20 Gorgeous Photos of Rare Events
These are the rarest events in nature—caught on film.
Some of nature’s most inspiring scenes are also some of its most rare. For example, once a year, the sun hits Horsetail Falls in Yosemite National Park at just the right angle to make the entire waterfall look like it’s on fire. And for two weeks each spring, fireflies light up the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with a stunningly luminous mating ritual.
But while these events are breathtaking, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see them in person (unless you’ve got one heck of a bucket list!). To help you view them anyway, we’ve rounded up a list of the most awe-inspiring photos of rare events—guaranteed to make you utter “but… how?”
Total solar eclipse; Stanley, Idaho
Do you remember what you were doing on August 21, 2017? If you were like most people in the U.S., you were probably attempting to view the total solar eclipse. Unlike other solar eclipses, a total solar eclipse, in which the moon completely covers the surface of the sun, is incredibly rare. They typically only take place every hundred years or so, depending on where you live, according to NASA.
Volcanic lightning; Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland
Capturing a volcanic eruption is one thing. But capturing a volcanic eruption through an ice cap is something else entirely. That’s what happened in this shot, taken in Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland. The lightning above the ice cap is called volcanic lightning—and it tends to occur when ash-rich plumes interact with weather systems containing ice, according to Oregon State University.
Light halo; Finland
It might appear to be a heavenly scene, but according to the National Weather Service, the light halo captured in this photo is caused by sunlight refracting off ice crystals that are present in the clouds. As is the case in this shot, which was captured in Finland, light halos often appear as rainbows—though they sometimes appear as simple bright lights around the sun or moon.
Horsetail Falls; Yosemite National Park, California
Once a year, around the second week of February, the setting sun in Yosemite National Park hits Horsetail Falls at just the right angle—and makes them look more like a deluge of fire than water. And as you might expect, catching this rare scene on film has become incredibly popular. Recently, park rangers had to place restrictions on where and when visitors could snap photos of the falls, according to the Yosemite Firefall website.
Bioluminescent waves; Samut Sakhon, Thailand
Bioluminescence, the biochemical emission of light by living creatures (like fireflies!), is not terribly uncommon in marine animals. But that doesn’t make this display of bioluminescent plankton in Samut Sakhon, Thailand, any less magical. According to Diving in Thailand, plankton use bioluminescence to scare off their predators. And this spectacle proves they can also use it to put spectators in awe. Stunning light shows like these rarely take place so close to the shore and occur even less frequently near such highly visited beaches.
Supercell; Harrisburg, Nebraska
Captured just outside of Harrisburg, Nebraska, this rare “supercell” eventually turned into a cluster of tornadoes that wreaked havoc on several nearby farms. According to the National Weather Service, supercells are the rarest types of thunderstorms that, due to their rotating updrafts, frequently produce violent weather such as tornadoes and hail the size of baseballs.
Lenticular clouds; Varese Lake, Italy
According to the Weather Underground, lenticular clouds are rare lens-shaped clouds that form on the downside of a mountain or mountain range. For them to form, stable, moist air must flow over the mountain or mountain range to create a series of oscillating waves. Further, the crest of the wave has to be equal in temperature to the dew point—creating the evaporation that forms the rare lenticular clouds that appear in this photo taken over Varese Lake in Lombardy, Italy.
Fire tornado; South Africa
Captured during a wildfire in South Africa, this photograph shows the extent to which Mother Nature can inflict both beauty and terror. Fire tornados typically occur during wildfires, when intense rising heat combined with strong winds cause powerful columns of fire. Recently, the phenomenon was spotted in California, as wildfires ravaged parts of the state, according to a report from USA Today.
Permafrost explosion; Siberia, Russia
When a sinkhole occurs in the tundra, you get what’s called a “permafrost explosion.” According to the Weather Channel, these permafrost explosions are likely caused by warmer temperatures in the Arctic. The explosions occur when high-pressure gasses meet warmer temperatures—and now that they’re happening more frequently, they’re beginning to worry scientists. Here’s one that took place in a remote part of Siberia.
Snake orgy; Manitoba, Canada
Every spring, from late April to late May, some 3,000 people flock to Manitoba, Canada, to catch the annual mating ritual of its 7,500 red-sided garter snakes. The province has the largest concentrated population of the snakes in the world—but you still wouldn’t catch us going to see them.
Waterspout; Malapascua, Phillipines
Just like land tornadoes, waterspouts, or tornadoes that form over bodies of water, are typically associated with severe thunderstorms and serious destruction. In the U.S., they occur most frequently over the Great Lakes, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This one was captured off the coast of Malapascua, an island in the Phillippines.
Pando Aspen Grove; Fishlake National Forest, Utah
You might be wondering what’s so rare about a bunch of trees. But the thing is, this isn’t a bunch of trees—it’s one tree. Researchers have discovered that the 106 acres of trees in the Pando aspen grove at the Fishlake National Forest in Utah are the result of just one single root system. Scientists call it the single most massive living organism known on Earth.
Synchronous fireflies; Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
For approximately two weeks in May and June, the thousands of synchronous fireflies who have made a home within the confines of Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee begin their mating ritual—and, as you can see, it’s one of the most breathtaking sites in the world. The fireflies flash various shades of green-yellow and blue, according to the National Park Service.
Reflecting lake; Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
No, no, this person isn’t walking on water. In fact, there’s no lake in this photo at all. The image was captured at the world’s largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. A salt flat is an area of flat land covered with a layer of salt. During certain times of the year, nearby lakes overflow onto this salt flat, which creates a thin layer of water on its surface and makes the entire flat a reflective surface. That’s what you’re seeing here, according to National Geographic. It’s one of nature’s best optical illusions.
Mammatus clouds; Nebraska
This photograph, taken in rural Nebraska, shows an example of mammatus clouds—a rare cloud formation that occurs when the clouds sink in the air. In order for these clouds to form, “the sinking air must be cooler than the air around it and have high liquid water or ice content,” according to AccuWeather. But mammatus clouds are not, in fact, a beacon of bad weather to come—so take a walk outside and enjoy them while they last.
Sailing stones; Racetrack Playa; California
Of all the National Parks in the United States, Death Valley National Park is perhaps the most mysterious. Case in point: Racetrack Playa, where stones seemingly roll across the rough playa without assistance. This puzzled scientists for decades, until they finally caught the stones in action. According to Science News, an incredibly rare chain of events must take place in order for the trail seen here to form.
“First, the playa fills with water, which must be deep enough to form floating ice during cold winter nights but shallow enough to expose the stones. As nighttime temperatures plummet, the pond freezes to form thin sheets of ‘windowpane’ ice, which must be thin enough to move freely but thick enough to maintain strength. On sunny days, the ice begins to melt and break up into large floating panels, which light winds drive across the playa, pushing rocks in front of them and leaving trails in the soft mud below the surface,” says Science News.
Light pillars; Cowen, West Virginia
Captured in rural Cowen, West Virginia, these light pillars are actually the collective glints of millions of ice crystals, according to Atmospheric Optics. Since the light pillars take on the colors of the surrounding sun and clouds, they can appear as different colors of the rainbow.
Monarch butterfly migration; Michoacán, Mexico
Considered one of the greatest natural events on Earth, the Monarch butterfly migration from the northeast U.S. and Canada to central Mexico takes place just before winter touches down in the insects’ summer locales. A photographer in Michoacán, Mexico, was lucky enough to capture this rare glimpse of the final days of the migration. The journey takes the butterflies two months to complete. That means they’re flying up to 100 miles a day, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
Turquoise ice; Lake Baikal, Russia
Nope, this isn’t an outtake from Frozen. It’s a photo of the deepest lake in the world, Lake Baikal in Russia. Under very specific conditions—which include just the right amount of wind, frost, and sunlight—the lake becomes covered in dazzling turquoise ice. The ice most frequently appears in March, which is when this photo was taken.
Lightning storm; Catatumbo River, Venezuela
The mouth of the Catatumbo River in Venezuela just might be the most lightning-struck place on earth. The location experiences some 250 storm days each year, according to the BBC. Scientists currently believe the region’s unique topography and wind patterns contribute to the bizarre atmospheric phenomena. On some days, there’s even around 1,000 lightning strikes an hour. This photograph captures one of those highly charged nights.
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