The (UK) Independent noted this week that "extraordinary cloud formations ... appear to have created an apparition of a floating city. Footage of the phenomenon appears to show towerblock-like formations over the city of Foshan in the Guandong province of China, apparently bringing many people to a standstill in the street. It reportedly lasted only a few minutes before disappearing."
This is not the first time that a "cloud city" has appeared, and there are perfectly natural meteorological mechanisms that can create such an illusion. Under certain conditions clouds can isolate and obscure the foreground of an area so that a tall object (a mountain or buildings, for example) can appear to be floating in clouds.
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Because the base or foundation -- the part we are most familiar with since they're at normal eye level -- is hidden from view, the "floating" object may seem deceptively high above the horizon. Such images won't appear high in the sky, of course, but they don't need to in order to seem mysterious.
Robert Sheaffer, a longtime skeptical UFO researcher, told Discovery News that "in 2011 the reports of a 'floating city' reportedly seen at Huangshan City, China, were simply sensationalized reports of a very ordinary phenomenon. The river Xin'an was at flood stage, and mists arising from the river made buildings seen downriver appear to be floating above the mist. It was a simple optical illusion, nothing more." Sheaffer discussed that incident in his Bad UFOs Blog.
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Some have suggested that the Foshan image is of an optical illusion called a fata morgana, which can make distant objects appear to float in air -- but only near the horizon, not high in the sky as seen in the photo. The image, however, doesn't seem to be a meteorological optical illusion but instead a computer-generated one.
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While many have suggested a short video of the event is legitimate, others immediately called shenanigans. In the discussion over whether the image is real, a curious, twisted-logic middle ground emerged: The sky city is not real, but neither is the photo faked.
The "Inquistr" noted:
"Conspiracy theorists believe ... the floating cities could be apparitions resulting from tests of the latest Project Blue Beam technology to see how residents of cities would react. Project Blue Beam is a popular conspiracy theory that claims that NASA will soon attempt to inaugurate the Illuminati-sponsored Satanic New World Order (NWO) agenda under the authority of the Antichrist by using holographic image projection technology to simulate the second coming of Christ, or a space alien invasion of Earth."
If the conspiracy theorists are right, the Chinese government knows exactly how thousands of Foshan residents will react to the startling image of a huge city in the clouds: All but one of them will completely ignore it.
The fact that there appears to be only a single, short video of the amazing minutes-long sight -- which would have been witnessed by hundreds or thousands of people -- is strong evidence of a hoax. Surely such an amazing and startling image would have been captured in photos and videos by dozens of other witnesses, but none have emerged. Of course if the image were created on one person's computer, then it would only appear in videos released by that person.
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Sheaffer agrees with the hoax explanation, noting that the new video is "being promoted by low-credibility sources, claiming that the ‘floating city' was seen again, this time well up in the sky, not just above the horizon. The video appears to be a composite of two separate images, where a city in the clouds was added to an ordinary scene on the ground. The idea that it depicts a mirage shows that the so-called experts have no idea what a mirage actually looks like, or how it is formed."
On his website, Metabunk researcher Mick West provides a detailed photographic analysis and explanation of how the image might have been composited. Faked photos have become routine on social media, with dubious images of something weird or mysterious circulating every few weeks. Last week it was a faked photo and video of the Jersey Devil, a few months earlier it was a faked image of a Lizard Man, and so on.
It's easy to lament or overestimate the public's gullibility in spreading these hoaxes, but of course sharing a weird image on social media isn't the same as endorsing it as authentic; most people share them as something funny or silly to comment on, along with cat photos and silly memes. While a few have taken the photo seriously, most people know that floating sky cities are found only in fiction.