The Island of Snakes

5 Apr

This is one island that I won’t be visiting anytime soon; Ilha de Queimada Grande, otherwise known as Snake Island, is probably one of the scariest places in the world. The uninhabited island is just off the coast of Brazil, and is home to a species of snake known as the Golden Lancehead Viper.

Location of the island just off the coast of Brazil

Location of the island just off the coast of Brazil

The Golden Lancehead, or Borthrops insularis, is not found anywhere else in the world, but this island is teeming with them. Some say that there is one snake per square meter, and others claim an even higher figure. The island is 430,000 square meters, so that’s at least 430,000 snakes.

They aren’t small snakes, either. The average length of one of these snakes is nearly 30  inches  (75 cm), with some reaching a maximum of 46  inches (116 cm). To make matters worse, they are one of the most venomous snake species on Earth. It’s really no wonder that the island isn’t used for anything.

The species might actually be at risk for extinction, which is sad for them (and snake-lovers). They are considered to be a critically endangered species, and they face other problems due to interbreeding. Interbreeding has caused a high rate of intersex baby snakes to be born, and these intersex snakes are almost always sterile.

As I said earlier, I would definitely never want to set foot on this island. Unfortunately for crazy thrill-seekers who do want to visit it, the Brazilian Navy has expressly forbidden anyone, except the occasional scientist, from going to the island. This really isn’t surprising, considering that wherever you set foot on this island, there is always a snake (or several) close by.

To read more, visit http://webspinners.com/coloherp/cb-news/archive/nature/Paradise.php or

http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/snake-island-ilha-de-queimada-grande

Leptis Magna

5 Apr

All throughout Europe, there are many beautiful ancient Roman ruins, but there are equally-magnificent and lesser-known ruins on other continents too. A good example of this is Leptis Magna. Leptis Magna is the remnants of a once-great Roman port city, and is considered to be one of the most impressive and unspoiled Roman ruins in the world.

The city ruins are near the coast in the African country of Libya, around 80 miles from its capital, Tripoli.

Location of Leptis Magna in Libya

Location of Leptis Magna in Libya

Here’s some pictures of the city:

Leptis Magna's arch of Septimius Severus. Credit: David Gunn

Leptis Magna’s arch of Septimius Severus. Credit: David Gunn

The basilica of Septimius Severus. Credit: Sasha Coachman

The basilica of Septimius Severus. Credit: Sasha Coachman

Close-up of part of the basilica of Septimius Severus. Credit: Sasha Coachman

Close-up of part of the basilica of Septimius Severus. Credit: Sasha Coachman

The city was founded by the Phoenicians around 3000 years ago, and was originally called Lpqy. During the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, it became a thriving trade city. Then, from the year 193 onwards, it became one of Roman Africa’s most prominent cities. This was because the Roman Emperor at that time, Septimius Severus, was actually born in Leptis Magna, so he naturally favoured his home-city over others. Severus enlarged the city, and as a result Leptis Magna contains many Roman-inspired buildings; forums, a theatre, public baths, marketplaces and monuments, to name a few.

The theatre. Credit:(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Man)

The theatre at Leptis Magna. Credit:(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Man)

Another view of the theatre. Credit:(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Man)

Another view of the theatre. Credit:(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Man)

An entrance to the theatre. Credit: Sasha Coachman

An entrance to the theatre. Credit: Sasha Coachman

View of the marketplace in Leptis Magna. Credit: Sasha Coachman

View of the marketplace in Leptis Magna. Credit: Sasha Coachman

Public baths in Leptis Magna. Credit:(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Man)

Public baths in Leptis Magna. Credit:(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Man)

Eventually, the city was ransacked by the Vandals, and later by the Berbers. Byzantine Empire general Flavius Belisarius tried to re-establish it as a provincial Byzantine capital, but the city didn’t recover from the destruction that previous raiders had caused. By the year 650 AD, the city was mostly abandoned.

Libya isn’t the easiest country to visit due to its political instability, but Leptis Magna would certainly be a wonderful place to see. Archaeologists have still not finished excavating the ruins, so it will also be interesting to see what else ends up being discovered in the future.

Giant’s Causeway

4 Apr

The Giant’s Causeway is located on the north-east coast of Ireland in a place called County Antrim. It consists of approximately 40,000 interlocking basalt columns that formed due to a volcanic eruption.

Giant's Causeway - Source

Giant’s Causeway – Source

Rather than paraphrase Wikipedia’s explanation on the formation I figured I would copy it here as it provides a good, easy to understand overview:

“Some 50 to 60 million years ago, during the Paleogene period, Antrim was subject to intense volcanic activity, when highly fluid molten basalt intruded through chalk beds to form an extensive lava plateau. As the lava cooled rapidly, contraction occurred. Horizontal contraction fractured in a similar way to drying mud, with the cracks propagating down as the mass cooled, leaving pillar-like structures, which are also fractured horizontally into “biscuits”. In many cases the horizontal fracture has resulted in a bottom face that is convex while the upper face of the lower segment is concave, producing what are called “ball and socket” joints. The size of the columns is primarily determined by the speed at which lava from a volcanic eruption cools”

There was an old legend that described the formation as the result of an ancient giant ‘Benandonner’ tearing it up so that the great warrior ‘Fionn mac Cumhaill’ could not follow him. The story goes that the giant challenged Fionn and went to his house seeking him out. Not wanting to fight, Fionn and his wife came up with the idea to dress Fionn up as a baby. When Benandonner came to the house, Fionn’s wife told the giant he was out but he would be back shortly and he could wait if he wished. She showed the giant Fionn’s baby and after seeing how big he was the giant feared Fionn would be bigger. He ran away and tore up the causeway so Fionn could not follow him. There are a few slight variations on this story but this is the general outline.

These basalt structures are not unique to the Giant’s Causeway. There are many other locations with similar features around the world. There are two interesting features located at this spot, though. They are the Chimney Stack and the Giants Boot, shown below.

The Giants Boot

The Giants Boot

The Chimney Stack

The Chimney Stack

If anyone has visited the Giant’s Causeway or any similar structures, we would love to hear about it. Feel free to share some photos too.

Mount Mihara – The Most Depressing Volcano in the World

3 Apr

The geographical region that contains Japan and its surrounding areas is infamous for its occurrences of tectonic and volcanic activity, and Mount Mihara is an example of this.

Mount Mihara's peak from a distance. Source: http://wikitravel.org/shared/Image:IMG_4759.JPG

Mount Mihara’s peak from a distance. Source: http://wikitravel.org/shared/Image:IMG_4759.JPG

An active, 2500-foot tall ‘stratovolcano’, it is located on the island of Izu Ōshima, around 100 kilometers south of Tokyo. Stratovolcanoes are tall, conical, and most commonly formed at subduction zones. Mt. Mihara erupts quite frequently, with major eruptions occurring every 100-150 years. During the last major eruption, in 1986, the entire island’s population had to be evacuated by the military, and the plume created by the eruption was 16 kilometers high in the air.

Diagram of a subduction zone and stratovolcano

Diagram of a subduction zone and stratovolcano

So, what exactly is so depressing about Mt. Mihara? Well, the story starts in the 1920’s, when several people committed suicide at the volcano. From a certain point at the top of it, it was actually possible to jump straight into the lava. In 1933, a young student named Kiyoko Matsumoto also committed suicide by leaping into it, and this sparked a horrifying trend.

Within the year, almost 1000 people had committed suicide at Mt. Mihara, and when this trend continued for a few more years, Izu Ōshima became known as the ‘Suicide Island’. Eventually, Japanese authorities had to build a large wire fence around the jumping-off point, to prevent any more suicides.

Satellite image of Izu Ōshima. Mt. Mihara is visible as the darker area

Satellite image of Izu Ōshima. Mt. Mihara is visible as the darker area

Lava is so dense that if you jumped into it, you would not sink directly into it; instead, you would float. It is so hot that a person would essentially be cooked to death in their own steam, which is created from the body’s water vaporizing as it comes into contact with the lava flow.

That sounds like an incredibly awful way to die, and I have no idea why it became such a trend! Let’s hope that it doesn’t start up again.

The Eye of Africa

3 Apr

The ‘Eye of Africa’ (also known as the Eye of the Sahara) lies within the large east-African country of Mauritania, out in the Sahara Desert. Properly known as the Richat Structure, it is easy to see where its nickname comes from. Looking at it from above, it looks a lot like a big blue eye staring out of the ground. Here’s a picture of the Richat Structure:

Satellite image of the Richat Structure

Satellite image of the Richat Structure

Location of the structure in Mauritania

Location of the structure in Mauritania

Distant satellite image of Mauritania - the structure is still visble

Distant satellite image of Mauritania – the structure is justvisible, even from this far away

It is about 40 kilometers in diameter, and as you can see from the above picture, it is highly visible in satellite pictures.  So, how was this geological wonder formed? Researchers aren’t entirely sure. It was initially thought to have formed as the result of an asteroid impact, but scientists haven’t found any evidence for extraterrestrial involvement, other than its circular appearance.

richat4

Zoomed-in image of the Richat Structure from Google Maps

Geologists now believe that it is most likely to be a very symmetrical ‘geologic dome’. Wikipedia’s summary of a dome is this:

In structural geology, a dome is a deformational feature consisting of symmetrically-dipping anticlines; their general outline on a geologic map is circular or oval. The strata in a dome are upwarped in the center; if the top of a dome is eroded off, the result will be a series of concentric strata that grow progressively older from the outside-in, with the oldest rocks exposed at the center.’

No matter what led to the creation of it, the Richat Structure looks amazing, and I’m hoping that I will get to go and visit it one day.

Doggerland

31 Mar

It’s quite hard to imagine that only a few thousand years ago, there were lands on which people lived that have now completely disappeared into the ocean. But, this is exactly what happened to the area known as ‘Doggerland’.

Up until around 8500-8200 years ago, Doggerland was a large stretch of dry land that linked the European mainland to where the British Isles are today. Here’s a picture to show where it was, compared with what the area looks like today:

This is where Doggerland used to be in Europe. Credit: Max Naylor

This is where Doggerland used to be in Europe. Credit: Max Naylor

The same area today, minus Doggerland

The same area today, minus Doggerland

So, what happened to Doggerland, and how do we know about it?

Archaeologists first started to think that the area may have originally been above sea level in the early 1900’s, when fishing boats in the area would occasionally dredge up the remains of animals that had lived in Europe in prehistoric times, including mammoths and lions (yes, Europe used to have lions!). Plant remains were also brought up and studied by paleobiologists, who found them to be peat from when the land was above sea level and mostly tundra.

To add further interest, prehistoric tools and weapons used by ancient peoples were also found. Archaeologists now believe that Doggerland was occupied by humans during the Mesolithic period (this period started around 10,000 years ago), up until it started to disappear underwater. In fact, some think that it may have been one of the richest hunting and fishing environments available to European humans at the time.

Whilst surveying the area for petroleum, oil-company geologists produced seismic surveys of the land beneath the waves, and in 2012, the Royal Academy of London presented the results of the surveys along with all the artefacts that have been found so far. The seismic surveys allow researchers to see what the land looked like while it was still above sea level, and even Doggerland’s ancient river systems have been mapped in 3D. The largest of these rivers is known as the ‘Shotton River’.

In regards to the disappearance of Doggerland, researchers believe that at the end of the last glacial period, sea levels began to rise dramatically as the climate warmed up. Due to this, Doggerland was eventually submerged under the North Sea, and the British Isles were separated from the European mainland. This probably all happened around 8500 years ago.

Another recent theory claims that after already losing some land to rising sea levels, Doggerland may have become completely submerged as the result of a tsunami that hit the area 8200 years ago. This tsunami was caused by an event known as the ‘Storegga Slide’. It is named this because the event was a massive underwater landslide, occurring off the coast of Norway. The resulting tsunami would have been devastating to Mesolithic people who still lived on Dogger Bank, and after this event, British Mesolithic populations would have been totally separated from the rest.

The yellow numbers represent the height (in meters) of the tsunami waves from the Storegga Slide. Credit: Lamiot

The yellow numbers represent the height (in meters) of the tsunami waves from the Storegga Slide. Credit: Lamiot

One part of Doggerland actually remained for quite a while longer. An island known as ‘Dogger Bank’ emerged when the rest went underwater. Dogger Bank was an upland hill area of the original Doggerland, so the sea levels didn’t rise high enough to cover it. Eventually, however, Dogger Bank also disappeared into the ocean, and this probably happened around 7000 years ago. Here is a map that shows us where Dogger Bank is now:

The red line marks where Dogger Bank used to be. Credit: NASA

The red line marks where Dogger Bank used to be. Credit: NASA

It is fascinating to think that once-populated lands are now totally underwater. Geologists and archaeologists really have the most interesting jobs sometimes!

Derweze – The Door to Hell

31 Mar

In the Karakum (or ‘Black Sand’) Desert, which covers much of the central-Asian country of Turkmenistan, one of the strangest-looking natural gas deposits in the world sits outside of Derweze village. It is a large crater, with a diameter of 230 feet.

Location of Derweze in Turkmenistan

Location of Derweze in Turkmenistan

It is known to the locals as the ‘Door to Hell’, for reasons that become quite obvious when you look at it. The area also smells quite strongly of sulphur, which is quite a ‘hellish’ smell. Here’s some pictures of it:

Distant view of the crater. Credit: P. Lechian

Distant view of the crater. Credit: P. Lechian

Credit: Tormod Sandtorv

Credit: Tormod Sandtorv

If there actually was a doorway to hell, then this place really does resemble how most people would picture it. Why does it look like this, though?

Turkmenistan is known for its natural oil and gas reserves. In fact, it has the fourth-largest natural gas reserves in the world. In 1971, some scientists investigated the field near Derweze to see if they could drill for oil. Upon realising that the field was actually a very large natural gas field, they decided to store the gas, and started drilling operations to get to it. Unfortunately, the ground that they were drilling collapsed and formed a large crater, which released methane gases into the air. Worried that the methane would affect the local population and nearby environment, the scientists decided to burn the gas off. This was considered to be a normal way of getting rid of dangerous gases, and they figured the burning would only last a few days.

It didn’t burn for a few days, though, in fact, it kept burning for 40-odd years. Even today, it is still burning! The hole really does look like some kind of doorway to a fiery underworld, especially at night-time.

The crater as seen at night. Credit: Flydime (http://www.flickr.com/photos/flydime/4671890969/)

The crater as seen at night. Credit: Flydime (http://www.flickr.com/photos/flydime/4671890969/)

So, now you know why it looks like this. I think it would be a great place to visit, but I might never be able to. This is because, as of 2010, Turkmenistan’s government is taking measures to have the hole closed so that it doesn’t influence other natural gas drilling efforts in the region. Either way, the ‘Door to Hell’ is still probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen!

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