John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The mirage, complete with a sunspot, appeared in fiery grandeur over the Pacific Ocean.
Seeing this incandescent mushroom cloud over the Pacific, one might think a nuclear sub had accidentally exploded, a shockwave only seconds away from pounding the coast. But in reality it’s the everyday sun, captured in weird glory (along with a nifty Easter egg) by San Francisco resident Mila Zinkova.
The photographer/computer programmer witnessed the seemingly distorted star on Saturday evening near Ocean Beach. She used the video function of a point-and-shoot Canon to record this surreal sunset:
“I like to photograph mirages of the sun and terrestrial objects like distant land and ships,” Zinkova emails. “Once I even photographed a mirage of a setting comet.” If you look closely, you’ll notice something equally fascinating about this footage—the presence of AR2529, a heart-shaped sunspot that recently belched out a tremendous flare that disrupted radio communications on earth.
Over at the always-delightful Spaceweather, atmospheric-optics pro Les Cowley gives the lowdown on the illusion:
“Each sunspot on Mila’s picture is a mini mirage. The California Coast is famous for its temperature inversions. Air cooled by the offshore ocean current lies beneath warm air from inland. Sunset sunlight between the layers bends and splits into three mirage images. Two sun slices descend and one upside-down one rises. Nature is not always so simple though. In the case of Mila’s sunset, there were multiple small inversion layers. Each inversion layer sliced up the sun like the corrugations of a Chinese lantern. If the air were steady enough we might see that some of the heart shaped sunspots were upside down.”