is standing on higher ground and there are clouds or thick mist beneath the person, the sun’s rays can be blocked by the observer and their shadow can be cast on the clouds. If there are water droplets suspended in the atmosphere, then the shadow will be surrounded by a small rainbow-colored ring. Only the observer can see the ring since the light is scattered back to them. (source)

7. While the sky looks like there are waves from the oceans, they are actually undulatus asperatus clouds.

undulatus asperatus, clouds, waves, nature, optical illusions, facts, photography
Image: Rod Waddington

The “undulatus asperatus” clouds are fairly new to meteorologists. For decades, the clouds have been creating unusual formations, which closely resemble waves from the oceans. Though these clouds are eerie looking, they are typically formed when rising air forms to create a widespread cloud cover. The wind turbulence then makes it look like the clouds are mimicking the waves. (source)

8. The jellyfish-like light floating in the atmosphere is call “red sprites”.

red sprite, clouds, thunderstorm, facts, nature, optical illusion, science

Red sprites occur mainly during storms and can be seen above them. Like lightning, red sprites are caused by electrical discharges from storms, and are usually produced by enormous summer thunderstorms. According to Live Science, “Storms cause charges to get pushed around, and you get a charge imbalance. That imbalance causes lightning and it also causes the sprites in the upper atmosphere”. However, unlike lightning, they have shorter durations and are also extremely rare. According to scientists, they can last a mere 20 milliseconds but the exact reason as to how they are formed, still remains a mystery. (source)

9. This “underwater waterfall” is actually an optical illusion created when sand gets pushed off an underwater shelf called the Mascarene Plateau.

underwater waterfall, Mauritius, facts, illusion, optical, phenomenon, science
Image: Xavier Coiffic

While underwater waterfalls do exist in real-life, off the coast of Mauritius lies an optical phenomenon that is truly mesmerizing. Hundreds of thousands of people flock to witness a one of a kind illusion, which makes it look like the ocean has a waterfall within itself. However, the illusion is created by directional erosion, as well as sand falling into a crevasse, which gives it a 3D effect. (source)

10. During the rainy season, the salt flat in Bolivia transforms into a giant reflective surface, which is often called the border between heaven and Earth.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, salt flats, facts, optical, illusion
Image: Pierre Ricadat

During the rainy season, a thin layer of water covers the surface of the salt flat in Bolivia. Stretching more than 4,050 square miles, the slat flat is perfectly flat, which makes it look like the stretch of land is endless. The water also reflects the sky above, turning  Salar de Uyuni into a reflective mirror. Every year, the world’s largest salt flat is visited by thousands of people from all over the world, to create illusions by playing around with depth and perspective. (source)

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