While watching science fiction movies, you may have seen “alien planets” with ice fields, spiraling deserts, and lush forests. Ironically, the real earth has spectacles that appear much more alien than any sci-fi film has ever portrayed.
Glowing rainbow trees, spotted lakes, and blue lava all exist. The pictures might seem photoshopped, but you can see them too if you travel to the right place at the right time. Here are photos of bizarre natural phenomena that may look fake, but are real. Can you guess what causes these odd happenings?
A Colorless Rainbow
Imagine seeing a rainbow with all the color drained out of it. These are white rainbows, and they can come from two different sources. One is called a fog bow, and the other is a moonbow.
Like rainbows, a white rainbow’s arc shape forms from the best angle at which the sun reflects to the viewer. Fogbows form from fog droplets that are 100 times smaller than standard droplets, which light can’t refract from. Lunar light can fashion a moonbow, which is much fainter than solar rainbows, usually too faded to reflect color.
Dive Underwater, Find A River
If you’ve ever wanted to dive and fish at the same time, visit Cenote Angelita in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Swim down, and you’ll discover a murky underwater river that divides the ocean. And yes, you can swim through the river under the sea, because it isn’t actually a river.
The cloudy “river” is forged from collapsed limestone bedrock, which sinks and mixes with groundwater. When the minerals decompose, they form hydrogen sulfide which separates the clear upper water from the muddy lower water.
Birds Become Salt Sculptures
If you initially thought that these birds were an art project, you’re not alone. However, these birds naturally hardened from a real-life Medusa. Lake Natron in northern Tanzania can reach temperatures up to 140°F (60 °C) and acidity as high as pH 10.5, the same level as ammonia.
The lake’s namesake, natron, is a mixture of sodium carbonate and baking soda that produces its toxicity. Should an animal land in the water, they will die and calcify, or crystallize into a carbon compound. Migrating birds and bats don’t know what they’re in for when they land on the water’s surface.
Witnessing a volcanic eruption would be scary enough, but observing electrical discharge from a volcanic eruption would look like Armageddon. However, volcanic lightning occurs quite naturally. The flashes appear when residue charges and kindles electricity. In the past two centuries, only 200 cases have been recorded, making this phenomenon rare.
Depending on the situation, the electricity could result from ash, rock, or ice colliding, generating friction that sparks electricity. Volcanic lightning only occurs with tall ash plumes ranging from 4 miles high (7 km) to 7.5 miles (12 km). So if you see it, run.
Cumulonimbus Clouds Overhead
Some sunsets are more spectacular than others. A lot of that has to do with the clouds. There are ten basic types of clouds, determined by their elevation and shape. This image captures cumulonimbus clouds, which are pillowy clouds that can be close to the ground to upwards of 50,000 feet.
Cumulonimbus clouds are one of the few clouds that cover low, middle and high layers, rising up. This type of cloud also signals that there is rainfall nearby.
That’s Not A Bleeding Rock
If you were to stumble upon one of these weird alien stones on the shoreline of Chile, your first thought probably wouldn’t be to eat it. But this sea creature, Pyura chilensis, is commonly fished and eaten with salad and rice.
P. chilenses are “sea squirts,” invertebrate filter feeders that hang on rocks and inhale water to feed off the sea nutrients. Upon cracking it open, you’d see blood that contains incredibly high doses of vanadium, a rare element. Scientists still don’t know how these sea creatures absorb so much vanadium.
No, This Tree Is Not From Avatar
Most people who pass this tree may think that it’s an art sculpture. But this rainbow eucalyptus naturally creates different-colored bark. In the Philippines, Indonesia, and New Guinea, these natural Bifrosts can grow up to 250 feet tall (76 m).
When the eucalyptus sheds its bark, it reveals a green layer. Over time, this layer will change color, although nobody knows why. Since the bark peels at varying intervals, the tree becomes a palette of rainbow layers. Some of these trees appear pastel, while others glow so vibrantly that people think they’re artificial.
These Rocks Move On Their Own
Over the years, visitors of the Death Valley National Park in California have noticed that rocks seem to shift on their own, leaving behind noticeable trails on the dried lakebed. Nobody has actually seen the rocks move, and no footprints have indicated that anyone is pushing them. But over time, these 700 lb (317 kg) rocks have sailed as far as 820 feet (250 m).
Theories behind these “sailing stones” have ranged from magnetic fields to aliens to hauntings. But in 2006, NASA scientist Ralph Lorenz discovered that these rocks have a slab of ice on the bottom, which makes them easily slide across the sand from the wind.
In the ring of volcanoes bordering Banywang Regency of Java, Indonesia, a bizarre phenomenon occasionally confuses people. The Kawah Ijen volcano, also known as the blue volcano, spurts glowing blue lava.
The Kawah Ijen has a higher sulfur content than most other volcanoes, so when sulfuric gas collides with air as hot as 680°F (360°C), the flames turn blue. Blue lava beautifully decorates the night, but during the day, Kawah Ijen turns into the most dangerous sulfur mine in the world. If you want to see it, work with a guide, since the trip can hurt you.
This Lake Has Spots
In the winter and spring, a Canadian lake in Osoyoos, British Columbia, looks like any other lake. But in the summer, the water evaporates to reveal hundreds of mini-pools, forming a polka-dotted lake. The people of the Okanagan Nation believe that each circle has a different medicinal and healing property.
Each yellow-green pool forms from a high concentration of minerals that slip off of the surrounding hills. Magnesium, calcium, and sodium sulfates all make up different colors across the lake. British Columbia even used the minerals to manufacture ammunition during World War I.
That Turquoise Ice Isn’t Plastic
Lake Baikal in Siberia, Russia, is the largest freshwater lake in the world and provides one-fifth of the earth’s clean water supply. The lake is famous for being one of the clearest in the globe — so clear that its frozen sculptures appear turquoise.
In March, these “gems” rise to the surface when the lake freezes unevenly, and reflect the light in such a way as to appear unreal. Wind, sun, and temperature differences carve the lines. Lake Baikal spans 130 feet deep (40 m) and has blessed the world with transparent water for 25 million years.
Don’t Climb That Tree
In 2010, Pakistan flooded with ten years’ worth of rainfall. The deluge destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings, and when the flood waters lowered, residents noticed that several trees were cocooned in a ghostly white veil.
The reason: spiders. Since the water approached one area slowly, millions of insects and spiders fled to the trees. As a result, entire treetops became engulfed in spider webs. These spiders did come with a benefit, though. The number of malaria-carrying mosquitoes in the area drastically lowered wherever the cocoon trees stood.
The Crooked Forest Isn’t Just In A Fairytale
Search for what locals call the “Krzywy Las,” and you’ll encounter a setting straight out of a fairytale. Alongside the town of Gryfino, Poland, a forest of over 400 pine trees all lean in a “J” shape. The trees in the “Crooked Forest,” as it’s called, all bend northward at a 90-degree angle.
As of yet, scientists haven’t discovered how these trees became crooked. The most likely explanation is that Polish farmers bent the trees to make them easier to chop. Farmers commonly manipulated tree growth in the 1930s, but World War II may have disrupted their progress.
This Eternally-Burning Hole Also Includes Spiders
Although this photo may look photoshopped, this crater in Darvaza, Turkmenistan is real and has been burning for over 40 years. It would be scary enough without several tourist accounts of spiders flocking toward the pit, and in some cases, diving into it.
The Darvasa Gas Crater was created in 1971 when a Soviet drilling rig accidentally punctured a natural gas cavern. To stop the gas leak, the Soviets set the hole on fire, figuring that it would burn out in a couple of weeks. Today, it’s still burning. Nobody knows why spiders find the hole alluring, though.
Lightning Strikes The Same Spot Over One Million Times
If you’re afraid of lightning, you may want to stay away from the Catatumbo River in Venezuela. Lightning strikes Lake Maracaibo, where the river ends, 1.2 million times a year. That’s 28 lightning strikes every minute. The 2014 Guinness Book of World Records listed Venezuela for the most lightning strikes per hour.
While plenty of theories for Catatumbo Lightning have appeared over the years, scientists now believe that the region’s unique wind and topography generate the storms. Not only does the area produce the most ozone in the world, but it also collides cold and warm air, resulting in more thunderstorms.
Russian Light Pillars Rise From The Earth
If you were to hike through Russia during subzero temperatures, you might perceive rows upon rows of light towers, stretching hundreds of feet high and reflecting various colors. Although they have an alien-like quality, this phenomenon is entirely natural.
The lights are an optical illusion that occurs when flat, hexagonal ice crystals in clouds shine. Unlike a light beam, light pillars aren’t actually located near their source, but appear like they from a distance. Similar illusions can come from the sun, such as solar light pillars rising from the desert in the southern United States.
Crystals Spike Up A Cave
A cave in Naica, Mexico, contains giant selenite crystals that dart across the entire 980 ft (300 m) cave. These crystals are some of the largest ever found, stretching out to 40 ft (12 m) in length. The Cave of Crystals, or Giant Crystal Cave, was discovered because it connects to the Naica Mine.
The cave sits above an underground magma chamber, which heats groundwater that crystallizes hydrated sulfate gypsum over at least 500,000 years. Explorers would venture into the cave more if it weren’t 136°F (58°C) and had 99% humidity.
Over 100 Million Crabs Swarm An Island
Every year, 120 million red crabs cover the ground of Christmas Island, Australia. These five-inch-long crabs, which are all slightly larger than a teacup, tumble onto the Australian shoreline to mate. Christmas Island Red Crabs are unique to this region and arrive in such massive numbers that the town has to close roadways and cliffs.
Depending on the lunar schedule, red crabs arrive either in November or October, during the island’s wet season. The females lay eggs as the high tide turns, and the eggs hatch almost immediately. The new larvae lounge around the sea for a month before breaching.
The Rock Tree That Defies Gravity
In the Sioli Desert of Bolivia, a rock formation that seems to defy logic stands 4,000 meters above sea level. It looks like a dead tree made of petrified wood, but it’s actually a rock. The Rock Tree, or Árbol de Piedra, is a 23-foot high (7 m) unique tourist attraction.
The Rock Tree came from volcanic formation several thousand years ago. It was polished into its shape by the region’s eternal winds and sand. You can see volcanic rock all over the desert, which are all protected under the Eduardo Avaroa National Park.
Naturally-Sculptured Rock Spheres
On the Koekohe Beach of New Zealand, giant art projects dot the shoreline. Except, they aren’t sculptures: They’re naturally-molded giant rock spheres. The Moeraki Boulders range from 5 ft to 7 ft high (1.5 m to 2 m), and pepper the beaches, cliffs, and shoreline throughout Koekohe.
The boulders are made of mud, clay, and fine silt, and are held together by calcite. They originally coalesced on the sea floor 60 million years ago, and many start on the cliffside before plummeting to the shore. You’ll want to watch your head, though, since each boulder weighs several tons!
The Earth’s Eye
Journey to the Sahara Desert’s Adrar Plateau, and you’ll see an eye-shaped formation that’s visible from space. The “Eye of the Sahara,” otherwise known as the Richat Structure, is a 25-mile-wide elliptical dome carved out of sandstone.
Geologists believe that the 100-million-year-old dome formed from the supercontinent Pangaea pulling apart. Several types of indigenous volcanic rocks make up the eye, which leads scientists to theorize that volcanic activity lifted the ground, and water erosion (which used to cover most deserts) carved out the rest.
This Isn’t Ice. Or Hair.
If you were to come across this in a forest, you may think that it’s leftover ice, or a piece of wig. This formation is actually a living organism, a bacterium called pseudomons syringae. The pathogen is so good at nucleating ice crystals around itself that it’s responsible for frost damage to crops.
A 2016 paper in the journal Science Advances explains that pseudomons syringae use proteins to slightly change the position of water molecules, lacing them into those hair-like structures as they freeze. If you see one of these near your home, guard your plants, as the bacteria easily spreads through rain.
The Stars Are In The Water
These images may look like someone filled the ocean with Christmas lights, but it’s really the result of billions of plankton. The most common type of plankton, called dinoflagellates, which combine chemicals into a reaction called chemiluminescence. Put simply, they’re bioluminescent.
The plankton use bioluminescence to scare off predators by temporarily blinding them with flashing lights. During nights like this, though, the dinoflagellates shine so brightly that they spark off of peoples’ boats as if they’re electric.
Can You Pop These Ice Bubbles?
In lakes throughout Canada, including Spray Lake, Abraham Lake, Barrier Lake, and Lake Minnewanka, the frozen water makes it look like you’re walking on clouds. These “bubbles” form from methane gas that is released from decaying organisms at the bottom of the lakes.
When the temperature descends low enough, these bubbles freeze into fantastic shapes. The ice bubbles start forming in late October and remain a striking spectacle for tourists all year round. Most likes are also incredibly remote, which makes them as clear as can be.
UFOs? Not Exactly
These lenticular clouds could be mistaken for UFOs anywhere from Ireland to the United States. Lenticular clouds when moist air soars over mountain ranges, where it meets standing waves on the range’s downward side. As the temperature drops to the dew point, the air may condense and form these lens shapes.
Because the conditions need to be just right, these UFO clouds and appear and disappear relatively quickly. Occasionally, you can spot them in non-mountain areas when strong storm winds pass through. The Weather Channel calls these clouds “Mother Nature’s UFOs.”
Would You Hike Under A Flame Waterfall?
Imagine hiking a trail to see a beautiful waterfall and realizing that part of it is on fire. That’s exactly what you’ll get at the appropriately-named Eternal Flame Falls in New York. A grotto at the waterfall’s base releases natural gas all year round, although occasionally park rangers need to relight it.
Researchers still aren’t sure how the gas came to be. Geologists from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology noticed that the grotto contained 35% more propane and ethanol than other known gas seeps. It’s possible that the ridge’s shale content has something to do with it.
Someone Punched The Clouds
These clouds look like they’ve been hole punched, which probably contributes to their nickname, hole-punch clouds. More officially, they’re called fallstreak holes, and many people will report them as UFOs. Fortunately, they’re naturally occurring.
Fallstreak clouds coalesce from “supercooled water droplets,” which grow rapidly and shrink or evaporate just as quickly. The rapid changes likely result from aircrafts peddling ice molecules through the clouds. As a result, they form where there’s plenty of air traffic in overcast weather.
The Bleeding Tree
The Bloodwood tree in South Africa secretes a blood red liquid that would make anyone feel terrible about chopping it. Even so, the people there have used the resin for several medicinal uses. Today, it’s used to assuage stabbing pains, eye conditions, ringworm, and malaria.
The liquid is actually a red sap created by tannins, the same resin found in red wine. You can also find these trees in Yemen (the Dragon’s Blood tree) and Australia. Due to over-harvesting, though, their numbers are dwindling.
Try To Cross This Field Of Spider Webs
The spider-filled trees of Pakistan were manageable because they’re out of reach, right? Well, in 2017, New Zealand experienced a rain flood that resulted in the opposite problem. A 100-foot (30 meter) field was blanketed in spider webs.
The phenomenon is dubbed “spider bum parachutes,” in which spiders climb to the highest safe point (such as a fence) and spray a line of protective silk over the land. “We thought, surely there are no spiders in that,” reported resident Tracy Maris. “Our feet started getting stuck in the cobwebs, and then we noticed little black things on top.”
The Longest, Never-Ending Wave Is In A River
Twice a year, in between February and March, the Atlantic Ocean crashes upon the Amazon river in northern Brazil. The wave is so massive that it can be heard 30 minutes before its arrival, warning the residents to shield their plants, homes, and pets. When the wave hits the Amazon, it rises to 12 feet high and continues for over half an hour.
This phenomenon, known as Pororoca, has hosted surfing championships since 1999. However, surfing this river is incredibly dangerous due to the debris which often consists of entire trees.
Would You Believe You’re Not Walking On Water?
Visit the Salar de Uyuni in southwest Bolivia, and you’ll feel like you’re standing on a mirror. Although this looks like a magical lake, it’s actually the world’s largest salt flat, spanning over 4,000 square miles (10,000 sq km). Following rain, remaining droplets transform the flat into an 80-mile (130 km) mirror.
The Salar de Uyuni resulted from prehistoric lakes that gave it enormous quantities of brine and 70% of the world’s lithium reserves. Its high elevation plateau, clear skies, and intense rains make it the perfect environment for a natural mirror.
If you’re scared of tornadoes, you probably won’t want to read on about firenados. Fire twisters, or fire whirls, are whirlwinds consisting of flame and ash. When hot air combines with a turbulent wind, the eddy expands into a vortex that can tower up to 3,280 feet (1,000 m).
Although it’s often called a fire tornado, it isn’t always classified as one since the winds don’t always stretch from the clouds to the ground. They can reach temperatures of 1994°F(1,090°C) and spin at roughly 100 miles per hour (161 km/h).
It’s Not Hair, But Lava
You probably looked at this image thinking it was a bird’s nest or a clump of hair. Although people do call this Pele’s hair, it’s not hair at all, but lava. Hawai’i’s Mr. Kilauea sometimes sprays still-molten lava, which separates into thin strands and hardens in the cool air. Although it looks like normal, it’s hazardous and contains sharp fragments.
The phenomenon was named after the Hawaiian goddess Pele who ruled over volcanoes and fire. Legend has it that anyone who removes these remnants will be cursed by Pele. Norway’s volcanoes produce a similar result known as Witch’s Hair.
A Bloody Great Waterfall
Explorers stumbled across the shock of their lives when they first noticed a blood red waterfall in Antarctica in 1911. For years, scientists continued to scratch their heads over what stained the water in Blood Falls. Recently in 2017, researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks uncovered the solution.
The red coloring stems from oxidized iron and brine in the saltwater, the same process that creates rust. The research team estimated that the brine water takes 1.5 million years to reach Blood Falls.
The Desert Rose Is Not A Flower
Head to any desert in Libya, Spain, Germany, Mexico, Australia, or the United States, and you may find a patch of hard spiky roses. Of course, these aren’t roses but crystals.Desert roses occur in sandy salt basins where crystals harden into an array of plates.
Also called sand rose, selenite rose, rose rock, or gypsum rose, these crystals can “grow” one at a time or in enormous clusters. The largest recorded desert rose expanded to 17 inches across (43 cm) and 10 inches high (25 cm). They’re certainly not the movie prop they look like.
On The Flip-Side: Water Tornadoes
Oh no, we’re not done with tornadoes yet. It’s time for the opposite of fire tornadoes: water tornadoes. A waterspout, as it’s officially called, is a an intense water vortex that usually connects to a cloud. Cumulus clouds whip up these phenomena in both clear and stormy weather.
Waterspouts need warm, moist, unstable air and horizontal convergence to grow from a rapidly expanding cloud. Although they look like oddly-shaped clouds, they’re entirely made of water droplets in condensation. They don’t often suck up water, but can transform into a dangerous tornado.
This Is All One Tree
Looking at this forest, most believe that these are several birch trees all lined up. Not only are they not birch trees, but they are also one tree. Each aspen “tree” sprouts up from a 20 acre organism living underground.
Quaking aspen “clones,” the root systems that we see, can live up to thousands of years old. The tree is largely asexual, unless a severe natural disaster forces it to flower and reproduce. The oldest one is Pando in Bryce Canyon National Park of Utah, which has aged over 80,000 years.
A Real Life Starry Night
Although these clouds may look edited, they’re entirely real, but you can only see them near the poles. Nacreaus clouds only appear in temperatures around -185°F (−85 °C), colder than the lower stratosphere.
Nacreaus clouds fly twice as high as airplanes do. Since the sun sets below them, their microscopic ice crystals reflect the colors back to the earth. While they’re stunning, they can also destroy the ozone layer by encouraging chemical reactions in the stratosphere.
A Beach Of Green Sand
At first glance, this cove looks like a field of moss. But its green comes from the sand after which Green Sand Beach is named. Papakōlea in Pa’u, Hawai’i, slopes down from the Mauna Loa volcano that carries green crystals called olivines.
These olivines mix with black lava and white shells to create to moss hue we see today. Although it’s breathtaking, it tends to be rough on the feet and waves. Papakōlea is one of the four green sand beaches in the world, the others being in Guam, the Galapagos Islands, and Norway.
Meet The Moroccan Tree Goats
If you’ve ever visited Morocco, you’ve likely run into the tree-climbing goats at least once. The goats only climb one type of tree, the prickly argan tree that produces small fruit. Although the fruit is not consumed by humans, the goats feel drawn to its pulp and small.
Moroccan farmers encourage these goats to climb trees. Argan oil, which is extracted from the fruits’ seeds, is much sought after. The goats cannot digest the seed, so they excrete it out, and the farmers easily access their profitable oil.