Weird Nature
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How 14 Natural Wonders Of The World Were Actually Formed

March 18, 2021 5.7k votes 874 voters 41.5k views14 items

List RulesVote up the most incredible monuments nature ever created.

Thousands of natural wonders exist in the world. But have you ever wondered about the history behind them? Some of these amazing formations and events date back millions of years, while others are less than 100 years old. There are legends and theories attached to how some of them came into existence, but what are the actual scientific explanations? And while climate change is a major topic in the 21st century, what role did this play in the formation of these natural wonders, and how has it affected them in the years since they were formed?

These are the stories about how some of the most amazing natural wonders came into existence.

  • On the north coast of Northern Ireland, about 3 miles northeast of the town of Bushmills, stands a structure of around 40,000 interlocking black basalt columns, most of which are hexagonal in shape. The tops of the columns serve as steps that lead from the cliff to under the sea.

    One legend holds that this causeway was built by an Irish giant by the name of Finn MacCool as a way to allow him to cross into Scotland so he could confront one of his rivals. Sadly, the scientific explanation for how the structure came to be isn't as fanciful.

    According to researchers, the Giant's Causeway was formed between 50 to 60 million years ago when molten lava flooded through fissures in the earth. Scientists knew at that time in history, this area of Northern Ireland had experienced heavy volcanic activity. And they were aware when the lava cooled and contracted, it cracked and formed the columns that formed the causeway. 

    But for centuries, no one knew at what temperatures this phenomenon occurred. Until 2018, when scientists re-created the process and determined the basalt would have fractured and formed columns at between 840 and 890 degrees Celsius (between 1,544 and 1,634 degrees Fahrenheit).

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  • The Sahara in North Africa is the world's largest nonpolar desert. For many years, the consensus among scientists was the desert had been formed some 2 to 3 million years ago. But in 2014, researchers at Norway's Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research ran simulations of the climate changes that have taken place in North Africa over the last 30 million years, and the findings suggested the Sahara is probably at least 7 million years old.

    Using data involving changes in the Earth's orbital position, the ratio of land to ocean as caused by tectonic action, and atmospheric chemistry, the simulations showed the level of precipitation in North Africa dropped by more than half about 11 million years ago, which caused the region to dry out. By process of elimination, the conclusion reached by the researchers was that it had been tectonic forces that had caused this change.

    Some 250 million years ago, a gigantic body of water called the Tethys Sea had separated the supercontinents of Laurasia and Gondwana. But as those supercontinents broke apart and the African tectonic plate collided with the Eurasian one, this closed off much of the Tethys Sea. And this once huge body of water continued to get smaller and smaller as the tectonic plates continued to move and shift.

    The movement of these plates led to the western arm of the Tethys Sea to be replaced by the Arabian Peninsula somewhere between 7 to 11 million years ago. With land replacing water, the precipitation levels in the region declined drastically, which in turn resulted in the Sahara being created.

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  • 3

    The Eruption Of Parícutin Allowed Scientists To See The Entire Life Cycle Of A Volcano In Just Nine Years

    Photo: K. Segerstrom, U.S. Geological Survey / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    "When night began to fall, we heard noises like the surge of the sea, and red flames of fire rose into the darkened sky, some rising 2,600 feet or more into the air, that burst like golden marigolds, and a rain like artificial fire fell to the ground."

    That rather poetic account is how a local farmer named Celedonio Gutierrez described the events of February 20, 1943, when ground near the village of Uruapan, Mexico, rose more than 6 feet, spewing ash and vapors into the air. As the night went on, a cone of ash began to form on the site of the eruption. This marked the birth of the volcano known as Parícutin. 

    Named after a nearby village, Parícutin eventually rose to a height of 1,391 feet. After the ash had formed a 1,000-foot-high cone, lava began to pour out, burying the village of San Juan Parangaricutiro so thoroughly the only thing left visible was a church steeple poking out of the rocks. Luckily, the area was evacuated without anyone perishing.

    The birth of Parícutin attracted enormous attention: Flights from Los Angeles to Mexico City would divert from their routes in order to give passengers a glimpse of the ongoing activity. Scenes for the 1947 film Captain from Castile were filmed in the area around the active volcano. And William Foshag, a mineralogist working for the US National Museum, documented the growth of Parícutin one month after its emergence.

    The volcano continued to erupt until March 1952, when its activity halted just as abruptly as it had begun. 

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  • Located in Arizona in the Western part of the United States, the Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, has a width of up to 18 miles, and is more than a mile deep. 

    The actual age of the Grand Canyon is highly debated. In 2012, a study published in Science Magazine suggested it could be up to 70 million years old. Other geologists and researchers claim it was formed closer to 6 million years ago.

    Less contentious is the belief the canyon's beginnings can be traced to about 2 billion years ago when the igneous and metamorphic rocks that can now be seen at the bottom of the canyon first began to be formed. Over the years, layers of sedimentary rocks were piled on top of these bottom rocks. The Kaibab Limestone, the top - and, at 270 million years old, youngest - layer of rocks of the Grand Canyon, was formed at the bottom of the ocean, but its current elevation is as high as 9,000 feet above sea level.

    It reached this elevation through the action of plate tectonics, which resulted in the uplift and flattening of the Colorado Plateau. The consensus is this occurred during a mountain-building episode called the Laramide orogeny, which began about 70 million years ago and lasted until about 40 million years ago.

    Millions of years later, as the Colorado River and its tributaries began to wind its way down through the plateau, the Grand Canyon was formed. Geologists call this way of forming a canyon "downcutting." This occurs during flooding and involves the water cutting down into the earth and eroding away the rocks.

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