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This post was edited by travellinglight at 2012-4-10 14:39|
GET DOWN TO EARTH The most exotic geological hot spots in the U.S.
Grand Prismatic Spring Yellowstone
National Park, Wyoming
The plume of molten rock that rises from more than 400 miles inside Earth beneath Yellowstone National Park powers the 10,000 springs, geysers, and other thermal features located where magma-heated water and steam come simmering to the surface. Yellowstone’s biggest hot spring, Grand Prismatic, also hosts some of the planet’s strangest, hardiest life.
“Yellowstone’s known for its bison and bald eagles,” says John Spear, an environmental microbiologist at the Colorado School of Mines, in Golden, “but it’s really a microbial wonderland.”
Brilliant green, yellow, brown, and orange bacterial mats encircle the spring. In each mat a small population of photosynthetic bacteria gather energy for the rest of the community, while the spring’s hot, mineral-rich water, flowing from the ground at 560 gallons a minute, provides the bacteria with other essential resources.
Spear says the best view of Grand Prismatic is from above: An offshoot of the Fairy Falls trail leads up a hill on the spring’s west side. For the full rainbow effect, summer afternoons are ideal. Spear also recommends going early or late in the day, “when all the steam rising out of it reflects the colors,” glowing turquoise, peach, and lime green. Hiking Yellowstone’s backcountry (permit required) yields a more intimate look at the park’s springs, but—chastened by a painful dip at a surprisingly acidic spring in Russia—Spear warns that it’s best to resist the temptation to go in.
Arches National Park; Shutterstock
Sandstone Sojourns Arches National Park, Utah
Famed environmental advocate and essayist Edward Abbey lived and worked in Utah’s Arches National Park as a ranger in the 1950s. Today you can follow in his footsteps through the park’s sandstone landscape, viewing features such as the Fiery Furnace, a labyrinth of dramatic red rock formations. Abbey wandered the park’s backcountry on his own, but times have changed: Due to the Fiery Furnace’s fragile soils and rare plants, access is limited to guided tours. Reserve tickets online up to six months in advance.
Fluorescent Minerals Franklin and Ogdensburg, New Jersey
These neighboring towns share the title of fluorescent mineral capital of the world. Their two zinc mines have yielded more than 90 types of rare minerals that glow under ultraviolet light, due to trace amounts of manganese trapped when the crystals formed. Visitors to Sterling Hill Mining Museum in Ogdensburg, where UV lights expose glowing red calcite and green willemite in the mine’s walls, can take a chunk of the stuff home with them.
Subterranean Winery Napa, California
Wine making is an art, but fickle fermenting grapes pose hefty technical challenges as well. Jarvis Winery built a 45,000-square-foot cave into the side of the Vacas Mountains to age their drink at high humidity and constant temperature. Tours of the cave include a visit to its underground chamber for aging wine—the world’s largest—and a formal tasting. (Non-oenophiles will appreciate the wine cave’s uncanny resemblance to the Star Wars rebel base on Hoth.)
CATCH THEM WHILE YOU CAN Ephemeral sights
Transit of Venus All of the U.S. (and most of the world)
In 1716 the astronomer Edmond Halley, of comet fame, had a brilliant idea: Observations of the transit of Venus, a rare event in which our sister planet crosses between Earth and the sun, could be used to calculate the distance between us and our star. That epic experiment, conducted during the next two transits half a century later, sent dozens of observers to far-flung corners of the world. Their remarkable stories include that of French astronomer Guillaume le Gentil, who was driven to the brink of insanity after being foiled—twice—in his attempts to witness the event in India.
If you want to try observing the famous transit yourself, clear your calendar for June 5: Your next chance won’t come around until 2117. In the continental U.S., anyone with a clear, cloudless view of the horizon should be able to see the black dot of Venus late in the day as it begins to move over the solar disk.
The in-progress transit will make for a spectacular sunset, but to view the entire event, you’ll need to head farther west. The full transit will be visible from just east of Hawaii to just west of Hong Kong. Several travel companies are running educational island trips and cruises in Hawaii and the South Pacific. Our sister Kalmbach publication, Astronomy, is offering a tour to see the transit from Hawaii’s Big Island.
True transit die-hards may want to follow Louisiana State University astronomer Brad Schaefer’s lead and set out for the
Australian outback, where the risk of inclement weather is slim. Of course, wherever you are, never stare directly into the sun. Bring viewing equipment, like a sheet of number 14 welder’s glass, or project an image with a telescope.
Volcanic Eruption Montserrat, Lesser Antilles
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 buried the city of Pompeii in a single day. By comparison, the Soufrière Hills volcano on Montserrat, a 60-square-mile island in the Caribbean, has been erupting sporadically since 1995, slowly entombing the lower two-thirds of the island in ash. Visitors can look down on the destroyed capital city of Plymouth from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, where scientists monitor the volcano’s rumblings and issue hazard warnings to the island’s depleted population. Ferries from nearby Antigua can take you to the island or around it, depending on your appetite for risk.
Near New Orleans, Louisiana
The delicate Mississippi River delta ecosystems have been taking a beating from pollution, stream diversion, and other human activities upstream. But there is, for now, still some intact marsh to see, including the 35,000 protected acres of the Honey Island Swamp, 30 miles northeast of New Orleans. To admire the moss-hung Seussian cypress trees and deceptively lethargic alligators from a dry, safe distance, sign up for one of the flat-bottomed boat tours in the area. Tours run year-round, but local guide Paul Wagner says that spring, which brings a wealth of wildflowers and migratory birds to the swamp, is particularly magical. No word on which season is best for spotting the Honey Island Swamp Monster, a hairy, Bigfoot-like creature fabled to live in the wetland.
Ice-capped peaks encircle Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park; David Restivo/NPS
Retreating Ice Glacier National Park, Montana
Most of the ice that carved Glacier National Park’s ridges and valleys melted more than 10,000 years ago, but by the time fur trappers ventured into the area in the 1800s, new glaciers had formed. Now those, too, are disappearing, and researchers say the handful of holdouts could be gone within a decade. So go now to see these glacial remnants in the hollows at the heads of valleys or under mountain peaks—or to take a dip in the lakes that collect downslope in summer.
Side Trip Science Museum of Minnesota St. Paul, Minnesota
When the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in Minneapolis closed in 2002, curator Bob McCoy donated his incredible collection of quackery to the science museum. The devices on display include a vibratory chair, which supposedly cured constipation and headaches through shaking so violent that patients had to hold tight to its handles, and a fluoroscope, once casually used in shoe stores to X-ray customers’ feet. Other exhibits include a miniature golf course that teaches visitors about both landscape evolution and biodiversity.