Jurassic Coast, United Kingdom
There are 185 million years of history hidden along the south coast of England, in the United Kingdom. Paleontologist Mary Anning (opens in new tab) made game-changing discoveries of prehistoric remains along this coastline in the early 1800s.
According to the Smithsonian (opens in new tab), the shores of Devon and Dorset used to lie under the sea where Morocco sits today. Before the continents completely drifted apart (opens in new tab) this region was a hotbed of prehistoric life. Over thousands of years, animal remains became imbedded in sediment that eventually hardened to stone.
Today this area is battered by coastal waves, but new fossil discoveries are still being made: finds range from small curled ammonites to 33-foot-long (10 meter) ichthyosaurs, according to the BBC (opens in new tab).
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
There are around 1,600 islands nestled throughout this 580-square-mile (1,500 square kilometers) bay in the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam. A layer of limestone slowly developed over 500 million years, and by the end of the Permian Period (opens in new tab), 251 million years ago, it was 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) thick.
The hunk of rock was then weathered by the sea, but really took a beating in the last ice age (opens in new tab). The slab broke apart, and the fragments are the islands we see today. Around 1,600 people live in floating fishing villages rather than disturb the pristine islands, while tourists sleep on board boats during their visit, according to Lonely Planet (opens in new tab).
Komodo Island, Indonesia
Famous for its giant lizards, this volcanic island in southern Indonesia is part of the Lesser Sunda Islands. Komodo dragons (opens in new tab) are the largest living lizards on Earth today.
They came from Australia and are descendants of the biggest lizards known to science, according to the Guardian (opens in new tab). With no other predators on the island, Komodo dragons were able to thrive, but eventually most of the native prey disappeared, so they now eat animals that have been introduced to the island, ranging from rats (opens in new tab) to water buffalo (opens in new tab).
Pamukkale means “cotton castle.” Hot water flows down from a cliff-top spring 655 feet (200 meters) from the ground. The water comes out warm when it originates from a spring 1,050 feet (320 meters) underground.
As water leaves the spring it makes contact with the air for the first time and begins to change. Initially, it’s fully saturated with minerals, but a chemical reaction (opens in new tab) causes it to release carbon. As this process happens it leaves a coating of crystals behind. Pamukkale boasts petrified waterfalls, mineral forests and terraced basins, according to UNESCO (opens in new tab).
Peyto Lake, Canada
This gorgeous lake is in Banff, the oldest national park in Canada. It’s fed by active glaciers (opens in new tab) high up in the Canadian Rockies. Flowing glaciers scrape away fragments of rock as they advance.
The places where the ice (opens in new tab) touches the rock is wet and slippery, helping water to wash bits of rock down to sea level underneath the frozen river. The dust from this rock reflects blue light, according to Earth Science Picture of the Day (opens in new tab), and so our eyes see the water as a vivid turquoise. This effect is strongest in the summer when glaciers melt fastest.
Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina
While most glaciers (opens in new tab) in the region are melting fast, this one has barely changed in the last 100 years. It crawled forward at least 2,625 feet (800 meters) since the late 1800s, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports (opens in new tab), and may still be advancing today. It accumulates more mass than any glacier being monitored right now.
The parts of a glacier that are bonded most strongly to rock are called pinning points. Glaciers usually retreat quickly if this part of the glacier melts. Perito Moreno is holding firm thanks to the strength of its crucial pinning points, which may help it survive the warming climate (opens in new tab), according to the same study.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
This is the biggest salt flat in the world, stretching more than 4,000 square miles (10,300 square kilometers) and sitting at an elevation of 12,000 feet (3,660 meters). The ground is covered by salt crust several feet thick, with a pool of salty brine beneath.
For thousands of years water has collected in the area to form lakes, then dried up again. A study published in the journal Quaternary Research (opens in new tab) found that the entire plain was permanently flooded at least four times in the last 40,000 years. Cacti (opens in new tab) are the only plants that can grow on the salt flat, but three species of flamingo visit for the breeding season every November.
The Maldives, Indian Ocean
The Maldives comprises 1,190 small islands in the Indian Ocean surrounded by coral reefs (opens in new tab). Almost 1,000 of the islands are uninhabited by humans. Most of the sand around the world consists of rough grains of quartz (opens in new tab), but the shores of the Maldives are piled with soft coral sand, making them some of the best beaches in the world, according to Lonely Planet (opens in new tab).
With an average elevation of three to five feet (one to 1.5 meters) according to the High Commission of Maldives (opens in new tab), it’s both the lowest and flattest nation on Earth. If sea levels (opens in new tab) rise at the rate scientists predict, much of the country could disappear underwater by 2100, says an article published on Earth.org (opens in new tab).
Victoria Falls, southern Africa
These are among the world’s most famous waterfalls (opens in new tab). Its one-mile (1.6 kilometers) width is remarkable. The bedrock beneath the Zambezi River is basalt (opens in new tab) — volcanic rock that formed 180 million years ago.
The bedrock built up over a million years of gentle volcanic eruptions, and the layers of hot lava cooled down and cracked in several places from east to west. When the Pangea supercontinent (opens in new tab) split, the damage to the basalt worsened.
Tectonic plates then pushed southern Africa upwards, creating new river systems. Victoria Falls began flowing 5 million years ago after movements underground caused an enormous lake to start spilling over. The water quickly established a course and now flows elegantly off the cliffs of the fractured volcanic rock.
Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Almost 3,000 individual reefs (opens in new tab) make up the biggest coral system in the world. It’s home to 1,500 fish species, a third of the world’s soft coral and six of the world’s seven species of sea turtle. It was established as a World Heritage Site in 1981, and restrictions on fishing and tourism were put in place.
Sadly, the Great Barrier Reef (opens in new tab) has lost half its coral since 1985. The damage is happening so fast scientists can’t keep up. Corals have died off because of pollution, invasive species and a process called coral bleaching (opens in new tab), according to Science (opens in new tab) magazine. The water on the planet is simply getting too warm for corals to survive but, according to an article published by Nature (opens in new tab) on Nov. 27, 2019, scientists are protecting the more resilient reefs while nursing others back to health.