Mirage in the mountains: Look as inversion plays tricks on photographer

Cascades appear distorted in mirage photos taken by Lia Simcox

There was something strange about the look of the Cascades last week, almost if there were "cliffs" of snow on the peaks.

Instead, it was all a mirage, caused by the recent temperature inversions.

Lia Simcox snapped these unusual photos while up at 6,400 feet over the weekend.

We've seen these mirages around here fairly often before -- my blog has highlighted the occasional mirages of Whidbey Island as seen from the cameras. Those are created by the cool Puget Sound waters which chills the air just above the water's surface. Meanwhile, you still have warmer air above that. Difference in air temperature will affect the density of the air, and when light will bend a bit when it passes through air of changing density.

But what about in the mountains? No water there?

In this case, it was a "pool" of cooler air instead (you can see the faint fog layer where the air was cool enough to saturate). With high pressure aloft, we had a temperature inversion where warm air sat on top of a colder air mass closer to the ground.

To Lia, hiking at 6,400 feet, she was sitting just above the boundary of the inversion (the weather balloon launch that afternoon suggested the inversion border was around 5,500-5,800 feet.)

So the cold air pool acted similarly to the cold pool of water we see along Puget Sound. The change in air density between the cool lower layers and the warmer air above bent the incoming light to give this mirage effect!

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