Tornado forming at sunset (Dreamstime)
List Words : Wanderlust team | 04 November

The world's wildest natural phenomena and where to see them

Awe-inspiring, breathtaking and, at times, terrifying, these 7 natural phenomena prove that the greatest show on Earth is the Earth itself. Peter Moore tracks down twisters, lightning storms and the 'Door to Hell'

1. Catatumbo Lightning, Venuzuela

First mentioned in a 1597 poem by Lope de Vega, the Catatumbo Lightning in Venezuela is the greatest light show on earth, with spectacular strikes up to 260 days a year, 10 hours a day and 280 times an hour. The phenomenon is the largest single generator of ozone in the world.

Lightning over Catatumbo (Creative Commons: Thechemicalengineer)

Lightning over Catatumbo (Creative Commons: Thechemicalengineer)

The strikes are most intense over the mouth of the Catatumbo River at the point it empties into Lake Maracaibo and the bog area around it. Here, the winds blowing across the swamp meet the high mountain ridges that surround the lake of three sides, creating electrical charges and thunderstorms.

The phenomenon is celebrated on the flag and coat of arms of the state of Zulia and is mentioned in the state’s anthem.

2. Darvaza Crater, Turkmenistan

Known locally as 'The Door To Hell', the Darvaza Crater is a gas-fuelled fire pit accidentally started by scientists in 1971 and burning ever since. It has become one of Turkmenistan’s most unlikely – and popular ­– tourist attractions.

Darvaza Crater (Creative Commons: Tormod Sandtorv)

Darvaza Crater (Creative Commons: Tormod Sandtorv)

The gas crater is situated near the village of Derweze in the Karakum Desert and is roughly the size of a football pitch. The area around it has become a popular spot for desert camping, although the jet-engine roar of the fire and the eternal glow can make getting a good night’s sleep problematic.

3. The flammable ice bubbles of Lake Abraham, Canada

Looking for all the world like frozen jellyfish, the pretty spheres trapped under the ice on Alberta’s Lake Abraham every winter are in fact frozen bubbles of methane gas. Strike a match when one pops and the whole lake would go up.

Frozen methane bubbles trapped under Lake Albert (Dreamstime)

Frozen methane bubbles trapped under Lake Albert (Dreamstime)

The bubbles are created when dead organic matter sinks to the bottom of the lake and is eaten by bacteria. The bacteria releases methane gas that, in winter, is trapped below the ice and frozen into a glorious tapestry. It’s a phenomenon that happens in thousands of lakes across the Arctic, but most easily seen on Lake Albert.

4. Tidal Bore on the Severn, England

Each year in April, hundreds of surfers gather at the mouth of the Severn River in southwestern England to ride a tidal bore that forms in the Bristol Channel and rolls up the Severn Estuary as far upriver as Gloucester.

A tidal bore is a phenomenon where the leading edge of an incoming tide forms a wave. There are small bores throughout the year, but the biggest ones, favoured by surfers, are around the equinoxes. Other famous tidal bores include the Sittaung River in Burma, Daly River in Australia and the Colorado River in the US.

Timetables for the Severn bore and predictions of its height are published each year and should be consulted before heading to the Severn with your longboard under your arm. 

5. Moskstraumen, Lofoten, Norway

The waters off the islands of the Lofoten archipelago in the north of Norway have long terrified sailors. Old Norse legends warned of terrible whirlpools here, big and strong enough to drag whole ships to the bottom of the Atlantic ocean.

Boat approaching a moskstraum in Norway (Dreamstime)

Boat approaching a moskstraum in Norway (Dreamstime)

The Norwegian call them Moskstraumen and they're the strongest tidal whirlpools in the world. They are also unusual in that they occur in the open sea, whereas most whirlpools form in rivers or between narrow straights. Locals from Moskenesøya, the nearest landfall to the phenomenon, offer boat tours to view them. Just make sure the boat doesn’t get too close.

6. The Twisters of Tornado Alley, USA

Tornadoes form when three types of air converge in a particular manner, a phenomenon that occurs with alarming regularity in a swathe of land reaching from Texas to Dakota and into southern Canadadubbed Tornado Alley.

A tornado at sunset (Dreamstime)

A tornado at sunset (Dreamstime)

Thanks to the Wizard of Oz, most folk think of Kansas as the tornado capital of the US, but Texas reports the most tornadoes each year. Oklahoma City is probably the most popular base for storm chasers, although Wichita in Kansas is a favourite too, largely because it is a convenient base to chase storms in Nebraska and Colorado too.

7. The ‘lavafalls’ of Kilauea, Hawaii

Not only is Kilauea on Hawaii’s Big Island the most active volcano in the world, it's also the only one on Earth where the lava flows directly into the sea.

Lava flowing into the sea, Kilauea, Hawaii (Dreamstime)

Lava flowing into the sea, Kilauea, Hawaii (Dreamstime)

It’s a spectacular sight, and one best seen from a boat on the open ocean or from helicopter rides high above. The red hot lava oozes into the ocean, making the sea boil and vaporise into a hissing plume of steam. As with the whirlpools of Norway, you may want to make sure your boat captain doesn’t get too close.


Main image: Tornado forming at sunset (Dreamstime)