Spooky Australian Salt Lake Wishes You a Happy Halloween

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Oct. 28 2013 10:30 AM

Spooky Australian Salt Lake Wishes You a Happy Halloween

I find it very funny that our brains love to take semirandom patterns and see them as faces or other familiar figures. And since this week is Halloween, I want to show you some of the spookier examples I’ve seen of this psychological phenomenon, which is called pareidolia.

First up this week is a ghostly salt lake in western Australia, in a shot taken by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station:

boo!
A ghostly salt lake in Australia, seen from space.

Photo by NASA

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Boo! I like how it looks like a ghost, eyes wide, mouth open, and arms raised, perhaps chasing a hapless victim to the right. The lake itself is clearly very salty; the shallow water silvery and white salt deposits shining in the sunlight.

And while this is clearly a spirited lake (haha! Ha!) it’s also something of a mystery: I don’t where or which one it is. I found it posted on the Google Plus feed for Fragile Oasis, a website curated by astronauts who want to raise awareness about our lovely and delicate planet. The caption merely says it’s located in Australia’s Gibson Desert, and it was taken on Oct. 7. The ISS path does take it over Australia on that day, but it flew over several times, and different regions are visible during each pass. I spent more time than I care to admit scanning that desert in Google maps looking for the lake, and I have a pretty good eye for pattern recognition (partly due to years spent going over Hubble images). Still, no joy.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

It doesn’t help that the desert is more than 100,000 square kilometers, there’s no guarantee the photo has north up, there’s no scale bar, and that part of Australia is dotted with perhaps thousands of lakes, both salty and dry. In fact, many of them look like ghosts, which was delightful, but seriously not helpful. To be honest, I can’t even be sure this is in the Gibson desert; much of Western Australia has similar terrain, so the caption might be off.

If you happen to recognize this lake, or see it on an online map, let me know! If and when someone IDs it, I’ll update this post. Thanks! (We have a winner! See below.)

And, of course: Happy Halloween.

UPDATE, Oct. 28, 2013, at 16:00 UTC: Well, that didn't take long! BABloggee Andrew Burns identified our dearly departed briny ponds as Lakes Hazlett (left) and Wills (right). They're about 25 kilometers top-to-bottom each. (In the above picture, north is to the right). The two lakes are located just west of the border between Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Good eye, Andrew, and thanks!

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