You’ve probably seen movies or cartoons about characters stranded in the desert. With the sun scorching the sand with incredible heat, they trudge along in search of water. Thirst becomes overwhelming. Sweat soaks their clothes.

Then…up ahead…someone spots something on the horizon. Could it be? Yes! It appears to be…water! A cool, blue oasis in the middle of the desert! Hope!

They push on, but they never seem to get any closer to the oasis. It remains out there on the horizon, hovering just out of reach. How can this be? Then someone realizes what’s going on: it’s a mirage!

Although they may be a prominent feature of cartoons, mirages are real. They’re caused by light refraction, which is a fancy scientific term that means the bending of rays of light. Mirages are common in hot areas. When you’re driving along a blacktop highway in high heat, it’s very common to look into the distance and see something that looks like water near the horizon.

Mirages happen when there’s a quick change in the density of air in the atmosphere. This occurs when the air in one area is much hotter than the air around it. For example, a hot asphalt highway surface will heat the air just above it to a much higher temperature than the other air in the area.

As light rays pass from the cooler air to the hotter air, they bend and create mirages. The light bouncing toward your eyes at different angles makes it seem like you’re seeing a mirror image of what’s ahead. Your brain interprets this as a reflection caused by a pool of water.

Of course, all you need for a mirage is a difference in air density caused by a difference in air temperature. Although mirages are often associated with high heat, such as in the desert, they can also occur in icy areas or over cold water.

In these situations, the mirages usually make things appear higher than they really are. For example, a boat might appear taller than it is or a body of land might appear to be floating in the air.

In polar regions, you may from time to time be able to see very special, quickly-changing mirages called Fata Morgana. These complex mirages appear often above mountain ranges and can include a variety of stretched and compressed images that look like they’re stacked on top of each other.

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    • Hi there, Wonder Friend Jasmine! We are sorry to hear that we confused you, but we’re happy to know that you learned something new! We’d love to hear from you, especially if you found certain parts of the Wonder confusing– you can send us an email with that information ([email protected])! We’d love to hear from you!

      Thanks for being a great Wonder Friend– we are happy to know that you liked WONDERing about mirages today! :)

  1. When I first loked at the picture I thought it was water, but then someone told me it was not… that’s what kept me wanting to read it. “What Is a Mirage?”

    • How great, Austyn! We are so glad you have been WONDERing about mirages– and now you can read even more about them! We Wonder if you have ever experienced a mirage in the distance? :)

  2. Dear Wonderopolis,

    We think that mirages are cool now that we know what they are. We think tomorrow’s wonder will be about monsters in the closet.

    Thank you for the wonders,
    Mrs. Tillman’s 4th class.

    • WOW, we are SUPER excited to Wonder about mirages with our Wonder Friends in 4th grade today! We Wonder if any of you have ever experienced a mirage, or have seen one in the movies or on TV? We think it’s interesting to learn about our eyes and how they see light, heat and water in different ways!

      Thanks for sharing your guess for tomorrow’s Wonder… we’re excited to celebrate Halloween with you! :)

  3. We like the camels in the clip.

    We think tomorrow’s wonder will be about a tent, lala loopse, a dog, a cat, a spider, a snake, or halloween pumpkins.

    • Thanks for sharing your favorite part of today’s Wonder! We are glad our Wonder Friends from Ms. Bayko’s class are here– we are excited to find out what tomorrow’s Wonder will be. We think you have some EXCELLENT guesses… just in time for Halloween! :)

  4. Good morning Wonderopolis!! I loved today’s wonder! I have always been fascinated by mirages, and I really like the video, too! Thanks!
    =Bryleigh= :D

    • Good morning, Wonder Friend Bryleigh! We share your excitement about today’s Wonder– we think “fascinating” is a great word to describe a mirage. Now you have learned something new about this very cool Wonder! WAY TO GO! :)

  5. Dear Wonderopolis,

    We think tomorrow’s wonder might be about monsters in the closet, spies that are lurking, or a game of hide-and-seek.

    Thank you for the wonders,
    Mrs. Witkowski’s 4th graders

    • Hello fellow Wonder Friends in 4th grade! We are excited to read all your SUPER guesses for tomorrow’s Wonder… we can’t wait to find out what secrets are hiding from us! Are you as excited as we are to celebrate Halloween tomorrow?! YIPPEE for great Wonder Friends like YOU! :)

  6. It was very strange but I learned a lot. I enjoyed it a lot and found out about what the heat can do in warm countries.

    Peace out,
    Oliver

    • We LOVE learning new and cool things with great Wonder Friends like you, Oliver N! We Wonder if you have ever seen a mirage in real life, or perhaps on TV? :)

  7. I have been so excited over sharing these wonders with my Kinder class. It helps bring to life what I talk about. Thank you for putting this site together for those of us that work with a very limited budget.
    Mrs. C’s Kinder class in Texas

    • That’s such great news, Linda C! We’re oh-so-excited that you and your Wonder students are visiting with us today! Thank you for making Wonderopolis a fun and exciting place to be creative and encourage curiosity, and for bringing us into your classroom! Have a WONDERful Tuesday, Wonder Friends in Mrs. C’s Kinder class! :)

    • What a SUPER guess, Alliyah! We can’t wait to find out what tomorrow’s Wonder will be… but we know for sure we will be celebrating Halloween at Wonderopolis! YIPPEE! We’ll see you tomorrow, Wonder Friend! :)

    • We’re excited to find out what tomorrow’s Wonder will be, too, Billy Bob! Thanks for WONDERing with us today, too! :)

    • Hi there, Heidinet! We’re so glad you’re WONDERing with us today! We hope you checked out the Wonder about mirages– did you see a mirage in the video? Often, mirages are portrayed as figments of the imagination, but they are in fact real! We learned about the heat in the distance can cause our eyes to “see” a foggy vision of water. We’re glad that you’ve learned something new at Wonderopolis today! :)

    • Hey there, Cascade! We Wonder if you enjoy listening to music while reading, or if you find it be be distracting? We enjoy listening to classical music from time to time while we are WONDERing… but it all depends on the person! We are glad you shared your comment with us today! Have a SUPER day! :)

    • Great point, Dan! Sometimes a mirage is depicted as something the traveler wants, or something he or she is craving! In cartoons or other shows, someone with a sweet tooth may see a vision of ice cream, or someone who is tired and wants to rest may see a hotel in the distance. Usually, water is what shows up as a mirage. We learned this has to do with the heat and our vision– but we don’t think that ice cream mirages have happened in real life. :)
      Keep up the great WONDERing! :)

    • That’s quite interesting, Cascade! We Wonder if you would be able to read better if you tried listening to music without words, or took a break from music while you read? We think it could be a WONDERful experiment! :)

    • Wow, that’s pretty cool, Lindsey! We bet the heat in Texas presents many mirages! We hope you’ll visit us soon for lots of WONDERing to come! :)

    • Thanks for telling us about our mirage Wonder, Austin! Sometimes a mirage is just that– a figment of your imagination! They can occur when there’s a quick change in the air, and it has to do with air temperature and density. We Wonder if you can think of a time when you saw something that didn’t really exist? :)

  8. Thanks for recommending this Wonder to us! We commented about lots of water stuff yesterday! Michael thought it was going to be an illusion. Thanks again!

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Have you ever wondered…

  • What is a mirage?
  • How are mirages caused?
  • What is a Fata Morgana?

Wonder Gallery

MirageVimeo Video

Try It Out

You’ve been wandering in the desert for hours. You’re tired. You’re thirsty. But what’s that? Out there. On the horizon. Is it? Could it be?

What would the perfect mirage look like to you in this situation? Would it be an oasis with a cool pool of water under palm trees? Or would it be a pizza place with a soda fountain?

Use your imagination and paint a word picture of the perfect desert oasis. It doesn’t have to be realistic. The sky’s the limit! Your oasis can be as real as the desert sand or as fake as a mirage.

Feel free to share your thoughts on the perfect oasis with your Wonder Friends on Facebook. We can’t wait to “see” what your oasis looks like!

Still Wondering

Listen to Science NetLinks’ Polarized Mirages Update to learn why polarized light from shiny surfaces looks like water to insects.

Wonder What’s Next?

Tomorrow’s Wonder of the Day takes a look at what’s lurking in the Wonderopolis closet!

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