The Novaya Zemlya Effect

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The Novaya Zemlya Effect is a curious optical phenomenon named after an archipelago located north of Russia, in the Arctic Ocean. It was here in January 1597 this phenomenon was first observed and documented by the crew of a ship lead by the Dutch navigator Willem Barents, who was on his third expedition to the Arctic in search for the elusive Northeast passage connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific ocean. Unfortunately, Barents’ ship got no farther than this island when it got stuck in ice, forcing the crew to overwinter on the island. On November 3 they saw the sun for the last time as it set below the horizon. They didn’t expect to see the sun again until February 8.

But on January 24, 1597, three of the crew caught a glimpse of the sun a good two weeks before its predicted return. Captain Barents did not believe them since he knew that the sun was well below the horizon. Three days later, the sun made another appearance, and Barents himself witnessed it along with many crew members. Once the explorers returned to the Netherlands, Gerrit de Veer, one of the crew, published an account of their observation. Barents, unfortunately, had died during the return journey.


Photo credit: Mila Zinkova

News of the Novaya Zemlya Effect spread throughout the scientific community. Almost everywhere it was met with disbelief and skepticism. Many scientists dismissed the observation, attributing it to an error in date-keeping, and the incident was largely forgotten. Only Kepler accepted the possibility of such sightings and even made a surprisingly good attempt at scientific explanation.

Nearly 300 years later, in 1894, Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen made another observation of the fabled Novaya Zemlya Effect during his North Pole expedition. He described this in his book 'Farthest North':

The mirage was at first like a flattened-out glowing red streak of fire on the horizon; later there were two streaks, one above the other, with a dark space between; and from the main-top I could see four, or even five such horizontal lines directly over one another, and all of equal length; as if one could only imagine a square dull-red sun with horizontal dark streaks across it. An astronomical observation we took in the afternoon showed that the sun must in reality have been 2° 22' below the horizon at noon; we cannot expect to see its disk above the ice before Tuesday at the earliest; it depends on the refraction, which is very strong in this cold air.

The Novaya Zemlya Effect was observed again, this time by the famous Ernest Shackleton, during his last expedition to Antarctica in 1914-17. Shackleton saw the sun seven days after it had set below the horizon, and then again two months later, five days before it was scheduled to return. But it wasn’t until 1956, five years after yet another observation of the effect from Antarctica, that it was demonstrated that the Novaya Zemlya Effect is indeed genuine.

The Novaya Zemlya Effect. Video credit: Mila Zinkova

So what exactly is the Novaya Zemlya Effect? As explained by Wikipedia, “the Novaya Zemlya effect will give the impression that the sun is rising earlier than it actually should (astronomically speaking), and depending on the meteorological situation, the effect will present the sun as a line or a square (which is sometimes referred to as the "rectangular sun"), made up of flattened hourglass shapes.”

The Novaya Zemlya Effect occurs when the conditions that require a mirage to occur are inverted. A mirage occurs when air near the ground gets heated, while the Novaya Zemlya Effect occurs when air above the ice surface gets cooled so that a strong temperature inversion layer is formed. Rays of sunlight enters the colder layer and gets channeled around the curvature of the earth by total internal reflection for distance up to few hundred kilometers. The effect can only be observed near the poles where conditions are frigid, but occasional sightings have been made as far away as the Californian coast where strong inversions result from the combination of cold offshore sea currents and warm air from the land. Even in such warm locations the sun can be visible for several minutes after it had set.

Bonus Fact: The island of Novaya Zemlya is known for another reason — as the site for the most power nuclear weapon ever detonated, the 50 Megaton Tsar bomb.


Image credit: W. H. Lehn


A complex mock mirage sunset sequence photographed in mid January (2009) from near San Francisco, California. Photo credit: Mila Zinkova


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Photo credit: Mila Zinkova


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Superior mirage and Green flash in San Francisco. Photo credit: Broken Inglori/Wikimedia

Sources: Wikipedia / Atmospheric Optics / W.H.Lehn (1978) / Waldemar Lehn (2011)

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