13 of the World’s Most Natural Phenomena and Where to See Them
Published 03 August 2016
The world is filled with natural wonders, some beautiful, some intriguing, and some just plain weird. Here, Alexandra Gregg takes us through a few of her favourites.
Catching a mere glimpse of the aurora borealis – or as most know her, the Northern Lights – tops many a bucket list. Swirling green light, dancing in the sky as solar particles collide with the Earth’s atmosphere: it’s the stuff of magic. You need to be in the Arctic Circle to be in with a solid chance of seeing it (or the Antarctic Circle if you're seeking the Southern Lights), and it’s a numbers game: the longer you stay the higher your chances of seeing this elusive light show. Head for Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Canada and Alaska between September and March for optimum viewing. Be prepared for some sleepless nights too, the aurora is known for hiding until the early hours.
Venezuela’s ‘eternal storm’ needs to be seen to be believed. Around 150 nights per year, for up to 10 hours a day and up to 280 times per hour, lightning strikes over the mouth of the Catatumbo River and Lake Maracaibo. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Well we’re not exaggerating in the slightest: the marvel has even made its way into the Guinness Book of World Records for 2015. Science bods reckon it’s down to the way the winds blow across the swampy South American plains.
The Great Migration
The Great Migration is the Holy Grail of wildlife encounters. Every year in Tanzania and Kenya, vast numbers of the Serengeti’s wildebeest – followed by zebra and Grant’s gazelle, Thompson’s gazelle and impala – move across the plains in search of fresh grazing territory and clean water. When it happens is dependent on rainfall patterns but usually, by May, all the wildebeest are on the move. Come September they take on their biggest challenge: the Mara River. It’s a frantic spectacle but, despite all the panic, it’s nothing short of incredible.
If you’ve been lucky enough to see bioluminescence first hand, you’ll know how special it is. If you haven’t, then you need to experience it. Beach lovers should head for Vaadhoo Island, in the Maldives' Raa Atoll, or San Diego, in the USA. At night you can watch as the phytoplankton glows brighter than the Cosmos above, a cerulean sea of stars disturbed by the oxygen in the water.
And it’s not just these marine microbes that can be bioluminescent. Glowworms, like the ones that light up the Waitomo Caves in New Zealand, use it too, as do fireflies, which can be seen in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park between May and June.
Known as Sort sol in Denmark – where the phenomena is best viewed – this wild wonder sees nearly half a million starlings doing a well-choreographed dance across the skies as they contemplate where to roost for the night. It’s not just pretty, it’s a clever tactical manoeuvre too: predator birds don’t stand a chance against the bombardment of droppings that will be rained down on them, should they dare to approach the flock.
We’ve all made crazy things in the snow: snowmen, igloos, forts, the lot. But while snow rollers may look like a man-made creation, they’re not. Instead, they're actually a meteorological phenomenon, occurring when chunks of snow are blown across the ground by strong winds, picking up debris as they go. They can form carpets, balls, or even doughnut shapes. Handy if you are making a snowman.
Up to two metres in height, strewn across the beach and emerging from towering sandstone cliffs, New Zealand’s Moeraki Boulders are a confounding anomaly. Maori legend says that the hollow round rocks are actually giant gourds, washed ashore from a great voyaging canoe that was wrecked on the South Island centuries ago. Scientists take a slightly different stance however: the boulders are actually concretions, created by the cementation of the Palaeocene mudstone on the beach. Over the years, the boulders have been unearthed as a result of coastal erosion. Whatever the explanation, they make for a unique beach landscape.
If it’s an explosive rainbow of colour you’re after, look no further than China’s UNESCO-listed Danxia landforms. This dramatic rock-hewn landscape sits in Zhangye, part of the Gansu Province, a confection of multi-coloured cliffs, valleys and hills, rippling beneath the horizon like waves. It’s not easy to get to this remote piece of natural eye candy, but it’s certainly worth the effort.
Monarch butterfly migration
The majestic monarch butterfly can’t survive the cold winters of North America, and is forced to fly south for the winter – either to the southernmost reaches of California or, more commonly, to Mexico. These incredible creatures are the only insects to migrate to warmer climes that are over 2,500 miles away. They depart every October and, when they do, they darken the skies with a fluttering canopy of black and orange. Most come to rest in Mexico’s oyamel fir forest – a cosy spot for a bit of hibernation.
The sardine run, South Africa
Can you imagine a billion sardines, whirling through the waves, their glimmering scales only broken up by rogue whales, sharks and sea birds on the look-out for their next meal? Well every May-July in South Africa, that’s exactly what happens. This mammoth feeding frenzy – where enormous shoals seek warmer waters – is so huge, it can even be seen from space. Such a large gathering of fish, not to mention some of the ocean’s fiercest predators, is so incomprehensible that it makes everything else seem insignificant. That’s the definition of a great wildlife experience in our book.
Red crab migration
Tens of millions of land-loving red crabs live on Christmas Island – outnumbering the Australian isle’s residents by more than 60,000-to-one. Most of the year these endemic crustaceans keep themselves to themselves… but then October rolls around, and they take over. Spilling out of the jungle, blocking roads and pathways, the fire-hued creatures march towards the coast in search of a spot to breed and spawn at the turn of the high tide.
Frozen methane bubbles
They may look like jellyfish, but these icy flows are actually frozen bubbles, composed of highly-flammable methane. The bubbles are released by bacteria after they consume dead organic matter at the bottom of the water. Usually they would break the surface and escape into the atmosphere, but in places where temperatures are extremely low – like Canada’s Banff National Park in Alberta – they freeze instead. Do take your camera for this one; but don’t take any open flames.
Deep in a dried-up lake within Nevada’s hot and humid Death Valley, the sailing stones have long been a source of mystery for tourists and locals alike. These mammoth rocks move across the desert, seemingly unaided, with little evidence of their movement save for a lone trail in the cracked sand… but how? Until last year, no one knew, but thanks to a series of weather cams, scientists have now put it down to the formation of ice sheets, which melt and crack beneath the stones, gently forcing them to move in the wind. We’re not sure what’s more mysterious: the shifting stones, or the fact that ice can form in the hottest place on Earth. Either way, it’s pretty cool.