Why Does the Road Look Wet on Hot Days?

iStock / baona
iStock / baona

Reader Robert wrote in to say, “As I drive across the Panhandle of Texas, I am wondering why the highway looks wet and shiny off in the distance but normal as one gets closer.”

For the same reason that cartoon characters lost in the desert often think they see an oasis: a mirage caused by refraction. 

First, a quick physics lesson. Light moves slower through denser mediums and faster through less dense ones. As it travels through a given medium—say, air—it moves in a straight line. When it passes from one medium to another, though, and there’s a difference in density—say from air to water—the light waves change speed, which causes them to also change direction or refract, and then continue in a straight line on their new path.

An easy way to see refraction in action is to put a straw into a glass half-filled with water. From the top, it looks like the straw is bent or broken. From the side, depending on where in the glass the straw is, it might look like it grows wider below the water line or even detaches from the part above the water line. 

Remember that you see objects because light reflects off of them and then travels to your eye. What’s happening here is light from the straw is reflecting and traveling to your eye through two different mediums—the air and the water. Above the water line, light travels directly from the straw to your eye through the air and doesn’t refract (technically it travels through air into the glass and back into air, but the refraction into and out of the glass causes little enough deviation to not matter). Below the water line, though, the light reflecting off the straw has to travel through the water into glass and then into air. This light changes medium and speed, so it refracts or bends on its way to you. Your eye and brain don’t account for refraction when looking at the straw (stupid brain), and assume the object to be where the light waves appear to originate from along a straight line. The top and bottom parts of the straw are in line with each other, but the light from them comes along two different lines, making the straw look broken after your visual system gets done with it.

What Robert is describing is also the work of refraction. Maybe you were driving around one day and thought you saw a puddle on the pavement a little ways down the road. Once you got to the spot where you thought you saw the water, it was gone. Looking farther down the road, you see another puddle, but that one also disappears as you get closer to it. You can chase the puddles all day, but you’ll never actually find one. 

Light refracts not just when it moves through two different mediums like air and water, but also when it moves through different layers of the same medium that have different densities. As the sun beats down on the blacktop, it heats it up. The road, in turn, heats the air immediately surrounding it, keeping the air just above it warmer and less dense than the air farther up. 

As light from the sky travels downward toward the hot road, it moves through these increasingly warm and less dense layers of air, changing speed and refracting as it moves through each one. It winds up taking a sort of u-shaped path down toward the road, then parallel to it and finally back up into the sky—where it may meet the eye of someone standing up the road. 

When this refracted light reaches you, your brain and eye—like they did with the straw in the water—don’t account for all the bending it did along the way. They trace it back along a straight line and interpret that point as its origin and the location of the object. What you see, then, is a little bit of sky that appears to be sitting on the ground—an inferior mirage where the mirage is under the real object. Even as your brain and eye try to quickly make sense of what you’re seeing, the brain knows that sky on the ground doesn’t make sense, so you often wind up perceiving the mirage as water on the road reflecting the sky. Turbulence of the air also distorts the mirage, strengthening the effect. 

Sand, like highways, is really good at holding onto heat and warming up the air near it, so these types of watery mirages often happen in deserts and can fool people into thinking there’s water nearby.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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Asteroid, Meteor, Meteorite, and Comet: What's the Difference?

A mosaic image of asteroid Bennu
A mosaic image of asteroid Bennu
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

By Sabrina Stierwalt, Ph.D., Quick and Dirty Tips

Adding up all of the mass in every asteroid in our entire solar system totals only less than the mass of our moon. Despite their small physical size, however, these space rocks offer important clues as to how our solar system formed. The terms asteroid, meteor, meteorite, and even comet are often used interchangeably ... but what is the difference?

What is an asteroid?

Asteroids are rocky objects smaller than planets that are left over from the formation of our solar system. When the cloud of gas and dust collapsed to form our sun, much of the remaining material went into forming the rocky terrestrial and gas giant planets orbiting our star. Smaller dust fragments that never made their way into planets are left behind as asteroids.

Of the millions of known asteroids, the largest is Ceres, 584 miles (940 kilometers) wide, although Ceres has been recently reclassified as a dwarf planet. Luckily we do not expect to cross paths with this Texas-sized solar system body any time soon. NASA tracks a subset of asteroids, called "near Earth objects" or NEOs, whose trajectories have been nudged by the gravitational push and pull of nearby planets enough so that they may pass close to Earth.

Thanks to infrared surveys of the sky like NASA’s WISE and NEOWISE missions, we know of roughly 1000 near-Earth asteroids that are larger than 0.6 miles across (or 1000 meters) and 1500 more that are between a third of a mile and 0.6 miles across (from 500 to 1000 meters). Smaller near-Earth asteroids, both known to exist and predicted based on statistical analysis, number in the 18,000s.

Most are not round like planets but rather irregular in shape, sometimes due to repeated impacts over time. They are also known to orbit each other, making their way around the sun in pairs or small groups. They are not large enough to hold onto their own atmospheres and their compositions vary, mostly due to the location where they were formed, in particular how far away they were from the sun when they originated.

Most asteroids reside in the asteroid belt, the space between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, most likely because the gravitational pull of Jupiter prevented them from accumulating into a larger planetary system. Some asteroids are also found in the orbital paths of planets like Earth. Until recently all known asteroids orbited our sun as members of our solar system, but that changed in October 2017 when astronomers discovered the first interstellar visitor just passing through our solar neighborhood. Named 'Oumuamua, which comes from the Hawaiian word for “scout,” the asteroid has an unusual elongated shape (800 by 100 feet in size) and is moving too fast to be captured by our sun’s gravitational pull. That means 'Oumuamua will eventually leave us and continue on its journey through interstellar space.

What is a comet?

Comets are also composed of material left over from the formation of our solar system and formed around the same time as asteroids. However, asteroids formed toward the inner regions of our solar system where temperatures were hotter and thus only rock or metal could remain solid without melting. Comets formed at farther distances from the Sun, beyond what we call the frost or snow line and past the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, where temperatures were low enough for water to freeze.

Comets are thus chunks of frozen gas, rock, ice, and dust that orbit our sun, earning them the nickname of dirty snowballs. They are identified by their tails which consist of trailing jets of gas and dust that has been melted off as a comet approaches too close to the sun.

What is a meteor and a meteorite?

A meteor is simply an asteroid that attempts to land on Earth but is vaporized by the Earth’s atmosphere. The resistance on the rock due to the Earth’s atmosphere causes its temperature to rise. We sometimes see the glowing hot air created by these burning meteors and dub them “shooting stars.” Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes by many meteors at once. For example, if chunks of a comet melt off as it passes close to the sun, this debris can be left behind to later dazzle us Earthlings with a meteor shower.

Meteorites are meteors that survive the dive through the Earth’s atmosphere and manage to land on the surface of our planet. They are typically composed of either iron or stone, i.e. a mix of oxygen, silicon, magnesium, iron, and other elements.

Studying asteroids helps us understand the formation of our solar system and how our planet came to be. We don’t just have to wait for meteorites to find us to know more about their composition, however. The OSIRIS-Rex mission to the asteroid Bennu aims to take samples from the asteroid and bring them back to Earth. You can learn more about why Bennu was chosen for such a special mission on the OSIRIS-Rex mission page.

A version of this article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips as Asteroid, Meteor, Meteorite, and Comet: What's the Difference?
Read more from Quick and Dirty Tips.

About the author

Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a professor of physics at Occidental College.