Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night wouldn’t have existed, nor Monet’s wonderful impressions of lush meadows in bloom, if it weren’t for their inspiration—nature. Hena Das takes stock of some of the most interesting art created by nature.
Did the chicken come before the egg? Is there life in space? Do ships and airplanes really disappear in the Bermuda Triangle? These are just some of the great mysteries of the Universe, mysteries that have fascinated people for ages. I have fascinations of my own too, most of them revolving around natural phenomena. Here are 8 mysteries that are at the top of my travel bucket list. No prizes for guessing which of them I’ve visited!
Sailing stones are rocks that move, seemingly without any force, leaving behind trails that can be hundreds of feet long. The rocks leave zigzag or straight trails according to their shape. Sharp stones leave straight, striated tracks, while soft-bottomed rocks weave across the landscape. Racetrack Playa in Death Valley, California is famous for sailing stones. Some are as small as a human head and some weigh in at over 300 kilos.
No one has ever seen these rocks move, but research cites the force of the heavy wind in Death Valley, combined with a muddy, sometimes icy surface, as one of the reasons for the movements. But don’t expect to see the rocks zoom past you like race cars. These trails take years to form, a short period in Earth years, but not visible on a day-to-day basis. Fascinating isn’t it?
Talking about moving rocks, basalt columns are certain to move you, as they did me when I saw them at Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. Imagine huge crystallised columns that heft up out of the Earth in perfectly polygonal shapes, almost like a giant hand had stacked them up like playthings. Formed, surprisingly, due to the rapid cooling of molten lava, the rocks ‘fracture’ uniformly and appear as polygonal columns.
While basalt rocks are common throughout the world, basalt columns are found in select places, Giant’s Causeway and St Mary’s Island in Udupi, Karnataka being two of them. While Giant’s Causeway has a stunning collection of polygonal columns jutting out from the sea, in Hampi (a rock-climber’s paradise) they straddle the Tungabadra River and many a temple has been carved out of the rocks.
Imagine a cloud on fire, smoky wisps and all. Now imagine the fire is rainbow-coloured. That’s what fire rainbows look like. One of the rarest natural phenomena on Earth, fire rainbows can be seen only in certain places, and only when the conditions are right.
The fancy, scientific name for this occurrence is circumhorizontal arc. Contrary to what its common name suggests, it has nothing to do with fire. And you certainly can’t just look up into the sky and wait for one to appear. A fire rainbow actually forms when light from the sun hits a certain type of clouds (cirrus), which needs to be at 20,000 feet in the air, and it has to pass through ice crystals in the clouds at a certain angle. To make things more complicated, the crystals have to be aligned just so at a particular angle and have to be a certain shape (you get the point, it’s rare to see tufts of clouds on rainbow-coloured fire). But if you do want try your luck, Idaho in the US and Alentejo in Portugal would be your best bet.
Sound uninteresting? Trust me, blue holes are a magnificent sight! These are vertical caves in the sea, found mostly in low-lying coastal regions. If you look at one from high up in the air, it would appear as a large, circular, deep blue area, against a surrounding aqua-coloured iris.
The water circulation in these caves is poor and unfit for most aquatic life except some bacteria. The most striking blue holes are in the Bahamas, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and in the Red Sea.
This one’s straight out of a mythological drama. The angry gods make the clouds thunder and the calm, blue water turns a deadly shade of red. Red tides, apart from looking dramatic, can also cause damage to aquatic life. Also known as algal blooms, they are caused due to the presence of large concentrations of coloured algae, called phytoplanktons, which make the water look red. Some algal blooms can create a deadly toxin that paralyses fish. You can catch a glimpse of the red waters at the Gulf of Mexico’s or Florida coastline. The toxin is also dangerous to humans, so think twice before you reach out for some of that red stuff while on your tide sighting trip.
Mammatus and lenticular clouds
Any guesses to what mammatus clouds look like? That’s right—big, fluffy white clouds shaped like breasts. Mostly associated with severe thunderstorms, the mammatus clouds are pouches that extend from the base of a cloud and are usually made of ice or a combination of ice and water.
Lenticular clouds, on the other hand, are stationary, lens-shaped clouds. Often mistaken for UFOs because of their saucer-like shape, they’re found at high altitudes and near mountains. Look at them and you can almost hear the eerie alien music in the background.
Mammatus clouds can regularly be seen in Milan and Chita in Russia, while lenticular-UFO sightings are common in most mountainous regions in the US and in Iceland.
Did someone say aliens? Perfectly round-shaped disks of ice, rotating slowly in the water, these futuristic ice sculptures have been attributed to space creatures and paranormal activity. Scientists aren’t really sure what causes these ice pans to form, but they’re a rare visual treat. These circular slabs of ice are found in various sizes, some as large as 13 feet in diameter. Find these in Scandinavia and North America.
Sink holes are formed when the underground water of an area slowly erodes the bedrock, creating an underground cavity that may then collapse, leaving a gaping hole in the ground. Sink holes can form over time, collapsing gradually, or suddenly, as in the case of the sink holes in Guatemala and the one that took Florida’s Winter Park down, along with the entire public swimming pool. One of the more scenic sink holes is the Ik-Kil Cenote in Mexico. With a clear, blue pool of water at the bottom, it has streams of water drizzling in from the top of the vertical cave. The pool is surrounded by trees, which dip their enormous roots into the water. The pools were used by Mayan royalty, both for relaxation as well as for ritual sacrifices, hopefully not both at the same time.
When she’s not pushing keys, Hena Das is pushing her cat off the keys.
Her repertoire of skills includes elaborate daydreaming, sighing out loud, and off-key singing.
Hena dreams of travelling to all the places she writes about, and being written about in all the places she travels to.
Currently involved in an undercover operation to save the world, Hena's identity is a state secret.
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