Sunday, January 24, 2010

Spectacular Arctic Mirage: Sunset on Denali

Thoreau said “The true harvest of my life is intangible - a little star dust caught, a portion of the rainbow I have clutched”

Yesterday as I crested the hill on my drive into Fairbanks, the setting sun was just disappearing behind Denali, aka Mt. McKinley. I've seen a lot of sunsets, and I've seen Denali many times, but never combined in such a spectacular way. Soon the sun was directly behind the mountain, which now displayed a corona of blazing plumes of blowing snow against the backdrop of a bright orange ribbon of horizon.

What made the experience even more magical is that so many factors had to coincide perfectly to produce such a rare and breathtaking scene: I happened to be there on a clear day, at the perfect time, at the right altitude, at the exact spot, under perfect atmospheric conditions, on a cold Alaskan winter day. Most intriguing, perhaps, is that Denali is about 160 miles from Fairbanks, so that even at the highest point in Fairbanks Denali should only appear as a low hill peaking over the horizon. Instead, due to an arctic mirage effect it loomed as the highest peak on the horizon.

I found a clip on Youtube that shows how the horizon can move and how Denali can sometimes be easily visible. This clip was taken a couple of years ago, about this time of year in Fairbanks, looking SSW. The colors aren't as spectacular and the plumes of snow don't show, but it does a good job of capturing the illusion. Denali is the peak on the right.

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