Earth's Most Mysterious Natural Phenomena Explained | 22 Words

Earth and everything on it formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago when interstellar dust was disturbed, possibly by a supernova, and began to collapse under the weight of gravity. Soon, the center of this spinning disk became our sun and the mounds of matter on its perimeter cooled,  transforming into the planets we know today.

Given the incredible and anomalous circumstances that led to our climate, forests, mountains, and oceans it’s only natural that our planet is home to some seemingly alien phenomena. These are the events, landforms, and bodies of water that stand out as not only unique but as a testament to the wondrous world that lies beyond our fingertips. Beyond our lunch breaks, meetings, soccer practices, and our rush hour traffic jams. Beyond our sense of possibility. Beyond our understanding, even.

So go ahead and soak in what the Earth has to offer, there’s never a bad time to have your mind blown.

A Boiling River

What was once believed to be a myth is real. Deep within the Amazon jungle lies the Boiling River, which geophysicist Andrés Ruzo put on the map (figuratively and literally). Temperatures can reach up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to boil you alive if you fall in. What gave birth to this unusual site? A non-volcanic source of water stemming from deep within the Earth, flowing at very high rates.

Columnar Basalt

Basalt is a type of igneous rock and as such, is formed from volcanic activity. As lava emerges through the cracks of the Earth’s surface, it cools. The layers closest to the top cool the fastest and as they harden, they contract. This contracture causes the rock to fracture in one of several ways. If the lava cools in a uniform manner, it will form a hexagonal column of basalt. If it cools unevenly, it will fracture in an irregular pattern resulting in columns ranging from 3 to 8 sides.

Sun Dogs

Sun dogs may sound like an indie-rock band name but it’s also an optical illusion, turning the sun into a triptych. This type of halo is caused by the refraction of sunlight by atmospheric ice crystals. More specifically, these ice crystals work by deflecting the light rays at least by 22 degrees and as they float down they eventually refract the rays horizontally, flanking the sun with bright spots on either side.

Pele's Hair

What appears as fiberglass or other industrial creation is actually created from volcanic activity. When small molten lava droplets hurtle through the air, they cool in a straight formation. Most often, Pele's hair results from lava fountains, cascades, or robust flows. The phenomenon is named after the Hawaiian goddess of fire, lightning, wind, dance, and volcanoes. She can manifest in numerous forms and is believed to provide negative omens.

Penitentes

Penitentes are snow or ice formations that accumulate at high altitudes in blade-like shapes. Their name is derived from their visual similarity to the hooded habits worn by members of the religious orders in the Processions of Penance during Spanish Holy Week. They were originally described by Charles Darwin after visiting the Andes mountain range in 1839. They are formed in climates where the dew point is consistently below freezing and the air is dry. This causes the snow to sublimate, or be altered directly from a solid to a gaseous state. Next, differential ablation takes place, lending the Penitente its geometric shape. Amazingly, these snow formations can reach up to 15 feet in height.

Aurora Borealis

These dreamy, almost mystical light displays are actually the result of atmospheric violence. The center of our solar system’s sun is 27 million degrees Fahrenheit, and as it's surface temperature fluctuates, matter escapes from its sunspot regions. This causes a whirl of plasma, or solar wind, to reach Earth’s magnetosphere and disturb its particles. The result is a flash of light that varies in color and depth, most likely to be found near the Earth’s poles.

Mammatus Cloud

Fittingly, the title of this cloud is inspired by the Latin word “mamma" meaning udder or breast. They are formed when cold air sinks and mixes in with the rising warm air, resulting in a plush, pocketed clouds. Despite their beauty, they are often associated with severe weather and thunderstorms.

Lake Hillier

Off the south coast of Western Australia lies the site of a Pepto Bismol explosion – or rather, Lake Hillier. The lake is 2,000 feet long and 800 feet wide and is classified as a saline lake, or one with a higher concentration of salts and other minerals than most lakes. What causes its unique hue? Dunaliella salina, a halophilic micro-algae.

Danxia Landforms

Danxia landforms are rock landscapes found in the southeast, southwest, and northwest of China. They are composed mainly of red sandstone that has been simultaneously uplifted from tectonic activity and eroded from weathering.

Glowing Water

Bioluminescence is a phenomenon that can be found around the world but one of the most dazzling examples is off the coast of Vaadhoo Island.  Branded as the “sea of stars", those who visit at night can witness the waters glow an eerie blue. What causes this phenomenon? A species of phytoplankton known as dinoflagellates. When they are exposed to oxygen, their internal pH is altered, causing a chain of chemical reactions that produce their signature luminescence. Interestingly, scientists posit that this evolved as a defense mechanism, branding any animals who consumed them with a glow, thereby making them more obvious to other predators.

Ball Lightning

Science can explain many phenomena, but it hasn’t cracked the code on ball lightning. In fact, the event hasn’t been officially corroborated, as science has difficulty recreating its exact effects in the lab. Those who have claimed to witness it describe a ball of light that accumulates most often during thunderstorms but lingers quite a bit longer than a typical lightning flash. There are several hypotheses as to how ball lightning forms, including the vaporization of silicon from the Earth’s ground, as well as the streamlined shape of ionized air from lightning clouds.

Blood Falls

Like many sites in Antarctica, Blood Falls is as unique as it is desolate. Its waters flow red as a result of the iron-rich saltwater that intermittently arises from the minute cracks in the surrounding ice cascades. Interestingly, the microbes found in these waters are specialized at metabolizing sulfate and ferric ions, which has never before been observed in nature.

Fairy Circles

Mainly found in the Namib desert in southern Africa, Fairy Circles are a vegetative anomaly. Varying between 7 and 50 feet in diameter, Fairy Circles are patches of grass with barren earth in the middle. Several hypotheses have been put forth for their existence, the foremost suggests the grasses grow in a pattern that allows their roots to capture and absorb the maximum amount of water. Another theory posits that a species of sand termite is responsible, but sightings of Fairy Circles have spanned much wider than their territory. The likely answer? It’s a combination of many factors!

Lake Natron

Tanzania’s Lake Natron is both haunting and haunted. It’s a kind of salt lake, which means that water can’t flow out of it, it can only evaporate. This leaves high levels of minerals but what makes Lake Natron unique is the high concentrations of natron, which is a compound the Egyptians used to preserve their mummies. The lake is so alkaline in fact, that it mimics the alkalinity of ammonia, with a pH of 10.5. Only a single fish species can survive in the lake, Alcolapia Latilabris, as well as a few types of algae.

Naica Cave

Deep within a cave located in Naica, Chihuahua, Mexico, are some of the largest natural crystals ever discovered. The crystals are mainly giant selenite formations and the most impressive one weighs over 55 tons. The secret to their formation lies in the magma chamber located beneath the cave. The groundwater is heated by the magma, causing a chain of events that lead to the extremely slow crystallization of gypsum, allowing the crystals to reach their gargantuan proportions.  

A Blue Volcano

Located within the Danakil depression on the plains of Ethiopia lies a volcano that produces blue flames. This unusual spectacle is the result of combusting sulfuric gas, and can also be found in the Ijen volcanic complex in Indonesia. Both sites are very inhospitable, as the fumes are caustic to breathe in.

Lenticular Clouds

This cloud type is so bizarre, it’s actually been mistaken for a UFO. Lenticular clouds are formed as wind travels along the Earth’s surface, responding to the uneven landforms by forming eddies of air. If moist, static air encounters any larger eddies they can condense to form lenticular clouds (or flying saucers, depending on your suggestibility).

Fire Tornadoes

Although fire tornadoes are not technically tornadoes, as their vortex doesn't extend from a cloud base, they are equally formidable. Also known as fire whirls, fire tornadoes can form when a firestorm manifests its own wind, later merging with the flames and twisting off from the main body of fire.   

Lake Baikal

Standing on the shores of Lake Baikal, you may forget that you’re on a lake at all. Located in eastern Siberia, Lake Baikal is the largest and oldest freshwater lake on Earth. Formed some 20 to 25 million years ago, the lake is over 5,000 feet deep. Another mind-blowing fact? Lake Baikal contains approximately one-fifth of all fresh water on Earth. The water is also very clear and if you peer down you can see up to 130 feet down – so much for Turks and Caicos, how’s Siberia for the summer?

Flammable Ice Bubbles

Located in Alberta, Canada, underneath the surface of Lake Abraham are lurking frozen bubbles of methane gas. They’re eerie and beautiful, encapsulating the results of dead organic matter being consumed by bacteria living within the lake. The bacteria release methane gas as a metabolic byproduct, which can prove dangerous to those hapless individuals who are near the bubbles when they explode.

Volcanic Lightning

The sky isn’t the only source of lightning, volcanoes can also produce it. During an eruption, the volcanic ash can collide at rates fast enough to generate static electricity within the volcanic plume. Also termed as a “dirty thunderstorm," volcanic lightning has several creation hypotheses including ice charging, frictional charging, fractoemission and radioactive charging.

Sailing Stones

The movement of these rocks long eluded the grasp of science, but it's finally been explained. These rocks, which move through flat valley floors without human or animal aid, travel by way of large ice sheets of only a few millimeters thick. When they begin to melt, they carry the rocks at a pace of up to 5 meters per minute.

Pororoca Wave

The Pororoca is a type of tidal bore or a type of wave that forms when a flood tide enters a long and narrow inlet. The Pororoca is formed on the Amazon River and can form waves up to 12 feet high and travel up to 500 miles inland. The Pororoca is catalyzed the Atlantic's high tide during the new and full moon phases. The water from the Atlantic flows into the Amazon and as a result, reverses the typical chain of events. This phenomenon occurs most prominently during the September and March equinoxes and surfing competitions are even held on the Pororoca. It’s exceptionally dangerous, however, as the Amazon contains a large concentration of flora and fauna in its waters.

Supercell Storm

There are four categories of thunderstorms, and supercell storms are the most volatile and luckily, the rarest. They contain a mesocyclone and a rotating upward current of air, known as an updraft. Two important structural features include the overshooting top and the anvil, the former appearing as a dome above the strongest updraft and the latter forming as a result of the updraft colliding with the lowest layers of the atmosphere, producing very cold temperatures.

Kawah Ijen Lake

Located within the Ijen volcanic complex in East Java, Indonesia, Kawah Ijen is a highly acidic crater lake. With a diameter of over 2,000 feet and a depth of up to almost 700 feet, it is the largest lake of its kind in the world. The pH of the water ranges from about 0.5 to 0.13, which results from the high concentrations of sulfur in the lake. To put its features in perspective, distilled vinegar carries a pH of 2.5!

Geothermal Site at Hverir Mývatn

Iceland is a unique place and its geothermal site at Hverir Mývatn is no exception. This location has billowing fumaroles, boiling mud pots, and is dotted with otherworldly sulfur crystal deposits – the only drawback is that the area projects an odious scent of sulfur, which is best described as "rotten eggs."

Spotted Lake

Canada’s sure got its host of strange lakes, and the Spotted Lake near Osoyoos, British Columbia is one of them. Its waters are enriched with minerals, namely magnesium sulfate, calcium, and sodium sulfates. As the water evaporates during the summer months it reveals spots on its surface, whose various colors depends on the type of mineral present.

Stone Forest

Madagascar is a natural anomaly as scientists estimate that nearly 90% of its species are endemic to the island! On the island’s western edge lies the Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park and within it, a very intriguing forest. Known as Stone Forest, this 600-mile expanse of land is studded by jagged limestone formations and home to a bevy of unique species including the ring-tailed mongoose and the fossa. The stones were once a limestone seabed but have been gradually dissolved by water, as the two elements create carbonic acid when they make contact. Thus, when you see the Stone Forest you’re essentially looking at thousands (millions?) of sinkholes.

Underwater River

Beneath the Angelita cenote in Yucatan, Mexico flows a second river. Yes, this underwater river is 100 feet below the surface and has its own bank with vegetation lining it. How could this be? A thick cloud of hydrogen sulfide separates the halocline or the juncture between the top layer of fresh water and the bottom layer of salt water. 

The Magical Carpet Ride is Now Complete

The world is a miraculous place. From explosive atmospheric reactions, bubble gum lakes, and waves set aglow with plankton, we all have the opportunity to be moved by the natural wonders around us! The only obstacles in our way are the ones we believe in. Now, get out and get inspired!