Image credit: CC BY-ND 2.0 (Ben, 2014)
Nature often captivates us with its incredible force and unpredictability, creating displays that can seem surreal. From a spectacle of enchanting lights dancing jovially against a crisp night sky to the bizarre phenomenon of bioluminescence setting seas aglow with a dreamlike blue, natural occurrences fill us with astonishment and leave us pondering at Mother Nature’s mystery and greatness.
What to know about chasing the Northern Lights
Your 3-minute guide to the elusive Southern Lights
Don’t miss these wildlife experiences in Europe
The enigmatic Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis, is hands-down the most popular and sought-after of the top natural phenomena in the world, plus it’s also one of the most accessible. Pulsating and glimmering across the Arctic sky, this natural occurrence is almost always No. 1 on every adventurer’s travel wishlist.
But the planet brims with plenty more miracles for avid nature lovers. Embrace adventure and unpredictability as Quotient takes you to places where light creates the most exquisite backdrop.
Dancing lights of the south
Scientifically, the Southern Lights or Aurora Australis is caused by solar flares colliding with energy particles in the earth’s magnetic field. To keen sky gazers, however, the magic of seeing a night sky blanketed in fluorescent reds and greens is a feeling that goes beyond technicalities.
As the younger sister of the celebrated Aurora Borealis, the Southern Lights may not get all the attention from nature enthusiasts. Yet, this natural light display, which can be admired in New Zealand’s South Island and some parts of Australia such as Tasmania, is equally beguiling.
While auroras are known to be more prevalent around the peak of the solar cycle, they can be incredibly elusive. The Southern Lights are generally visible from March to September; in New Zealand and Australia, the best time to catch this fiery nature show is from June to August.
The electrifying lightning show of Venezuela
Growing up, there was always something particularly frightening and fascinating about a thunderstorm. The might of fury unleashed can send one whimpering even within the comforting safety of home, but as we got older it became more intriguing to witness those bolts of white temporarily scarring the sky.
Come adulthood, the interest in unique natural phenomena can be taken to another level. For those who love nature’s theatrical facet and seeing nature at its rawest, head to Venezuela. Here, ecitement strikes you repeatedly due to the peculiar phenomenon known as Catatumbo lightning.
At Lago de Maracaibo – South America’s largest body of water – some 700 kilometres from the capital city of Caracas, travellers can spot some 40,000 bolts ripping across the sky during this occurrence, which has earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. Each time, the night sky is illuminated for 9 to 10 hours with flashes of natural electricity making for a surreal scene that seems to be extracted from a sci-fi movie.
The lightning, also known as the Beacon of Maracaibo or the “everlasting storm”, can happen throughout the year but the lightning typically ceases during the region’s dry season, particularly in January and February. Beside its increasing thunderstorm tourism, the region is also home to jaguars, alligators and other exotic fauna, so adventurers can also fill their daytime hours watching unique wildlife.
A different kind of rhythm and blues
Whether it’s a cave lit by millions of glow worms, a forest invaded by bright fireflies or a body of water blanketed by blue tones, natural light displays truly fascinate us humans. Among a plethora of compelling top natural phenomena, there is one that aesthetes will immediately fall for. Known as bioluminescence, the unique phenomenon provides one of the most visually compelling shows on earth – especially in the ocean.
As night falls, certain beaches around the world rapidly morph into enormous art canvases: cerulean waves start glowing with an eerie blue light and millions of neon dots pepper the water with glowing stars. Scientifically, the phosphorescence occurs when micro-organisms are agitated or when waves crash onto the shore.
While the occurrence doesn’t have a precise timing, you can admire bioluminescence in the eastern islands of Maldives including Mudhdhoo, Vaadhoo and Rangali from July to February, especially during a new moon when the darkness of the sky helps intensify the light. Travellers can also head to the Mosquito Bay in Puerto Rico, the capital of bioluminescence; San Diego in the U.S. state of California; and Toyama Bay in Japan. The concentrates of light-producing organisms in the small inlet in central Japan is particularly exhilarating, as you can swim in a liquid of light and even spot fish that leave glowing trails behind them.
In the land of the midnight sun
Experiencing a land where the sun never sets may seem like a surreal image but in Norway during the summer, visitors can bask in 24 hours of daylight. It is then the Norwegian landscape, beautifully painted in yellow-reddish and orange hues, exudes a warm radiance even when the day is ending. Thanks to the midnight sun, locals also become more energetic and the flora and fauna experience a boost.
To make the best of this peculiar phenomenon, travellers can take guided hiking tours in the Svalbard Archipelago and even attempt to spot a polar bear. You can also go island hopping in the alluring Lofoten Islands, which will give you a taste of the Norwegian fjords in a totally different light.
The season for experiencing the midnight sun varies depending on the proximity to the Arctic Circle; however, June and July are the peak periods. If you travel further north, to the remote Svalbard Archipelago, you can experience the midnight sun from May to August.
Somewhere over the moonbow
While rainbows are ubiquitous around the world, the elusive moonbow (also known as the lunar rainbow) is one of the most surprising and rare top natural phenomena. The stunning nature event occurs at night and cannot fully be seen with the naked eye; diehard skygazers normally use long-exposure photography to reveal its true beauty.
If you wish to photograph a moonbow, the best place to begin your quest is by waterfalls as moonbows form from falling water.
Although some American towns such as Arizona’s Jerome have welcomed moonbows, the most reliable locations for stunning sightings are Victoria Falls in Zambia, Costa Rica’s cloud forests, and in Yosemite National Park and Kentucky’s Cumberland Falls in the U.S. states of California and Illinois, respectively.
In 2020, Yosemite’s moonbows will be visible between 5th and 9th April, from 5th to 9th May and 3rd to 7th June.