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.

Lítla Dímun: The Smallest of the Faroe Islands Has Its Very Own Cloud

While some islands are known for their unusual geography or unique history, Lítla Dímun is notable for its weather. The island, which is the smallest of Denmark's Faroe Islands chain, is often capped by a lens-shaped cloud, making it resemble a scene from a fairytale.

According to Mental Floss's own Kerry Wolfe writing for Atlas Obscura, the cloud floating above Lítla Dímun is a lenticular cloud. This type of cloud forms when moist air flows over a protruding geological feature, like a mountain top. When the wind moving up the landmass hits the air current directly above it, a sort of wave is created on the downwind side of the mountain. The moist air falling down this wave evaporates and then condenses into a large, flying-saucer-shaped cloud atop the mountain peak as a result.

Another factor that makes Lítla Dímun distinct is that it's the only one of the 18 main Faroe Islands without human inhabitants. Visitors to the mystical location will instead find a thriving population of sheep. Originally, Lítla Dímun was home to a group of feral sheep likely dating back to the Neolithic era. But they were hunted to extinction in the 19th century. Domesticated sheep were introduced there around the same time, and today, farmers visit the island once a year to round up their flocks.

One of the few signs of human life are the ropes farmers use to scale the cliff faces bordering the island. Even if you have rock-climbing skills, Lítla Dímun may be dangerous to visit. A boat ride to the rocky shore is only possible when the surrounding sea is calm.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

Why Are Sloths So Slow?

Sloths have little problem holding still for nature photographers.
Sloths have little problem holding still for nature photographers.
Geoview/iStock via Getty Images

When it comes to physical activity, few animals have as maligned a reputation as the sloth. The six sloth species, which call Brazil and Panama home, move with no urgency, having seemingly adapted to an existence that allows for a life lived in slow motion. But what makes sloths so sedate? And what horrible, poop-related price must they pay in order to maintain life in the slow lane?

According to HowStuffWorks, the sloth’s limited movements are primarily the result of their diet. Residing mainly in the canopy vines of Central and South American forests, sloths dine out on leaves, fruits, and buds. With virtually no fat or protein, sloths conserve energy by taking a leisurely approach to life. On average, a sloth will climb or travel roughly 125 feet per day. On land, it takes them roughly one minute to move just one foot.

A sloth’s digestive system matches their locomotion. After munching leaves using their lips—they have no incisors—it can take up to a month for their meals to be fully digested. And a sloth's metabolic rate is 40 to 45 percent slower than most mammals' to help compensate for their low caloric intake. With so little fuel to burn, a sloth makes the most of it.

Deliberate movement shouldn’t be confused for weakness, however. Sloths can hang from branches for hours, showing off some impressive stamina. And because they spend most of their time high up in trees, they have no need for rapid movement to evade predators.

There is, however, one major downside to the sloth's leisurely lifestyle. Owing to their meager diet, they typically only have to poop once per week. Like going in a public bathroom, this can be a stressful event, as it means going to the ground and risking detection by predators—which puts their lives on the line. Worse, that slow bowel motility means they’re trying to push out nearly one-third of their body weight in feces at a time. It's something to consider the next time you feel envious of their chill lifestyle.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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