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Wonder and mystery

Wonder and mystery
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The planet is almost 40,000 kilometres around and 4.54 billion years old, and humans are still discovering some of the amazing secrets it’s hiding.

Rogue waves

Rogue waves
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Stories about giant waves have been circulating among sailors for centuries, but sceptical scientists thought they were about as common as mermaids. Then, in 1995, an oil platform in the North Sea was hit by a big one during a huge storm, and it had the equipment on hand to determine that the wave had been a massive 25.5 metres tall. A few years later, a 29-metre wave was measured by a research vessel west of Scotland. Oceanographers realized that not only were these massive waves real, they were surprisingly common. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, rogue waves are more than twice the size of surrounding waves (often getting as big as 30 metres tall), come from surprising directions, and only happen in open seas. Find out the 13 coolest scientific discoveries of last year.

Underwater mountain range

Underwater mountain range
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Rogue waves aren’t the only giant secret the oceans have been keeping – the longest mountain range in the world is actually underwater. It’s called the Mid-Ocean Ridge, and it extends more than 64,000 kilometres, running down the middle of the Atlantic, east through the Indian Ocean, and back up through the Pacific, along the west coast of the Americas. (Compare that with the Andes, the longest continental mountain range, which is only 7,000 kilometres long!) The Mid-Ocean Ridge is a continuous string of underwater volcanoes lying along the meeting points of Earth’s tectonic plate – as the plates drift apart, magma seeps up continuously, creating new crust. Check out these 15 scientific mysteries boffins can’t figure out.

World’s tallest mountain

World’s tallest mountain
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Mount Everest in the Himalayas usually takes this honour, at more than 8839 metres above sea level; but if we include mountains that aren’t fully above sea level, Hawaii’s Mauna Kea is the winner. Only 4178 metres of it come up above the water, but if you calculate its height starting from its base at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, Mauna Kea is 9330 metres tall, beating Everest by about 500 metres. Where Everest was formed by the collision of two tectonic plates (and is still growing taller), Mauna Kea developed because of the volcanic activity that formed the Hawaiian Islands – it’s dormant now, according to the Hawaii Center for Volcanology.

Ring of fire

Ring of fire
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Nine out of ten of the world’s earthquakes and 75 per cent of its volcanoes occur as a result of tectonic activity in what’s known as the Pacific Ring of Fire – a circle of volcanically and seismically active hot spots marking the meeting points of several plates that all encircle the large Pacific Plate. The tectonic plates are bumping into and sliding past, over, and under one another, resulting in eruptions and quakes. The circle is about 40,000 kilometres in circumference and is the cause of recent eruptions in Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as earthquakes in Mexico, Taiwan, and Alaska. A devastating earthquake and tsunami will happen – ‘the big one’ – the only question is when.

Drifting Australia

Drifting Australia
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It’s one of the facts about Earth that all of its tectonic plates are shifting, but Australia’s is moving so quickly that it requires updates to maps and GPS systems fairly regularly – it moved almost 1.5 metres between 1994 and 2016, according to National Geographic. Geologist Christopher Scotese at Northwestern University told BBC that in about 50 million years, Australia will be colliding with southeast Asia. In about 250 million years, the continents might all merge into a single super-continent again, like Pangaea.

Yellowstone supervolcano

Yellowstone supervolcano
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Volcanic islands are pretty easy to identify, but some of the ways volcanic activity shaped the Earth in its infancy are not as easy to spot. It was only in the 1960s that geologists realised the 70-kilometre-wide depression in the ground in Yellowstone National Park is a volcanic caldera. Rather than a lava flow that formed a mountain, like Hawaii’s Mauna Kea and Washington state’s Mount St. Helens, eruptions at Yellowstone took the form of massive explosions that actually caused mountains and other topography to collapse. The volcano is still active, in fact – there’s a chamber of liquid magma underneath it that fuels the park’s geysers and hot springs like Old Faithful. But the last major eruption was about 630,000 years ago, and although there’s not currently any good way to predict volcanic eruptions, scientists aren’t too worried about another big one. In fact, Ilya Bindeman, a University of Oregon geochemist, told the Washington Post that Yellowstone may be “approaching the end of its evolution.” Find out everything you need to know about volcanoes.

Ancient Wuda forest

Ancient Wuda forest
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About 300 million years ago – long before the Yellowstone volcano formed – an eruption in what is now China left a thick layer of ash on top of a swamp forest. The Permian-era plants and trees were all fossilised and preserved. The continents were, at the time, still all joined together as a single land mass; over the intervening millennia, they’ve drifted apart into their current positions and the vegetation and animal life on Earth have changed immeasurably. That’s why when scientists discovered the fossilised forest a few years ago, they called it a Permian Pompeii – they can see just how the plants were arranged, and have found trees as big as 24 metres tall. (There weren’t any conifers or flowering plants, though – all plants reproduced through spores, like ferns, which were abundant.) “It’s marvellously preserved,” University of Pennsylvania paleobotanist Hermann Pfefferkorn told Gizmodo’s Jesus Diaz. “We can stand there and find a branch with the leaves attached, and then we find the next branch and the next branch and the next branch.” Here are 10 of the biggest unsolved mysteries about Earth.

Boiling river

Boiling river
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There’s a river in the Peruvian Amazon where water temperatures can actually cook unlucky animals that fall into the water. Geophysicist Andrés Ruzo, whose Peruvian grandfather mentioned the boiling river to him when he was a child, kept searching for the mysterious site even though his professors told him it had to be a myth. When he found it, he worried that it had been caused by nearby oil and gas extraction, but determined that it was a natural feature: It’s “a non-volcanic, geothermal feature flowing at anomalously high rates,” he told National Geographic. Meaning it’s just very hot water (getting up to about 93 degrees Celsius) coming from very deep below the Earth’s surface quickly enough that it doesn’t cool off before it comes out into the river. Here are 10 accidental discoveries that changed the world.

Danakil Depression

Danakil Depression
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At a site in Ethiopia where three tectonic plates meet up, there are less than 20 centimetres of rain every year, and the average daily temperature is 34 degrees Celsius, the landscape looks like an amazing sight from another planet. The Danakil Depression is part of the East African Rift Valley which, like the Mid-Ocean Ridge underwater, is a spot where tectonic plates are separating, allowing magma to seep up toward the Earth’s surface. Volcanic activity causes bubbling lava lakes, hot springs, and tiny geysers. Heated groundwater brings dissolved mineral salts to the surface, and when the water evaporates, multi-coloured fields of deposits are left behind.

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