7 Bizarre Natural Phenomena Explained

In all its glory, our universe has ways of leaving us awestruck. And perhaps even more amazing than those spectacles, are the explanations behind them.
Ishaan Govardhan May 16, 2019
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Mammatus Clouds

Brilliantly illuminated by lightning, these smooth lobes of lumpy clouds are associated with intense storms.

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Mammatus clouds are formed when there's a sharp temperature gradient and wind shear conditions are ideal. Cold air sinks downwards to meet the cloud puffs that are rising upward through the convection of warm air, which results in the formation of mammatus clouds. Each lobe has a diameter of up to 3 km. A cluster of mammatus clouds may last for hours.

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Maelstroms

Larger than whirlpools, maelstroms are formed in narrow straits of rapidly flowing water.

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This is the strongest maelstrom in the world - the maelstrom of Saltstraumen, Norway. Here, water gets funnelled through a very narrow strait (150 m at its narrowest). Plus, it's driven by the colossal force of the world's strongest tide. These conditions lead to some incredibly turbulent waters that are a sight to behold.

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Blue Volcano

Electric-blue colored lava emerges from the Kawah Ijen volcano of Indonesia.

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The Kawah Ijen volcano system has some of the highest sulfur levels on Earth. And sulfuric gas burns bright blue when exposed to oxygen and ignited by the hot lava. These brilliant blue flames - as high as 16 feet - can only be seen during nighttime.

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Lenticular Clouds

Due to their saucer-like shape, lenticular clouds have been put forth as the scientific explanation behind some alleged UFO sightings.

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Air flow along earth's surface may get disrupted by large obstacles like mountains, creating eddies (areas of turbulence). When moisture flows over huge eddies, large standing air waves are formed along the downwind side of the mountain. And if the temperature drops, the moisture in those waves will condense to form a lenticular cloud.

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Reflective Deserts

The world's largest salt flat - Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia) - is also the world's largest natural mirror.

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The surface of the salt flat is covered in salt brine, which imparts a perfect, undisturbed flatness to it. When it rains, a reflective sheet of water covers that entire surface. And with nothing but salt flats for 4000 square miles, the horizon is reduced to a straight line. These conditions make it seem like the sky has merged with the land.

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Sort Sol (Black Sun)

These peculiar, ever-shifting flocking patterns of starlings are downright hypnotic.

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Every spring and autumn, up to 1 million migrational starlings gather in Denmark to look for a place to roost. The birds fly about in these memerizing formations during sunset to stay safe from predatory birds. So great are their numbers, that the swaying flock blacks out the sun. Their synchronized patterns are a well-known balletic spectacle.

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Aurora Borealis

The Northern Lights on display in Iceland make for a surreal spectacle that has to be seen to be believed.

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This otherworldly sight is a result of the light emanating from collisions between the gas particles of Earth's atmosphere and the electrically charged particles from the sun. Because Earth's magnetic field is weaker at both poles, more particles from the sun are able to slip through. The color of the dancing lights varies, depending on the gas particles.