The Painted Dunes in Lassen Volcanic National Park

The Painted Dunes are multicolored pumice fields formed by oxidation of volcanic ash as they fell out of volcanic eruptions that have sculpted the area inside Lassen National Park in Northern California. The ash on Painted Dunes is brightly oxidized because it fell on lava flows when they were still hot. The Painted Dunes, along with Fantastic Lava Beds, and other eccentric geological features lie near Cinder Cone, a 700-foot tall cinder cone volcano that’s believed to have last erupted in 1650s.

Cinder Cone is composed of loose scoria – a material which began as blobs of gas-charged lava thrown into the sky during an eruption, but fell as hardened volcanic rock containing cavities created by trapped gas bubbles. Later, like many cinder cones, it was snuffed out when several basalt lava flows erupted from its base, creating what has been named the Fantastic Lava Beds.

There are actually two scoria cones at Cinder Cone—the remnants of a nearly completely buried earlier cone can be seen on the larger cone's south side. Much of the earlier cone was probably destroyed by lava flows erupting from its base. The blocks of red, cemented scoria within the Painted Dunes lava flows are pieces of this earlier cone, which were carried away by the flowing lava.

There is a great hiking trail to the top of Cinder Cone from where you can marvel at the landscape transformed by volcanic activity. Climbing the cone is a challenge because of all the loose rocks that keep sliding you down. Painted Dunes is located down the South East face of the cone, and just beyond the Fantastic Lava Beds.

Cinder Cone.

The crater on the summit.


Largest Non Nuclear Explosion

At the end of the Second World War, the British Army had a huge surplus of ammunition and explosives that started to give them ideas. It was suggested that the excess ammunition could be utilized for seismic experiments by setting up controlled explosions to generate seismic waves having intensity comparable with those produced by small earthquakes. It was impractical to carry out the experiments within England as explosion of the necessary size on the available sites would cause damage to nearby properties. So they turned to Germany.

The British had just concluded the biggest war in human history with Germany, and like the explosives, aggression was still in surplus quantities. In July 1946, an ammunition dump near the town of Soltau, in north Germany, was blown up producing seismic waves that were observed at distances up to 50 km. But the British needed something bigger. So they started preparing for the world’s most powerful non-nuclear explosion, which eventually came to be known as the “British Bang”. The target: a small archipelago off the German coastline called Heligoland.

Heligoland is a small archipelago located about 46 kilometers off the German coastline in the North Sea. It consist of two islands – the populated one square km main island, Hauptinsel, and an uninhabited smaller island alongside named ‘Dune’ where the island’s airstrip is located.

Because of its strategic location, Heligoland has a long military history. Originally occupied by Frisian herdsmen and fishermen, the island came under the control of the dukes of Schleswig-Holstein in 1402 and became a Danish possession in 1714. In 1807, during the Napoleonic wars, Heligoland was seized by the British fleet and formally ceded to Great Britain in 1814. In 1890, the island was transferred to Germany in exchange for Zanzibar and other African territories.

Birdseye view of Helgoland, between 1890 and 1900. 

N.E. Point, Helgoland, between 1890 and 1900. 

The Germans evacuated the civilian population living on the island and developed the island into a major naval base, with extensive harbor and dockyard installations, underground fortifications, and coastal batteries. The first naval engagement of the war, the Battle of Heligoland Bight, was fought near this island. When the First World War ended, the islanders returned and the island became a popular tourist resort for the German upper class. During the Nazi era, the island was again made a naval stronghold and sustained severe Allied bombing toward the end of World War II.

With the defeat of Germany, the population was evacuated, and the British decided to destroy the remaining fortifications, underground bunkers and submarine base by deep blasting, and at the same time record the explosion with seismic sensors for science.

On 18 April 1947, the Royal Navy detonated 6,700 tons of explosives creating a black mushroom cloud that curled 6,000 feet into the sky. People on the mainland 60 km away were warned to open their windows to avoid implosion, and the blast was registered as far away as Sicily. The Guinness Book of World Records lists the Heligoland explosion as the world’s largest single non-nuclear explosion in history.

The explosion at Heligoland

The detonation which released energy equivalent to a third of that released by the Hiroshima atomic bomb, shook the main island several miles down to its base. The British originally expected the island to be totally destroyed. The island survived but it’s physical shape was altered for ever. Its southern tip caved in to a huge crater, that is today a celebrated tourist spot.

The Royal Air Force continued to use the island as a bombing range until it was returned to West Germany on March 1, 1952. The town, the harbor, and the bathing resort on Düne were rebuilt, and Heligoland once again became a holiday resort.

Seals resting on the beach of Düne

Lots of birds on the cliffs of Helgoland. 


Potash Evaporation Ponds, Utah

These electric blue shapes in the brown desert are potash evaporation ponds managed by Intrepid Potash, Inc., the United States’ largest producer of potassium chloride, and are located along the Colorado River, about 30 km west of Moab, Utah. These ponds measure 1.5 square kilometers, and are lined with rubber to keep the salts in. Unlike other salt evaporation ponds that get a naturally reddish tinge due to the presence of certain algae, the bright blue color of these potash evaporation ponds come from an artificially added dye that aids the absorption of sunlight and evaporation. Once the potassium and salts are left behind, they are gathered and sent off for processing.

Most of the world reserves of potassium came from ancient oceans that once covered where is now land. After the water evaporated, the potassium salts crystallized into large beds of potash deposits. Over time, upheaval in the earth's crust buried these deposits under thousands of feet of earth and they become potash ore. The Paradox Basin, where the mines at Moab are located, is estimated to contain 2 billion tons of potash. These formed about 300 million years ago and today lies about 1,200 meters below the surface.

To extract potash from the ground, workers drill wells into the mine and pump hot water down to dissolve the potassium. The resulting brine is pumped out of the wells to the surface and fed to the evaporation ponds. The sun evaporates the water, leaving behind crystals of potassium and other salt. This evaporation process typically takes about 300 days.

Intrepid Potash, Inc. produces between 700 and 1,000 tons of potash per day from this mine. The mine has been open since 1965, and Intrepid Potash expects to get at least 125 more years of production out of it before the potash ore runs out.


The 2,000-year-old Garbage Dump in Rome

On the outskirts of Rome, near the Horrea Galbae, a short distance away from the east bank of the River Tiber, lies an enormous mound overgrown will grass and small trees. It might seem just like an ordinary hill, but is in fact, an ancient landfill from the Roman era and one of the largest landfill of the ancient world. It has a circumference of nearly a kilometer at its base covering an area of 20,000 square meters, and it stands 35 meters tall, though it was probably a lot higher in ancient times. The hill is made entirely out of discarded Roman amphorae, a type of ceramic jar used to store olive oil. It has been estimated that the hill contains the remains of as many as 53 million olive oil amphorae, in which some 6 billion liters of oil were imported.

The hill in the background is the largest and best preserved ancient landfill.

In ancient times, amphorae were the main containers used for transportation and storage of goods. They were massively produced because of their low cost, and were usually recycled or destroyed once they reached their final destination. Many amphora were re-used to serve as drain pipes or flower pots, for instance. Broken amphorae were pounded into chips and mixed with concrete and widely used as a building material. But the amphorae olive jars could not be recycled as they were too impregnated with oil which made them smelly and sticky. So they were dumped in landfills.

Monte Testaccio was not a haphazard waste dump, but a highly organized and carefully engineered refuse site. Excavations revealed that the mound had been raised as a series of level terraces with retaining walls made of nearly intact amphorae filled with shards to anchor them in place. Empty amphorae were probably carried up the mound intact on the backs of donkeys or mules and then broken up on the spot, with the shards laid out in a stable pattern. Lime was then spread over the broken jars to neutralize the smell of rotting oil.

The huge numbers of broken amphorae at Monte Testaccio illustrate the enormous demand for oil of imperial Rome, which was at the time the world's largest city with a population of at least one million people. Many of the amphorae still have the maker's seal and other stamped inscriptions which record information such as the weight of the oil contained in the vessel, the place where it was bottled, who weighted it and the names of the exporter. Studies of these inscription and the hill's composition suggest Rome's imports of olive oil reached a peak towards the end of the 2nd century AD, when as many as 130,000 amphorae were being deposited on the site each year. It has been estimated that Rome was importing at least 7.5 million liters of olive oil annually.

The landfill now overgrown with grass and small trees.

Broken pieces of amphorae litter the hill slope.

An intact olive oil amphora preserved in Winchester City Museum,

Some markings on a broken amphora.

The terraced walls of Monte Testaccio.


Spiders Rain on Australia

While raining cats and dogs is only a metaphor, raining spiders is a reality in Australia. The latest arachnid shower took place last week in a town called Goulburn, in New South Wales, approximately 195 km south-west of Sydney, where millions of tiny spiders rained down from the sky and blanketed the countryside with their webs. Unlike the rare frog rains and fish rains, that’s not entirely understood, arachnid showers is a well documented phenomenon called “ballooning” which is used by spiders and some other invertebrates to migrate from one pace to another.

During a “ballooning” event, the spiders will climb up as high as they can, stand on raised legs with its abdomen pointed upwards and release several silk threads into the air. These strands form triangular shaped parachutes that allow them to be carried away by the wind hundreds of miles to a new territory. In windless conditions, the Earth's static electric field may also provide lift.

Spider webs cover the ground in the Australian town of Goulburn.

The vast majority of these spiders die during the journey, eaten by predators or killed by harsh weather conditions. But a small fraction survive to set up a new colony. Once they land, the spiders disappear into the ground and the threads, made of protein, disintegrate until there is no evidence that anything has happened.

According to Robb Bennett, a research associate in entomology at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, it's unclear what spurs these ballooning events, though it’s sometimes associated with heavy rainfall. The astonishing spectacle usually occurs in May or August in Australia, right after rainfall. It is rare because it requires an unusual weather pattern for this time of year, which is when spiders are hatching.

Such ballooning events, however, aren't unique to Australia. They also occur in the Northern Hemisphere where ballooning spiders have been spotted in the United States and Britain.