We all know Mother Nature can be unpredictable, however sometimes she can also be strangely predictable. Or just plain strange. Or remain unexplained despite the best efforts of modern technology. Whichever it may be, the following unique meteorological phenomenon are all worth traveling for.
Some of these events occur daily, like the massive thunderstorm over the Tiwi Islands. Others are limited to specific seasons and a bit harder to catch firsthand unless you hang around for a few weeks. There are also a couple of bonus phenomena which are so unpredictable you cannot travel to them, you just have to get lucky. Keep your fingers crossed and your camera nearby…
The World’s Top 10 Most Interesting Meteorological Phenomenon
Morning Glory Clouds
These low-lying clouds — often only 100-200m (330-660 feet) above the ground — come in waves and look almost like long parallel strands of rope. Officially Morning Glory clouds are classified as extremely long roll clouds. They can be up to 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) long and 2 kilometres (1.25 miles) high.
These clouds move without changing speed or shape and are not clearly understood. Although historically they have been found in several places around the world, nowhere with the same regularity and predictability as near the Gulf of Carpentaria in north Queensland.
Morning Glory clouds can be observed in Burketown from late September to early November. Because the clouds are best seen from the air, both glider pilots and hang gliding enthusiasts have a tendency to visit the region when the Morning Glory clouds are in season.
Since the 1990s, the gliding community has eagerly awaited the Morning Glory season each year. Like the most daring of big-wave surfers, they fly into the path of the oncoming wave and ride up its enormous face, soaring higher and higher, and using its immense power to propel them onwards and upwards.National Geographic Magazine, May 2010 (link)
Zulia State, Venezuela
Catatumbo Lightning is a meteorological phenomenon that occurs in Venezuela at the mouth of the Catatumbo River where it empties into Lake Maracaibo. The lightning originates from a mass of storm clouds at a height of more than 1 km (3,300 feet) and occurs 140 to 160 nights a year, 10 hours per day and up to 280 times per hour. The light from this storm activity can be seen up to 40 kilometres (25 mi) away!
Catatumbo Lightning produces about 1.2 million lightning strikes per year.
This phenomenon is depicted on the flag and coat of arms of the state of Zulia (along with Lake Maracaibo) and is even mentioned in the state’s anthem. Catatumbo Lightning has been locally known for centuries as the Lighthouse of Maracaibo because it is visible for miles around Lake Maracaibo.
The lightning has been documented in written history as early as 1826 and was said to be “like a continuous lightning….it directs the navigators as a lighthouse.” It is also sometimes referred to as the Beacon of Maracaibo.
Lluvia de Peces (“Rain of Fish”)
Imagine a massive rain storm during which thousands of small fish — still alive and flip-flopping around — rain from the sky onto the streets. Sounds like madness right? The “Rain of Fish” is a phenomenon that has allegedly been occurring annually for more than a century in the city of Yoro, Honduras. Population 90,000. Apparently none of whom have cameras though 🤔
During the 1970’s a team from National Geographic witnessed the Lluvia de Peces firsthand, at least according to Atlas Obscura. However the National Geographic article about raining fish makes no mention of this supposed team. Regardless, locals swear it happens at least once per year, sometimes more.
Beginning in 1998, locals in the department of Yoro have held an annual Festival de Lluvia de Peces to celebrate the phenomenon. Don’t know about you but I would really love to attend it one of these years. Although this festival is frequently mentioned in popular culture, you never see any photos from it or hear any firsthand accounts.
The date of the festival is variable, coinciding with the first major rainfall in May or June. The Lluvia de Peces festival includes a parade and carnival and hopefully a lot of other interesting things, like falling fish.
The Father Subirana Legend
Father José Manuel de Jesus Subirana was a Spanish priest who arrived in Honduras in 1855 and worked there until his death in 1864. As the legend goes, Father Subirana saw how poor the people of Honduras were so he prayed for three days and three nights asking God for a miracle to help and to provide them with food. God took note of this and on the fourth day there came a dark cloud. Lots of tasty fish rained from the sky, feeding all the people. Since then this wonder is repeated every year.
Hector (The Cumulonimbus Cloud)
Northern Territory, Australia
Hector is one of the world’s most consistently large thunderstorms, often reaching heights of approximately 20 kilometres (66,000 feet). It was named during World War II by pilots who would use it as a navigational beacon.
Also known as “Hector the Convector”, the storm clouds are well-known by locals for their consistency and intensity, and have even been the subject of several meteorological studies since the late 1980’s.
Hector forms regularly nearly every afternoon on the Tiwi Islands in the Northern Territory of Australia, from approximately September to March each year.
Reports of red rain, also known as Blood Rain, date as far back as 700 B.C. and have occurred in countless cities around the world. There were 190 documented instances during the 16th and 17th centuries, and 146 just in the 19th century. However the most famous is the Kerala red rain that occurred from July 25th to September 23rd, 2001.
Although initially suspected to be caused by an exploding meteor, it was later proven to be the result of algae. Airborne Trentepohlia annulata spores were caught in the water droplets, giving them their reddish color.
Blood rain is nothing new for Kerala. There are historically documented instances in 1818, 1846, 1872, 1880, 1896, and 1950. More recent recent cases have occurred during the summers of 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2012. Just like in 2001, each of these subsequent red rainfalls have also tested positive for the same Trentepohlia algal spores.
High-latitude Arctic regions
Undeniably the most well-known of all meteorological phenomenon, the Aurora Borealis is more commonly referred to as the Northern Lights. It is a favorite of travelers and professional photographers, and is regularly visible in Iceland, Norway, Finland, and other destinations.
The northern lights are caused by solar wind particles interacting with the upper atmosphere, primarily in zones surrounding Earth’s magnetic poles. This results in a spectacular display of colorful light, most often a vivid green but also yellow, blue, and pink/purple.
The same phenomena occurs in the Antarctic region. The “Southern Lights” — officially known as the Aurora Australis — are visible from high southern latitudes in Antarctica, Chile, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand.
Since large geomagnetic storms are most common during the peak of the 11-year sunspot cycle and the three years after the peak, it is almost possible to forecast the aurora lights. There still is no guarantee that they will be visible, however the storms that cause them are tracked. Aurora Forecast
Marfa, Texas, United States
There is some debate as to whether the Marfa Lights are the result of meteorological conditions, atmospheric phenomena, ghosts, UFOs or even just car headlights. Perhaps none of the above. However if you should find yourself in west Texas then it cannot hurt to investigate them for yourself.
The first historical record of the Marfa lights was in 1883 when a young cowhand, Robert Reed Ellison, saw a flickering light while he was driving cattle through Paisano Pass. Wondered if it was the campfire of Apache Indians, he mentioned it to other settlers who told him they often saw the lights. The strange part was that whenever they investigated, they never found ashes or other evidence of a campsite.
The Unpredictable Meteorological Phenomenon
Common in the United States; rare in Europe
The misleadingly nicknamed “Fire Rainbow” is in actuality a meteorological phenomenon known as a Circumhorizontal Arc. It is an ice halo caused by the refraction of sun- or moonlight in ice crystals suspended within the atmosphere.
In the United States fire rainbows are relatively common and spotted several times each summer in different places. In contrast, it is a rare phenomenon in northern Europe. “Apart from the presence of ice-containing clouds in the right position in the sky, the halo requires that the light source (sun or moon) be very high in the sky, at an elevation of 58° or greater. This means that the solar variety of the halo is impossible to see at locations north of 55°N or south of 55°S.”
Slots of visibility for different latitudes and locations may be looked up here. For example, in London the sun is only high enough for 140 hours between mid-May and late July, whereas in Los Angeles the sun is higher than 58 degrees for 670 hours between late March and late September.
Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, California, United States; and others
Watermelon snow is another phenomena that is the result of algae. This time the culprit is Chlamydomonas nivalis, a species of green algae that contains a secondary red pigment. Unlike most species of fresh water algae, this one thrives in freezing temperatures.
Although the snow itself is white, the algae leaves red streaks on the ground anytime the snow is moved or brushed. Walking on watermelon snow is notorious for causing red soles and pink trouser cuffs.
Watermelon snow is common during the summertime in alpine and coastal polar regions worldwide, such as the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. It is found at altitudes of 3,000–3,600 metres (10,000 to 12,000 feet) where the temperature is cold throughout the year.
Like something out of a science fiction movie, Volcanic Lightning is exactly what it sounds like. Millions of particles of volcanic ash within the plume generate enough static electricity to cause lightning bolts without any rain.
The earliest recorded observations of volcanic lightning are from Pliny the Younger, describing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. During the 1800’s the very first studies of volcanic lightning were conducted here and observed from the Vesuvius Observatory. The eruptions of 1858, 1861, 1868, and 1872 each included lightning activity.
In more recent years, various photographs of this phenomena occurring around the world have been published online or entered in photo contests. It has been observed at volcano eruptions in Alaska, Italy, Iceland, Indonesia, Philippines, Mexico and Chile.
Bonus! A Geological Phenomenon:
Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park, California
Sailing stones are rocks that move and create long tracks along the ground without human or animal intervention. The most famous location is Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park due to the large number and length of tracks.
The movement of the rocks occurs when the ground is frozen during cold winter nights and then warmed up during the day by the sun. Stones with rough bottoms leave straight striated tracks, while those with smooth bottoms tend to wander. Driven by wind, some rocks have been clocked at speeds up to 5 metres (16 feet) per minute.
You can see the sailing stones for yourself by visiting the Death Valley National Park. To get to Racetrack Playa drive 2 miles south of the Grandstand parking area. The stones are always moving, obviously, but the best view is usually in the southeast corner of the playa.