Friday, August 27, 2010


Phenomenal Wonders Of The Natural World

WebEcoist and Environmental Oddities

Sailing Stones

The mysterious moving stones of the packed-mud desert of Death Valley have been a center of scientific controversy for decades.

Rocks weighing up to hundreds of pounds

have been known to move up to hundreds of yards at a time.

Some scientists have proposed

that a combination of strong winds and surface ice account for these movements.

However, this theory does not explain evidence of

different rocks starting side by side

and moving at different rates and in disparate directions.

Moreover, the physics calculations do not fully support this theory

as wind speeds of hundreds of miles per hour

would be needed to move some of the stones.

Columnar Basalt

When a thick lava flow cools, it contracts vertically

but cracks perpendicular to its directional flow with remarkable geometric regularity

- in most cases forming a regular grid of remarkable hexagonal extrusions

that almost appear to be made by man.

One of the most famous such examples is

the Giant's Causeway on the coast of Ireland (shown above),

though the largest and most widely recognized

would be Devil's Tower in Wyoming.

Basalt also forms different but equally fascinating ways

when eruptions are exposed to air or water.

Blue Holes

Blue holes are giant and sudden drops in underwater elevation

that get their name from the dark and foreboding blue tone they exhibit

when viewed from above in relationship to surrounding waters.

They can be hundreds of feet deep

and while divers are able to explore some of them

they are largely devoid of oxygen that would support sea life

due to poor water circulation - leaving them eerily empty.

Some blue holes, however, contain

ancient fossil remains that have been discovered, preserved in their depths.

Red Tides

Red tides are also known as algal blooms

- sudden influxes of massive amounts of colored single-cell algae

that can convert entire areas of an ocean or beach into a blood red color.

While some of these can be relatively harmless,

others can be harbingers of deadly toxins

that cause the deaths of fish, birds and marine mammals.

In some cases, even humans have been harmed by red tides

though no human exposure are known to have been fatal.

While they can be fatal,

the constituent phytoplankton in ride tides are not harmful in small numbers.

Ice Circles

While many see these apparently perfect ice circles

as worthy of conspiracy theorizing,

scientists generally accept that they are formed

by eddies in the water that spin a sizable piece of ice in a circular motion.

As a result of this rotation,

other pieces of ice and flotsam wear relatively evenly at the edges of the ice

until it slowly forms into an essentially ideal circle.

Ice circles have been seen with diameters of over 500 feet

and can also at times be found

in clusters and groups of different sizes as shown above.

Mammatus Clouds

True to their ominous appearance,

mammatus clouds are often harbingers

of a coming storm or other extreme weather system.

Typically composed primarily of ice,

they can extend for hundreds of miles in each direction

and individual formations can remain visibly static

for ten to fifteen minutes at a time.

While they may appear foreboding

they are merely the messengers

- appearing around, before or even after severe weather.

Fire Rainbows

A circumhorizontal fire rainbow arc occurs at

a rare confluence of right time and right place for the sun and certain clouds.

Crystals within the clouds refract light

into the various visible waves of the spectrum

but only if they are arrayed correctly relative to the ground below.

Due to the rarity

with which all of these events happen in conjunction with one another,

there are relatively few remarkable photos of this phenomena.


Sinkholes are one of the world's scariest natural phenomena.

Over time, water erodes the soil under the planet's surface

until in some cases, quite suddenly,

the land above gives way and collapses into the earth.

Many sinkholes occur naturally

while others are the result of human intervention.

Displacing groundwater can open cavities

while broken pipes can erode otherwise stable subterranean sediments.

Urban sinkholes, up to hundreds of feet deep

have formed and consumed parts of city blocks, sidewalks and even entire buildings.


Named after peak-hooded New Mexican monks (lower right above),

penitentes are dazzling naturally-forming ice blades

that stick up at sharp angles toward the sun.

Rarely found except at high altitudes,

they can grow up taller than a human and form in vast fields.

As ice melts in particular patterns,

'valleys' formed by initial melts leave 'mountains' in their wake.

Strangely, these formations ultimately slow the melting process

as the peaks cast shadows on the deeper surfaces below

and allow for winds to blow over the peaks, cooling them.

Lenticular Clouds

Ever wonder the truth about UFOs?

Avoided by traditional pilots but loved by sailplane aviators,

lenticular clouds are masses of cloud

with strong internal uplift that can drive a motorless flyer to high elevations.

Their shape is quite often mistaken

for a mysterious flying object or the artificial cover for one.

Generally, lenticular clouds are formed

as wind speeds up while moving around a large land object such as a mountain.

Light Pillars

Light pillars appear as eerily upright luminous columns in the sky,

beacons cast into the air above without an apparent source..

These are visible when light reflects just right off of ice crystals

from either the sun (as in the two top images above)

or from artificial ground sources such as street or park lights.

Despite their appearance as near-solid columns of light,

the effect is entirely created by our own relative viewpoint.


Like light pillars, sundogs are the product of light passing through crystals.

The particular shape and orientation of the crystals

can have a drastic visual impact for the viewer,

producing a longer tail and changing the range of colors one sees.

The relative height of the sun in the sky

shifts the distance the sundogs appear to be on either side of the sun.

Varying climactic conditions on other planets in our solar system

produce halos with up to four sundogs from those planets' perspectives.

Sundogs have been speculated about and discussed since ancient times

and written records describing the various attributes of our sun

date back the Egyptians and Greeks.

Fire Whirls

Fire whirls (also known as fire devils or tornadoes)

appear in or around raging fires

when the right combination of climactic conditions is present.

Fire whirls can be spawned by other natural events

such as earthquakes and thunderstorms,

and can be incredibly dangerous,

in some cases spinning well out of the zone of a fire itself

to cause devastation and death in a radius not even reached by heat or flame.

Fire whirls have been known to be nearly a mile high,

have wind speeds of over 100 miles per hour

and to last for 20 or more minutes.

Orange Moons

This last phenomena is something most people have seen before

- beautiful orange moon hanging low in the sky.

But what causes this phenomena

- and, for that matter, does the moon have a color at all?

When the moon appears lower on the horizon,

rays of light bouncing off it

have to pass through a great deal more of our atmosphere

which slowly strips away everything but yellows, oranges and reds.

The bottommost image above is true to the hues of the moon

but has enhanced colors to more clearly show the differences in shade

that illustrate the mixed topography and minerology

that tell the story of the moon's surface.

Looking at the colors in combination with the craters

one can start to trace the history of impacts

and consequent material movements across the face of our mysterious moon.