Megan Taylor Morrison
Sometimes nature creates displays so incredible-heavy stones that seem to drag themselves across a dry lakebed, fish that literally rain down from storm clouds and stunning colored lights that dance silently in the crisp night skies of the polar regions-that we can hardly believe our eyes, let alone come up with a plausible explanation for them. Perhaps that's why, for thousands of years, humans have created stories and myths to help explain even the simplest of Earth's natural phenomena. For instance, ancient Greeks had Zeus in charge of lightning and the Egyptians attributed the sun's transit across the sky to the efforts of their god Ra.
Over time, science has helped explain most of these natural occurrences, from volcanic eruptions to shooting stars, but that doesn't make it any less awe-inspiring-or, at the very least, surprising-when you're suddenly confronted by, say, a herd of goats that's somehow managed to climb a tree (yes, it happens). What's more, some of these incredible events-such as ball lighting-still puzzle scientists today. Not even Google has all the answers.
And that's the beauty of it. Explained or not, the mystery and majesty of these rare sights remind us of how big the Earth is. You haven't seen it all until, well, you've seen it all. This list serves as a humble beginning, a short bucket list of Mother Nature's spectacles that may just help you choose your next big travel adventure.
While creating our list, we made sure each event occurs at regular intervals at a given destination. With a little inspiration and a good deal of advanced planning, you'll have a shot at experiencing 15 of the most interesting and unbelievable sights, sounds and events nature has to offer.
SLIDESHOW: Natural phenomena around the world
In the arid deserts of Morocco, food can be hard to find. Goats in these areas have found a way to adapt, however: They learned to climb argan trees to access the plants nutritious berries. Populations of goats have been doing this for years and are very adept at making their way along the branches. Locals sometimes gather the seed pits from the goats droppings to make argan oil that is used in cooking or in beauty products.
Where: In the Dry Andes above 13,120 feet
Penitentes can range in size from less than an inch to more than 16 feet high. These high-altitude snow formations resemble tall, thin blades that reach toward the sun. Charles Darwin first described penitents in 1839, when he was forced to squeeze his way through a field of the formations near Piuquenes Pass on his way to Mendoza, Argentina.
Monarch Butterfly Migration
Where: California, Colorado and Mexico
Every year, hundreds of millions of monarchs migrate from Canada to Mexico and Baja California-a trip that spans the lifetime of three to four generations of the butterflies.
Some of the best places to spot the monarchs are in Pacific Grove, Santa Cruz and Grover Beach, California where the western population overwinters. The ultimate place to go, however, is the Mariposa Monarca Biosphere Reserve, about 62 miles northwest of Mexico City. The area is home to the majority of wintering monarchs and was only discovered in the 1970s. If you go in February, you can attend the Festival de la Mariposa Monarca, held in the town of Angangueo.
Where: While you can find moonbows in numerous locations, you'll have the best luck with spray moonbows in Yosemite National Park in California, Victoria Falls in Africa and at Cumberland Falls in Kentucky.
Moonbows form when light reflected off the surface of the moon combines with moisture in the air. They are fainter than rainbows and so dim that they normally appear white to the human eye. Long exposure photographs will reveal the full spectrum of color.
It's easiest to see a moonbow when the moon is full. For a true moon bow (not the ones produced by waterfalls or sprays), the moon must be low in the sky (42 degrees or lower) and the sky must be very dark. For this reason, moonbows are most common in the two to three hours before sunrise.
Where: Death Valley, California
Death Valley's famous sailing stones are found on the Racetrack Playa Lakebed. These stones, including some weighing several hundred pounds, slide across the playa, leaving a trail of sediment as they go. For years, scientists were stumped on how these rocks traveled across the playa, however a viable hypothesis recently emerged: High winds after a rain can push even the heaviest rocks across the slick lakebed.
Aurora Borealis and the Aurora Australis
Where: Areas in high southern and northern latitudes
Aurora light displays are caused by the collision of energetic charged particular with atoms in the high altitude atmosphere, also known as the thermosphere. They can glow numerous colors, including green and red, and often appear as curtain-like waves in the sky. Auroras can be seen in both the northern and southern hemisphere. In the north, the lights are called aurora borealis. In the south, they are known as aurora australis. The two phenomena have almost identical features.
Where: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
For two weeks in the summer, thousands of fireflies congregate in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and blink in perfect unison to attract mates. Each species of firefly has a unique flash pattern that leads males and females to one other.
Although there are 19 species of fireflies that live within the national park, only synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) can coordinate their glow. They are also the only fireflies in the United States with this ability.
The dates of the mating seasons vary, however firefly shuttles from the national park's Sugarlands Visitor Center will operate from June 6-13 this year.
Where: Waitomo, New Zealand
First explored by Maori Chief Tane Tinorau and English surveyor Fred Mace in 1887, the Waitomo Gloworm Caves now attract many visitors each year who come to see the pinpoints of lights created by thousands of glow worm larvae. The glow worms responsible for the light, Arachnocampa luminosa, live only in New Zealand.
Morning Glory Clouds
Where: Burketown, Australia (from September to November)
The southern region the Gulf of Carpentaria is the only place Morning Glory clouds can be predicted and observed on a regular basis. Many glider pilots travel to this area to ride the currents that create these incredible formations. Up to 620 miles long and 1.2 miles high, these clouds sit low to the ground and can move up to 37 miles per hours. There may be up to eight consecutive roll clouds, depending on weather conditions.
Where: The Amazon River
Twice each year, tides in the Atlantic Ocean converge at the mouth of the Amazon River and create the world's longest wave. Pororoca waves occur once in February and once in March, and can be up to 12 feet high. In 2003, Picuruta Salazar completed the longest distance ever surfed when he rode the wave 10 miles over the course of 37 minutes. Surfing pororoca waves is not recommended, however, due to debris and dangerous animals in the river.
Where: San Juan Island or the Hood Canal in Washington state
While bioluminescence occurs at many places throughout the world, the waters around Washington State are some of the most incredible places to see this phenomenon. Strong currents bring a plethora of nutrients to the area, attracting an abundance of bioluminescent plankton. As you kayak the Hood Canal or the waters around the San Juan Islands, watch the water turn to a glowing silvery-blue as your paddle and boat agitate the tiny organisms. If you're feeling adventurous, jump in the water and watch as the plankton glow brightly around you as you swim.
Lluvia de Peces (Rain of Fish)
Where: Yoro, Honduras
While fish raining from the sky may sound like a fairy tale, it's a fact of life for locals in Yoro, Honduras. The phenomenon occurs each summer, and no one is sure how it happens. A popular myth describes how Father Jose Manuel Subiranaa-a Spanish Catholic missionary considered by many to be a saint-prayed for three days and three nights after seeing the extreme poverty in the area. The rain of fish, many believe, was a miracle from God that continues to this day. The phenomenon has not been investigated by scientists; however, there are a couple of theories around the event. The fish may come from the Atlantic Ocean, where they are sucked up by water spouts and then dropped on the town. Another theory suggests the fish are from subterranean rivers, and are washed into the meadows through spouts after sudden downpours.
Each year, locals hold a festival in June or July to celebrate. The date varies depending on the first major rainfall.
Where: Catatumbo River, Venezuela
In this northwest corner of Venezuela, the rate of lightning strikes is higher than anywhere else on Earth. The jaw-dropping light show occurs up to 300 nights a year at the mouth of the Catatumbo River where the water empties into Lake Maracaibo.
Although this event occurred continually for centuries, it stopped suddenly in April 2010 due to El Niño. Although many worried the lightning would not return, the phenomenon reappeared after several months.
The Great Migration
Where: Serengeti National Park (Tanzania), Maasai Mara Game Reserve (Kenya)
Every year, a massive herd of approximately 1.5 million wildebeest and 200,000 zebras chase the rains from Kenya to Tanzania. You cansee the animalsin Kenya from July to October and in Tanzania the rest of the year. The incredible trek attracts tourists from all over the world who come to see the huge herds and watch them take on the dangers of the Africansavanna,including crocodiles, lions and cheetahs.
The Taos Hum
Where: Taos, New Mexico
The Taos hum is a mysterious, low-frequency humming noise that can only be heard by a small portion of the populationabout two to 11 percent. No one is sure where the hum comes from, but those who can hear it often describe the sound as similar to a distant diesel engine idling. The Taos Hum was featured on the television show Unsolved Mysteries, as well as in the XFiles, when agent Mulder speculates that extremely low frequency radio waves are the source of the noise.