Spectacular Natural Phenomena Around the World
You know about rainbows. But what about moonbows? Or fire rainbows? Did you know there are stones that move without anyone's assistance? Or that crop circles have been discovered at the bottom of the sea?
Around the world, extraordinary natural phenomena prove just how dynamic and spectacular our planet is.
From flammable ice bubbles to volcanic lightning, here are 20 of the most extraordinary natural phenomena on Earth that you’ll have to see to believe.
If you thought you could only see a rainbow during the daytime, think again. Though rare, moonbows are entirely possible and work the same way as rainbows: Light shining through water droplets form a prism, bending the light to split it into different colors.
Moonbows aren’t as vibrant as daytime rainbows, due to the sun being 400,000 times brighter than a full moon, and we often discern them as white, the combination of all of light’s visible colors. But on rare occasions, it’s possible to see a moonbow in all its multi-hued glory.
Your best chances of seeing a moonbow are in places where there are steady streams of water, like Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada and New York; Yosemite National Park in California; and Victoria Falls, pictured here, in Zambia.
First things first: Fire rainbows are not as scary as they sound and do not actually involve fire.
Technically, they’re not rainbows at all, but what happens when (bear with us here) there is an ice halo formed by flat ice crystals in high-level cirrus clouds, occurring only when the elevation of the light source is more than 58 degrees. “When optimally aligned, the ice crystals act as a prism, and the resulting refraction is reminiscent of a rainbow,” the University of California Santa Barbara’s Geology department reports.
It’s all rather confusing. Happily, you don’t have to understand it to know that it’s extremely cool.
These tall, narrow beams of light appear to extend from the ground to the sky and can come in several different colors. They are extremely rare and typically found close to the Arctic, though when temperatures are cold enough, they can be seen as far south as Ohio.
Though they look like something from an alien invasion, light pillars actually have a very scientific explanation. As National Geographic explains, they are actually an optical illusion, formed when light from street lamps hit millions of flat ice crystals as they get closer to the ground.
Clouds can take on virtually any color, but are usually white or shades of gray, depending on the weather. Nacreous clouds, on the other hand — also known as mother-of-pearl clouds — can take on brilliant, iridescent hues and look like watercolor paintings in the sky.
By day, nacreous clouds often resemble pale cirrus clouds. But after sunset, magic happens as the colors come out.
These hues are most vibrant when the sun is several degrees below the horizon. Then, when the sun sinks below the horizon, “the colors are replaced by a general coloration that changes from orange to pink and contrasts vividly with the darkening sky,” the International Cloud Atlas notes.
These clouds most commonly appear in the Arctic, Scotland, Scandinavia, Alaska, Canada, the northern Russian Federation and, as pictured here, in Iceland.
An erupting volcano is a striking sight in itself, but the scene gets far more dramatic with the addition of volcanic lightning.
The cause of volcanic lightning has been a mystery to scientists, but new research has provided us with two clues as to why this natural phenomenon occurs. The first potential cause is static electricity from particles rubbing together in dense ash clouds near the ground; the second happens high up near the stratosphere, where ice crystals unleash powerful jolts.
Volcanic lightning occurred in 2015 during two separate eruptions in Chile, and during Eyjafjallajökull’s 2010 eruption in Iceland. The lightning pictured here is from a 1993 eruption of Mount Rinjani in Indonesia.
We know we’re not supposed to stare at the sun, even during a beautiful sunset. But if you’ve ever ignored that advice and looked anyway, and thought you saw the sun suddenly turn green for a few seconds, your eyes may not have been playing tricks on you. This natural phenomenon is known as a “green flash,” and though it can happen during sunrise as well, it’s most common during sunset.
According to Cornell University, a green flash is usually a band or vertical ray of green light just above the setting or rising sun, though in rare cases it can also be violet or blue.
Your best chance of seeing one would be somewhere with a clear, flat horizon and a haze-free sky, like an ocean or a desert.
Trees with Multi-Colored Bark
If you live somewhere with four distinct seasons, you may be used to seeing leaves turn beautiful shades of red, yellow and orange each autumn. But a few trees feature colors somewhere more surprising: on their trunk.
The most famous example of this is the rainbow eucalyptus, found in places like Hawaii and the Philippines. These trees are known for their smooth orange-tinted bark that peels off in the summer, revealing layers streaked with pale green, red, orange, gray and purple-brown.
Though it’s technically possible to grow rainbow eucalyptus trees outside of the tropics, their signature multi-colored bark won’t be as vibrant.
Flammable Ice Bubbles
Frozen underwater bubbles are impressive enough on their own, but certain ones are also flammable. That’s right: The bubbles found under Alberta's Lake Abraham in Canada are not only stunning, they’re also pretty dangerous, because they are filled with flammable methane gas.
According to the Smithsonian, the methane bubbles form in bodies of water when dead leaves and animals fall into the water and sink to the bottom, where bacteria is waiting to feed. The bacteria eats the dead stuff, then excretes methane, which turns to white floating blobs when it comes into contact with frozen water.
Most people know that the ocean can shimmer in the sunlight. Fewer are aware that it can also glow when it’s dark outside.
Known as bioluminescence, this eerie natural phenomenon can look otherworldly. Bioluminescence expert Michael Latz, Ph.D., a scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, told reporters that the glowing, colored tide is caused by aggregations of dinoflagellates — small organisms that move through the water — including one which is well known for its bioluminescent displays. Waves or other movement in the water make the phytoplankton glow a startling neon-blue at night.
In 2018, a massive 17-mile stretch of beach near San Diego, California experienced bioluminescent waves, causing many to marvel at this natural wonder.
Rocks are usually stationary, but the sailing stones of Death Valley are a different story completely. Located on the border of California and Nevada, Death Valley is the hottest place on earth, as well as the home of these unusual geologic marvels.
These mysterious rocks drift across the flat desert landscape, seemingly propelled by their own power. They range in size from a few ounces to several hundred pounds, with some of the largest rocks leaving trails as long as 1,500 feet.
Although there is no record of anyone seeing the rocks move in person, in 2014, the sailing stones were captured for the first time using time-lapse photography. It appears that this movement is the result of a perfect balance of ice, water and wind.
Per the National Park Foundation: “In the winter of 2014, rain formed a small pond that froze overnight and thawed the next day, creating a vast sheet of ice that was reduced by midday to only a few millimeters thick. Driven by a light wind, this sheet broke up and accumulated behind the stones, slowly pushing them forward.”
When Antarctic explorers first came across what is now known as Blood Falls in 1911, they thought it was a sign of the apocalypse. Scientists speculated that red algae actually caused the strange coloration. But the real reason behind the phenom remained a mystery until 2017.
That’s when, thanks to modern imaging equipment, scientists were able to determine that there was a complex network of subglacial rivers and a subglacial lake, which were filled brine high in iron — giving the falls its reddish tint.
The makeup of this brine means that the water remains liquid and is able to flow in the unusually colored waterfall.
Underwater Crop Circles
And you thought crop circles on dry land were mysterious.
In 1995, off the southern coast of Japan, scientists discovered crop circles located underwater.
These circles — which measure seven feet in diameter — went unexplained until 2011, when a five-inch male pufferfish was caught in the act, making the intricate geometric circles, according to Discover Magazine.
So why do these fish go through all that effort? As it turns out, it’s actually a mating dance, which male pufferfish use to woo the females of the species. It takes the males an average of seven to nine days to complete their patterned circles, using their fins to create the impressive designs.
Did you know that some sands can sing? No, they’re not belting out opera, but they do make a strange squeaking sound when you walk on them.
This type of sand is rare, and scientists still aren’t entirely sure what causes the odd noise. However, according to the CBC, studies have found that the sound is heard on beaches where quartz sand is very well rounded and highly spherical.
Beaches with these musical sands can be found in Scotland, Michigan, Massachusetts, Oregon, Prince Edward Island and Wales.
Snowy winters promise many gorgeous features, including, in rare cases, frost flowers — flower-shaped ice crystals that form on the stems of some plants.
These “flowers” require some very specific conditions: freezing air temperature, soil that is moist or wet but not frozen, and a stem that has not been previously frozen. Typically, they can only form once a year, and they often melt quickly.
So if you’re ever able to see a frost flower in person, consider yourself fortunate!
When it comes to intermittent lakes, sometimes you see them, other times you don’t. Also known as “disappearing lakes,” these bodies of water come and go depending on the season.
One of the best examples of an intermittent lake is Lake Cerknica in Slovenia, which sits on a porous karst limestone bed. Each year, during late summer and early autumn, the water from the lake drains out through sinkholes, then fills up again with rain and melted snow after the winter.
The lake exists about eight months out of the year. When full, it is the largest lake in the country.
Lakes are found all over the world, but meromictic lakes are something special.
Though lakes are typically freshwater, the bottom layers of meromictic lakes contain salt, creating a density difference that’s further reinforced by both salinity and temperature. This creates two distinct layers of water that never mix, with lower layers sometimes housing ancient plant and animal life.
Think of these lakes as an aquatic time capsule — and yes, they’re every bit as awesome as that sounds.
Lake Malawi in Africa is one of the best-known meromictic lakes. You can also find examples of the lake in Green Lakes State Park in New York — including Round Lake, pictured here.
Not all lava cools in the same way. One of the most striking examples of this is columnar basalt — which, when cooling, forms hexagonal columns.
The most famous example of this natural phenomenon is the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland (pictured here), but it can also be found in Iceland, Oregon, the Canary Islands, Greece, France, Arizona, Guatemala, California and Wyoming.
Another extraordinary lake is located in British Columbia, Canada and features a unique leopard-print-spotted design. Known as “Kliluk” by Canada’s Okanagan First Nations people — and more recently “Spotted Lake” or “Polkadot Lake” — this kidney-shaped body of water is incredibly salty, and therefore isn’t home to many life forms.
Similar to the Great Salt Lake, Kliluk isn’t fed by a river or stream, instead expanding each year with melted snow and rain. As the New York Times reports, when most of the water evaporates each summer, mineral-rich pools in various colors form, creating a unique and dazzling pattern.
A maelstrom — another name for a very strong whirlpool — isn’t just a figure of speech: it’s a natural aquatic phenomenon as well.
Whirlpools form when two opposing currents meet, including in rivers, streams and at the bottom of waterfalls. Despite what you see on TV and in the movies, most whirlpools are not incredibly strong. But a few are so violent and powerful, they are called maelstroms.
The strongest maelstrom in the world is Saltstraumen, located in Norway. Here, water speeds reach up to 23 miles an hour!
Great Blue Holes
Underwater caves are dark and mysterious — and none are more enigmatic than the Great Blue Hole in Belize.
The largest sinkhole in the world, the Great Blue Hole is located at the center of Lighthouse Reef, an atoll in the Caribbean Sea. It is 1,000 feet in diameter and a staggering 400 feet deep.
The hole is dark blue in color, and relatively easy to spot when contrasted with the lighter blue water and gray-ish white elevated coral that surround it. According to Popular Mechanics, this limestone cave contains stalactites and stalagmites below the surface, some 40 feet in length.