Natural phenomena: the 6 greatest spectacles of nature and how they work

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There are many amazing things in the desert. Find out in our field guide to natural phenomena.

Walk long enough and you might find yourself taking nature for granted. After all, there are only so many trees, birds, rocks, and even mountains you can see before you start confusing them. But there are things out there that are so spectacular, so beautiful, so powerful, and sometimes so dangerous, that you can’t stop staring at them.

They are natural phenomena that never get old, no matter how many times we encounter them. They range from the exotic, like glacial fissures and the site of an ancient explosion in New Mexico, to slow but potentially dangerous, like quicksand. We dove into the science behind them: how they form, where you’ll find them, and what hikers need to know.


The numerous crevasses on the surface of the Salmon Glacier make the ascent of the glacier very slow and dangerous. The glacier is near Hyder, Alaska, just across the border in remote British Columbia, Canada.

Glacier trekking ranks high on the exhilaration scale, but hiking through one of these dynamic masses of ice can be as dangerous as it is thrilling. Glaciers act more like moving lava fields than static blocks of ice, flowing downward at a geologically rapid rate of tens or even thousands of feet per year. All that movement over rugged mountain terrain causes the ice to split into gaping cracks, called crevasses, that make glacier travel the equivalent of walking through a minefield. Here’s how and where crevasses form in the glaciers of the Lower 48 Peaks such as Rainier, Hood, Olympus and Adams. Continue reading


A microburst in Brazil.  Microbursts can be harmless but often cause a lot of damage.
A microburst in Brazil. Microbursts can be harmless but often cause a lot of damage. (Photo: JC Patricio/Getty Images)

They expand in minutes and hit the ground with the force of a runaway freight train. They demolish forests, destroy houses, kill wild animals and have even been responsible for half a dozen plane crashes. But for years they were so mysterious that until 1981 meteorologists didn’t even have a name for them. These are microbursts: turbulent weather conditions that turn a rapidly cooling mass of air into a high-speed downdraft up to 2.5 miles in diameter. Fortunately, most backpackers only observe the aftermath of these violent events. If you ever come across a destroyed forest with no obvious cause, here’s what could have happened. Continue reading


quicksand with unstable ground
(Photo: Lion H via Getty Images)

In his stand-up special “New in Town”, comedian John Mulaney joked about the oversaturation of quicksand in childhood TV shows: “I always thought quicksand was going to be a much bigger problem. important than it turned out to be. If you watch cartoons, quicksand is like the third thing you need to worry about in adult life, behind real sticks of dynamite and giant anvils that fall above from the sky. In real life though, quicksand isn’t the death trap it’s made out to be. Continue reading

sky islands

chiricahua mountains
Chiricahua Mountains (Photo: Kim Barry/500px via Getty)

Rising thousands of feet above the southern border of Arizona and New Mexico are the Sky Islands, a chain of peaks capped with lush, windswept forests. Nowhere else in North America is such biodiversity found in a single vertical space. Isolated by the surrounding desert, the Sky Islands are home to rare subspecies of reptiles and mammals, as well as the more ubiquitous black bears and mule deer. Climb to the top for a great workout and the chance to traverse half a dozen ecosystems in a single push. Continue reading

Valles Caldera

Valles Caldera National Reserve in New Mexico. (Photo: Getty Images)

Hike Valles Caldera today and you’d never guess that this sunken oval of ponderosa forests and trout streams 40 miles northwest of Santa Fe was the epicenter of a cataclysmic explosion. But 1.25 million years ago, a sudden, massive eruption created not only this 14-mile-wide crater, but also the orange rock landscape of northern New Mexico. Many hot springs in the area indicate that Valles Caldera is dormant and not extinct, which is all the more reason to experience this geothermal gem before it blows again. Continue reading

Northern Lights

northern Lights
The Northern Lights (Photo: Patrick J. Endres / Corbis Documentary)

Dreaming of seeing the Northern Lights (otherwise known as the Northern Lights), but can’t afford to go all the way to the Arctic Circle? Try Minnesota’s border waters. The aurora is visible in the Lower 48 several times a year, usually in northern states in the spring. Dark, balmy nights in March and April are best for viewing the display; this is when Earth’s seasonal tilt aligns the magnetic field to pick up more of the solar radiation that creates the glow. Here’s how the sun lights up the night sky and where you can see it. Continue reading

Maria D. Ervin