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Powerful Phenomena

Wielding the elements – water, earth, wind and fire – Mother Nature surprises us when she unleashes her mighty powers in spectacular and at times, malevolent forms that we’ve come to call ‘natural phenomena’.

Words: Efi Hafizah Hamzah

Aurora Borealis  aka Northern Lights

Lofoten Islands, Northern Norway


On cold winter nights, when daylight is short in the Lofoten Islands of northern Norway, mysterious lights appear in the black skies. This majestic illumination is known as the aurora borealis. Depending on the altitude when highly-charged particles from solar winds and the Earth’s magnetosphere collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms, the colour of the aurora can be green, red, blue or purple. The aurora is shrouded in myth and mystery; a Scandinavian superstition says that it gleams with the light of young women’s souls. Its name is derived from the Roman goddess of dawn – Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind – Boreas.

When & Where: While there are no guarantees that you’ll be rewarded with a sighting of the aurora borealis, the best time to head to northern Norway is between late September and early March. Should you miss the real thing, visit the Polarlight Centre Lofoten in Laukvik, which reproduces this spectacular phenomenon.


Moonbow aka Lunar Rainbow

Waimea, Hawaii 


The equivalent of a rainbow, but much rarer, the moonbow only occurs at night. Due to its faint appearance, the human eye usually misses it. As with a rainbow, it happens when light is broken up into its constituent colours as it passes through water droplets or mist. The source of light in both occurrences is the same – the sun. The difference being that a rainbow is produced by direct sunlight, whereas in the case of the moonbow, sunlight is first reflected off the surface of the moon. When it happens at a certain angle, the light then shines to Earth.

When & Where: This phenomenon is truly rare and when all elements are aligned, you may be lucky enough to see a moonbow over Waimea on the Hawaiian island of Kauai; the Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada, California, USA; or the Cumberland Falls in Kentucky, USA.


Fire Whirls

Anywhere there are strong winds during a forest fire 


Fire whirls can occur during bush or forest fires when severe heat combines with rotating air pushing fire to swirl upwards creating tornado-like infernos also known as fire tornadoes. Fire whirls usually last no more than a few minutes but can reach anywhere between 10 to 60 metres in height, expelling embers and debris into the air and causing wildfires to spread.

When & Where: Fire whirls can happen anywhere in the world under certain conditions of air temperature and currents that have a vertical vorticity (a spin in relation of vertical axis).


Check out this stunning clip on ABC news 


The Andes Mountain range through South American Countries


Penitentes are a snow formation that is often experienced by ice climbers and serious mountain hikers at very high altitudes. Named after the peak-hooded New Mexican monks, penitentes look like ice blades that peak towards the sun and can stand almost three times the height of an average man, appearing as a field of icicles. It’s natural to think that these peaks would melt in the sun, but strangely enough, the melting process is slowed down by the shadows cast, as well as cold winds blowing over the peaks. Instead, they turn into water vapour without liquidising – a process known as sublimation.

When & Where: Penitentes are visible all year round on the high altitude glaciers along the Andes Mountain range that stretches across the highlands along the western coast of South America covering seven countries – Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.


Lenticular Stacks 

Mt Rainier, Washington, USA 


Lenticular stacks can easily be mistaken for UFOs. These clouds often resemble layers of fluffy pancakes, and are formed by high winds blowing over the tops of hills and mountains. As moist air spirals upwards, it condenses and forms lenticular stacks over summits. These clusters of clouds occasionally take the shape of miniature waves or choppy seas, and may remain stationary, hovering over one spot for hours or even days until the wind or weather changes, causing the clouds to disperse. While aeroplane pilots avoid lenticular stacks due to the turbulence caused, sailplane aviators love them for the voluminous internal uplift that can drive motor-less flyers to greater heights.

When & Where: Lenticular stacks occur all year round over mountain tops in places like Mount Shasta in Siskiyou County, California, USA and Mount Fuji on Honshu Island, Japan. The best formed stacks can be seen over the summit of Washington’s Mount Rainier, USA.



Staircase To The Moon 

Broome, Western Australia 

When the full moon rises over the little towns along the coastline of northwest Australia, its light reflects off the exposed mudflats, conjuring what seems to be a stairway to the moon. This optical illusion takes place in the coastal towns of Onslow, Dampier, Point Samson Peninsula, Hearson Cove and Port Hedland, but is best experienced in Broome where it is known as the Staircase to the Moon. This phenomenon has turned these quaint coastline towns into tourist attractions where visitors can also experience local markets brimming with charming crafts and fun entertainment.

When & Where: The best time to view this phenomenon is between March and October. Be sure to check the local visitor centre for updated information as times vary for each town. www.australiasnorthwest.com


The great plains Of USA (Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming)


A supercell, also known as a rotating thunderstorm, is a force of nature that’s both spellbinding and terrifying at the same time. It wreaks havoc, producing some of the most violent and destructive weather around the world. Although supercells can last for hours on end, fortunately, they’re not very common. A supercell is unique; unlike other thunderstorms, it contains a deep and unrelenting rotating updraft called mesocyclone that produces tornadoes, large hail storms, fl ash fl oods and lightning. If you ever catch sight of a tall storm cloud with a head that seems to pull in the clouds from the heavens and spiral down to earth with a fierce force swiping away everything in its path, this is a supercell that has spawned a killer tornado.

When & Where: Supercells occur most frequently on the Great Plains of USA. America sees about 1,000 recorded tornadoes yearly, and about 200 of them have so far been spawned by supercells. Check out videos by the Texas Storm Chasers (http://goo.gl/pL1n5) to see the formation of a tornado spawned by a supercell.



Dragon Fireball 

Mekong River, Thailand

This phenomenon can be witnessed during the Naga Fireball Festival. Held at the end of Buddhist Lent yearly, this event attracts throngs of local and foreign visitors all keen on witnessing the mysterious phenomenon of hundreds of flaming orbs shooting up from the Mekong River in the Nongkhai province of Isaan – solidifying the local belief that a naga (dragon) dwells in the river. 

Red Tide aka Algal Bloom

Wulfert Point, North Of Sanibel Island, Florida, USA

The red tide occurs when a sudden and massive influx of single cell organisms called dinoflagellates concentrates in one vast area and washes up on the shores of a beach. Although generally harmless when in contact with human skin, they may kill when ingested, and is disastrous to marine life.

Great Barrier Reef

North-East Coast, Australia

It is the largest living structure on the planet stretching from the coast of Queensland to the western edge of the Pacific Ocean covering approximately 2,300 kilometres. Bigger than the UK, Switzerland and Holland combined, it can even be seen from outer space! The Great Barrier Reef is a protected coral reef system listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Rain Of Fish 

Yoro, Honduras

The sleepy town of Yoro experiences the rain of fish at least once, and sometimes twice a year. There are various scientific explanations for this, yet none are absolute. Perhaps, the best explanation was given by the award-winning documentary on BBC but locals believe that this phenomenon is nothing short of a divine occurrence.