Sie sind auf Seite 1von 180

Climate Plants Geography Geology Animals

W Inside a
lightning storm

Awesome Exceptional
Life of a
octopuses environments

is coral?


Everything you need to know about the world we live in


NEW explained




Violent Inside a
volcanoes Venus flytrap
Welcome to

The planet we live on is a remarkable place, with incredible
things happening everywhere, all the time. But have you ever
wondered how or why these things occur? How the Earth was
created? Why flowers smell? How caves are formed? What
causes earthquakes? Why animals hibernate? Or where acid
rain comes from? The How It Works Book of Incredible Earth
provides answers to all these questions and more as it takes
you on a thrilling journey through everything you need to
know about the world we live in. Covering the scientific
explanations behind weather phenomena, plant life, extreme
landscapes and volatile volcanoes, as well as the amazing
creatures found throughout the animal kingdom, there is
something for everyone to learn about and enjoy. Packed full of
fascinating facts, gorgeous photographs and insightful
diagrams, the Book of Incredible Earth will show you just how
awe-inspiring our planet really is.

EARTH Imagine Publishing Ltd
Richmond House
33 Richmond Hill
Dorset BH2 6EZ
 +44 (0) 1202 586200
Publishing Director
Aaron Asadi

Head of Design
Ross Andrews

Production Editor
Ross Hamilton

Senior Art Editor

Greg Whitaker

Assistant Designer
Alexander Phoenix

James Sheppard

Printed by
William Gibbons, 26 Planetary Road, Willenhall, West Midlands, WV13 3XT

Cover images courtesy of

DK Images, Thinkstock, Y_Tambe, NASA, A./B./, Larsen, José Braga-Didier Descouens, Scotto Bear,
Ballista, Wallace63, JM Luijt

Distributed in the UK, Eire & the Rest of the World by

Marketforce, Blue Fin Building, 110 Southwark Street, London, SE1 0SU
Tel 0203 148 3300

Distributed in Australia by:

Network Services (a division of Bauer Media Group), Level 21 Civic Tower, 66-68 Goulburn Street,
Sydney, New South Wales 2000, Australia
Tel +61 2 8667 5288

The publisher cannot accept responsibility for any unsolicited material lost or damaged in the
post. All text and layout is the copyright of Imagine Publishing Ltd. Nothing in this bookazine may
be reproduced in whole or part without the written permission of the publisher. All copyrights are
recognised and used specifically for the purpose of criticism and review. Although the bookazine has
endeavoured to ensure all information is correct at time of print, prices and availability may change.
This bookazine is fully independent and not affiliated in any way with the companies mentioned herein.

How It Works Book of Incredible Earth Third Revised Edition © 2015 Imagine Publishing Ltd

ISBN 978 1785 460 890

Part of the

bookazine series

CONTENTS Weather wonders Plants & organisms Earth’s landscapes

020 50 amazing facts about the weather 048 How plants work 066 Surviving extreme Earth
026 Where does acid rain come from? 052 Plant cell anatomy explained 076 Waterfall wonders
026 The smell of rain 054 Why do flowers smell? 080 The ever-changing Plitvice Lakes
027 Cloud-spotting guide 054 What are orchids? 082 Antarctica explored
028 How deserts grow 055 How the Venus flytrap kills 086 How fjords form
030 How do jet streams work? 055 Why is poison ivy so irritating? 088 Glacier power
032 The sulphur cycle 056 The world’s deadliest plants 090 Wonders of the Nile
034 Cave weather 057 The world’s biggest flower 094 Subterranean rivers
036 Predicting the weather 058 The life of an oak tree 096 Marine habitats
038 Lightning 060 How do cacti live? 100 Hydrothermal vents
042 Firestorms 061 How are plants cloned? 102 The phosphorus cycle
062 How do air plants survive? 104 Petrified forests
062 Climbing plants explained 105 The lithosphere
063 Coffee plants

066 Surviving extreme Earth

© Alamy
© Scotto Bear

038 048
Lightning 076 Wonderful waterfalls
How plants work

story of Earth
Rocks, gems & fossils
108 Super volcanoes
112 What is lava?
114 The eruption of Mount St Helens
116 Earthquakes
122 Cave creation
124 Mountain formation
126 The Grand Prismatic Spring
128 Who opened the Door to Hell?
130 How do crater lakes form?
131 Geode geology
131 How amber develops
132 How is coal formed?
134 What are fossils?
Explore the
138 Deadly sinkholes Amazing animals animal kingdom

116 146 The animal kingdom 146

Destructive 154 Shoaling versus schooling
156 Amazing animal architects
160 Deadly venom
164 Amazing migration
168 Nature’s satnavs
170 World’s smartest animals
174 The fearless honey badger
175 Hibernation
© Peter Steen Leidersdorff


Incredible story of Earth

Ancient and teeming with life,
Earth is a truly amazing planet,
with a fascinating tale to tell…
Today, science has revealed much was flat; the Earth was the centre of the
about our planet, from how it universe; and, of course, all manner of complex
formed and has evolved over and fiercely defended beliefs about creation.
billions of years through to its But then in retrospect, who could have ever
position in the universe. Indeed, right now we guessed that our planet formed from specks of
have a clearer picture of Earth than ever before. dust and mineral grains in a cooling gas cloud
And what a terrifying and improbable of a solar nebula? That the spherical Earth
picture it is. A massive spherical body of metal, consists of a series of fluid elemental layers and
rock, liquid and gas suspended perilously plates around an iron-rich molten core? Or that
within a vast void by an invisible, binding our world is over 4.5 billion years old and
force. It is a body that rotates continuously, is counting? Only some of the brightest minds
tilted on an axis by 23 degrees and orbits once over many millennia could grant an insight
every 365.256 solar days around a flaming ball into these geological realities.
of hydrogen 150 million kilometres (93 million While Earth may only be the fifth biggest
miles) away. It is a celestial object that, on face planet in our Solar System, it is by far the most
value, is mind-bendingly unlikely. awe-inspiring. Perhaps most impressive of all,
As a result, the truth about our planet and its it’s still reaffirming the fundamental laws that
history eluded humans for thousands of years. have governed the universe ever since the Big
Naturally, as beings that like to know the Bang. Here, we celebrate our world in all its
answers to how and why, we have come up glory, charting its journey from the origins
with many ways to fill in the gaps. The Earth right up to the present and what lies ahead.

“Earth is awe-inspiring… it’s still reaffirming

the fundamental laws that have governed
the universe ever since the Big Bang”
Incredible story of Earth

From dust to planet

To get to grips with how the Earth formed, first
we need to understand how the Solar System
as a whole developed – and from what. Current
evidence suggests that the beginnings of the
Solar System lay some 4.6 billion years ago with
the gravitational collapse of a fragment of a
giant molecular cloud. meteoroids
In its entirety this molecular cloud – an Chondrites aggregated as
interstellar mass with the size and density to a result of gravity and went
on to capture other bodies.
form molecules like hydrogen – is estimated to This led to an asteroid-
Dust and grains
have been 20 parsecs across, with the fragment Dust and tiny pieces of sized planetesimal.
just five per cent of that. The gravitationally minerals orbiting
induced collapse of this fragment resulted in a around the T Tauri star
impact one another and
pre-solar nebula – a region of space with a mass continue to coalesce
slightly in excess of the Sun today and into ever-larger
consisting primarily of hydrogen, helium and chondritic meteoroids.

lithium gases generated by Big Bang

nucleosynthesis (BBN).
At the heart of this pre-solar nebula, intense
gravity – along with supernova-induced
over-density within the core, high gas
pressures, nebula rotation (caused by angular
momentum) and fluxing magnetic fields – in
conjunction caused it to contract and flatten
into a protoplanetary disc. A hot, dense
protostar formed at its centre, surrounded by a
200-astronomical-unit cloud of gas and dust.
It is from this solar nebula’s protoplanetary
disc that Earth and the other planets emerged.
While the protostar would develop a core
temperature and pressure to instigate
hydrogen fusion over a period of approximately Fully formed
50 million years, the cooling gas of the disc Over billions of years
would produce mineral grains through Earth’s atmosphere
becomes oxygen rich and,
condensation, which would amass into tiny through a cycle of crustal
meteoroids. The latest evidence indicates that formation and destruction,
the oldest of the meteoroidal material formed develops vast landmasses.

about 4.56 billion years ago.

As the dust and grains were drawn together
to form ever-larger bodies of rock (first
chondrules, then chondritic meteoroids), “The collapse of this fragment resulted in a
through continued accretion and collision-
induced compaction, planetesimals and then
pre-solar nebula – a region of space with a
protoplanets appeared – the latter being the mass slightly in excess of the Sun today”
precursor to all planets in the Solar System. In
terms of the formation of Earth, the joining of
multiple planetesimals meant it developed a
gravitational attraction powerful enough to The history 13.8 BYA* 4.6 BYA
Big Bang fallout New nebula
sweep up additional particles, rock fragments
and meteoroids as it rotated around the Sun.
The composition of these materials would, as
of Earth
Follow the major milestones in
Nucleosynthesis as a result
of the Big Bang leads to
the gradual formation of
A fragment of a giant
molecular cloud
experiences a gravitational
our planet’s epic development chemical elements on a collapse and becomes a
we shall see over the page, enable the huge scale. pre-solar nebula.
*(BYA = billion years ago)
protoplanet to develop a superhot core.

Layer by layer
Under the influence of Origins of the Moon
gravity, the heavier Today most scientists believe Earth’s sole
elements inside the satellite formed off the back of a collision event
protoplanet sink to the that occurred roughly 4.53 billion years ago. At
centre, creating the major this time, Earth was in its early development
layers of Earth’s structure. stage and had been impacted numerous times
by planetesimals and other rocky bodies –
Planetesimal events that had shock-heated the planet and
By this stage the
brought about the expansion of its core.
planetesimal is massive
One collision, however, seems to have been a
enough to effectively
planet-sized body around the size of Mars –
sweep up all nearby dust,
dubbed Theia. Basic models of impact data
grains and rocks as it
suggest Theia struck Earth at an oblique angle,
orbits around the star.
with its iron core sinking into the planet, while
its mantle, as well as that of Earth, was largely
hurled into orbit. This ejected material – which is
estimated to be roughly 20 per cent of Theia’s
total mass – went on to form a ring of silicate
material around Earth and then coalesce within
a relatively short period (ranging from a couple
of months up to 100 years) into the Moon.

Growing core
Heated by immense
pressure and impact
events, the metallic
core within grows.
Activity in the mantle
and crust heightens.

Axial tilt
Why does our planet Rotation axis

have an axial tilt? Celestial

Earth’s axial tilt (obliquity), which is at 23.4
degrees in respect to the planet’s orbit currently,
came about approximately 4.5 billion years ago
through a series of large-scale impacts from
planetesimals and other large bodies (like Theia).
These collisions occurred during the early stages
of the planet’s development and generated forces
great enough to disrupt Earth’s alignment, while
also producing a vast quantity of debris.
While our world’s obliquity might be 23.4
degrees today, this is by no means a fixed figure,
with it varying over long periods due to the
effects of precession and orbital resonance.
Atmosphere For example, for the past 5 million years, the
Thanks to volcanic axial tilt has varied from 22.2-24.3 degrees, with a
outgassing and ice mean period lasting just over 41,000 years.
deposition via impacts, Interestingly, the obliquity would be far more
Earth develops an variable if it were not for the presence of the
intermediary carbon- Moon, which has a stabilising effect.
dioxide rich atmosphere.

4.57 BYA 4.56 BYA 4.54 BYA 4.53 BYA

Protostar Disc develops Planet Birth of the Moon
Several million years Around the T Tauri As dust and rock Theia, a Mars-sized body,
later, the precursor to the star a protoplanetary gather, Earth becomes impacts with the Earth.
Sun (a T Tauri-type star) disc of dense gas a planet, with planetary The resultingdebris rises
emerges at the heart of begins to form and differentiation leading into orbit and will
the nebula. then gradually cools. to the core’s formation. coalesce into the Moon.

Incredible story of Earth

Earth’s structure
As the mass of the Earth continued to grow, so characterised by a highly unstable, volcanic
did its internal pressure. This in partnership surface (hence the name ‘Hadean’, derived
with the force of gravity and ‘shock heating’ from the Greek god of the underworld,
– see boxout opposite for an explanation – Hades). Convection currents from the
caused the heavier metallic minerals and planet’s mantle would elevate molten rock
elements within the planet to sink to its centre to the surface, which would either revert to
and melt. Over many years, this resulted in magma or harden into more crust.
the development of an iron-rich core and, Scientific evidence suggests that
consequently, kick-started the interior outgassing was also the primary
convection which would transform our world. contributor to Earth’s first atmosphere,
Once the centre of Earth was hot enough to with a large region of hydrogen and
convect, planetary differentiation began. This helium escaping – along with
is the process of separating out different ammonia, methane and nitrogen –
elements of a planetary body through both considered the main factor behind its
physical and chemical actions. Simply initial formation.
put, the denser materials of the body sink By the close of the Hadean eon,
towards the core and the less dense rise planetary differentiation had produced
towards the surface. In Earth’s case, this would an Earth that, while still young and
eventually lead to the distinct layers of inner inhospitable, possessed all the ingredients
core, outer core, mantle and crust – the latter needed to become a planet capable of
developed largely through outgassing. supporting life.
Outgassing in Earth occurred when volatile But for anything organic to develop, it first
substances located in the lower mantle began needed water…
to melt approximately 4.3 billion years ago. This
partial melting of the interior caused chemical Outer core
separation, with resulting gases rising up Unlike the inner core, Earth’s outer core is not solid but
liquid, due to less pressure. It is composed of iron and
through the mantle to the surface, condensing nickel and ranges in temperature from 4,400°C
and then crystallising to form the first crustal (7,952°F) at its outer ranges to 6,100°C (11,012°F) at
layer. This original crust proceeded to go its inner boundary. As a liquid, its viscosity is estimated
to be ten times that of liquid metals on the surface.
through a period of recycling back into the The outer core was formed by only partial
mantle through convection currents, with melting of accreted metallic elements.
successive outgassing gradually forming
thicker and more distinct crustal layers. Inner core
The precise date when Earth gained its first The heaviest minerals and elements
complete outer crust is unknown, as due to the are located at the centre of the planet
in a solid, iron-rich heart. The inner
recycling process only incredibly small parts of core has a radius of 1,220km (760mi)
it remain today. Certain evidence, however, and has the same surface temperature
indicates that a proper crust was formed as the Sun (around 5,430°C/9,800°F).
The solid core was created due to the
relatively early in the Hadean eon (4.6-4 billion effects of gravity and high pressure
years ago). The Hadean eon on Earth was during planetary accretion.

“Outgassing occurred when volatile

substances in the lower mantle
began to melt 4.3 billion years ago”

4.4 BYA 4.3 BYA 4.28 BYA

Surface hardens Early atmosphere Ancient rocks
Earth begins developing Outgassing and escaping A number of rocks have
its progenitor crust. This gases from surface been found in northern
is constantly recycled volcanism form the first Québec, Canada, that date
and built up through the atmosphere around the from this period. They are
Hadean eon. planet. It is nitrogen heavy. volcanic deposits.

Earth’s crust is the outermost solid Magnetic field
layer and is composed of a variety of
igneous, metamorphic and
in the making
sedimentary rock. The partial melting Earth’s geomagnetic field began to
of volatile substances in the outer form as soon as the young planet
core and mantle caused outgassing to developed an outer core. The outer
the surface during the planet’s core of Earth generates helical fluid
formation. This created the first crust, motions within its electrically
which through a process of recycling conducting molten iron due to current
led to today’s refined thicker crust. loops driven by convection. As a result,
the moment that convection became
possible in Earth’s core it began to
develop a geomagnetic field – which in
turn was amplified by the planet’s rapid
spin rate. Combined, these enabled
Earth’s magnetic field to permeate its
entire body as well as a small region of
space surrounding it – the magnetosphere.

The largest internal layer, the mantle
accounts for 84 per cent of Earth’s
volume. It consists of a rocky shell
2,900km (1,800mi) thick composed
mainly of silicates. While predominantly
solid, the mantle is highly viscous and
hot material upwells occur throughout
under the influence of convective
circulation. The mantle was formed by
the rising of lighter silicate elements
during planetary differentiation.

Shock heating explained

During the accretion to its present size, Earth surface or radiated back off into space,
was subjected to a high level of stellar impacts however in the case of much larger
by space rocks and other planetesimals too. planetesimals, their size and mass allowed for
Each of these collisions generated the effect of deeper penetration into the Earth. In these
shock heating, a process in which the impactor events the energy was distributed directly into
and resultant shock wave transferred a great the planet’s inner body, heating it well beneath
deal of energy into the forming planet. For the surface. This heat influx contributed to
meteorite-sized bodies, the vast majority of heavy metallic fragments deep underground
this energy was transferred across the planet’s melting and sinking towards the core.

4.1 BYA 4 BYA 3.9 BYA 3.6 BYA

Brace for impact Archean Ocean origins Supercontinent
The Late Heavy The Hadean eon Earth is now covered with Our world’s very
Bombardment (LHB) of finally comes to liquid oceans due to the first supercontinent,
Earth begins, with intense an end and the release of trapped water Vaalbara, begins to
impacts pummelling many new Archean from the mantle and from emerge from a series
parts of the young crust. period begins. asteroid/comet deposition. of combining cratons.

Incredible story of Earth
Supercontinent Believed to have formed in the later
part of the Archean eon 2.7 BYA,
development Kenor was the next supercontinent to
form after Vaalbara. It developed
Where did the earliest landmasses come through the accretion of Neoarchean
from and how did they change over time? cratons and a period of spiked
continental crust formation driven by
submarine magmatism. Kenor was
It started with Vaalbara… broken apart by tectonic magma-
Approximately 3.6 billion years ago, plume rifting around 2.45 BYA.
Earth’s first supercontinent – Vaalbara
– formed through the joining of several
large continental plates. Data derived
from parts of surviving cratons from
these plates – eg the South African
Kaapvaal and Australian Pilbara; hence
‘Vaal-bara’ – show similar rock records
through the Archean eon, indicating
that, while now separated by many
miles of ocean, they once were one.
Plate tectonics, which were much
fiercer at this time, drove these plates
together and also were responsible for
separating them 2.8 billion years ago.

Formation of land and sea

Current scientific evidence suggests that the surface. Unlike previously, now pressurised The third major contributor was
formation of liquid on Earth was, not and trapped by the developing atmosphere, it photodissociation – which is the separation of
surprisingly, a complex process. Indeed, when began to condense and settle on the surface substances through the energy of light. This
you consider the epic volcanic conditions of the rather than evaporate into space. process caused water vapour in the developing
young Earth through the Hadean eon, it’s The second key liquid-generating process upper atmosphere to separate into molecular
difficult to imagine exactly how the planet was the large-scale introduction of comets and hydrogen and molecular oxygen, with the
developed to the extent where today 70 per cent water-rich meteorites to the Earth during its former escaping the planet’s influence. In turn,
of its surface is covered with water. The answer formation and the Late Heavy Bombardment this led to an increase in the partial pressure of
lies in a variety of contributory processes, period. These frequent impact events would oxygen on the planet’s surface, which through
though three can be highlighted as pivotal. cause the superheating and vaporisation of its interactions with surface materials
The first of these was a drop in temperature many trapped minerals, elements and ices, gradually elevated vapour pressure to a level
throughout the late-Hadean and Archean eons. which then would have been adopted by the where yet more water could form.
This cooling caused outgassed volatile atmosphere, cooled over time, condensed and The combined result of these processes – as
substances to form an atmosphere around the re-deposited as liquid on the surface. well as others – was a slow buildup of liquid
planet – see the opposite boxout for more
details – with sufficient pressure for retaining “This erosion of Earth’s crustal layer aided the
liquids. This outgassing also transferred a
large quantity of water that was trapped in the
distinction of cratons – the base for some of
planet’s internal accreted material to the the first continental landmasses”

3.5 BYA 3.3 BYA 2.9 BYA

Early bacteria Hadean discovery Island boom
Evidence suggests that the Sedimentary rocks have The formation of island
earliest primitive life forms been found in Australia arcs and oceanic plateaux
– bacteria and blue-green that date from this time. undergoes a dramatic
algae – begin to emerge in They contain zircon grains increase that will last for
Earth’s growing oceans at with isotopic ages between about another 200
this time. 4.4 and 4.2 BYA. million years.

Maybe the largest supercontinent
ever to exist on Earth, Rodinia was a
colossal grouping of cratons – almost
all the landmass that had formed on
the planet – that was surrounded by a
superocean called Mirovia. Evidence Pangaea
suggests Rodinia formed in the The last true supercontinent to exist
Proterozoic eon by 1.1 BYA, with a core on Earth was Pangaea. Pangaea
located slightly south of Earth’s formed during the late-Palaeozoic and
equator. Rodinia was divided by rifting early-Mesozoic eras 300 MYA, lasting
approximately 750 MYA. until 175 MYA when a three-stage
series of rifting events left a range of
landmasses that make up today’s
continents. Interestingly, the break-up
of Pangaea is still occurring today, as
seen in the Red Sea and East African
Rift System, for example.

water in various depressions in Earth’s surface

(such as craters left by impactors), which
throughout the Hadean and Archean eons grew
to vast sizes before merging. The presence of
extensive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
also caused the acidulation of these early
oceans, with their acidity allowing them to
erode parts of the surface crust and so increase
A closer look at Earth’s
their overall salt content. This erosion of evolving atmosphere
Earth’s crustal layer also aided the distinction Earth has technically had three atmospheres throughout its existence. The
of cratons – stable parts of the planet’s first formed during the planet’s accretion period and consisted of atmophile
elements, such as hydrogen and helium, acquired from the solar nebula. This
continental lithosphere – which were the base atmosphere was incredibly light and unstable and deteriorated quickly – in
for some of the first continental landmasses. geological terms – by solar winds and heat emanating from Earth. The second
With liquid on the surface, a developing atmosphere, which developed through the late-Hadean and early-Archean
eons due to impact events and outgassing of volatile gases through volcanism,
atmosphere, warm but cooling crust and was anoxic – with high levels of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and very
continents starting to materialise, by the little oxygen. This second atmosphere later evolved during the mid-to-late-
mid-Archean (approximately 3.5 billion years Archean into the third oxygen-rich atmosphere that is still present today. This
oxygenation of the atmosphere was driven by rapidly emerging oxygen-
ago) conditions were ripe for life, which we look producing algae and bacteria on the surface – Earth’s earliest forms of life.
at in depth over the next couple of pages.

2.8 BYA 2.5 BYA 2.4 BYA 2.1 BYA 1.8 BYA
Breakup Proterozoic More oxygen Eukaryotes Red beds
After fully forming The Archean eon The Earth’s Eukaryotic cells Many of Earth’s red beds
circa 3.1 BYA, finally draws to a atmosphere evolves appear. These most – ferric oxide-containing
Vaalbara begins to close after roughly 1.5 into one that is likely developed sedimentary rocks –
fragment due to billion years, leading rich in oxygen due by prokaryotes date from this period,
the asthenosphere to the beginning of the to cyanobacterial consuming each other indicating that an oxidising
overheating. Proterozoic era. photosynthesis. via phagocytosis. atmosphere was present.

Incredible story of Earth

The development of life

Of all the aspects of Earth’s development, the been present during Earth’s early formation. In
origins of life are perhaps the most complex contrast, the metabolism-first theory suggests
and controversial. That said, there’s one thing that the earliest form of life on Earth developed
upon which the scientific community as a from the creation of a composite-structured Prokaryote
Small cellular organisms
whole agrees: that according to today’s organism on iron-sulphide minerals common that lack a membrane-
evidence, the first life on Earth would have around hydrothermal vents. bound nucleus develop.
been almost inconceivably small-scale. The theory goes that under the high pressure
There are two main schools of thought for and temperatures experienced at these Shelled animals
The beginning of the
the trigger of life: an RNA-first approach and a deep-sea geysers, the chemical Cambrian period sees the
metabolism-first approach. The RNA-first coupling of iron salt and emergence of shelled
hypothesis states that life began with self- hydrogen sulphide creatures like trilobites.

replicating ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules,

while the metabolism-first approach believes it
all began with an ordered sequence of chemical Fish
reactions, ie a chemical network. The world’s first fish
evolved in the
Ribozymes are RNA molecules that are Cambrian explosion,
capable of both triggering their own replication with jawless
and also the construction of proteins – the main ostracoderms
developing the ability
building blocks and working molecules in cells. to breathe exclusively
As such, ribozymes seem good candidates for through gills.
the starting point of all life. RNA is made up of
nucleotides, which are biological molecules
composed of a nucleobase (a nitrogen
compound), five-carbon sugar and phosphate
groups (salts). The presence of these chemicals
and their fusion is the base for the RNA-world
theory, with RNA capable of acting as a less
stable version of DNA.
This theory begs two questions: one, were
Insects Reptiles
these chemicals present in early Earth and, During the Devonian The first land
two, how were they first fused? Until recently, period primitive insects vertebrates – Tetrapoda
while some success has been achieved in-vitro begin to emerge from – evolve and split into
the pre-existing two distinct lineages:
showing that activated ribonucleotides can Arthropoda phylum. Amphibia and Amniota.
polymerise (join) to form RNA, the key issue in
replicating this formation was showing how produced a composite structure with a mineral producing ever-more complex compounds,
ribonucleotides could form from their base and a metallic centre (such as iron or zinc). pathways and reaction triggers.
constituent parts (ie ribose and nucleobases). The presence of this metal, it is theorised, As such, the metabolism-first approach
Interestingly in a recent experiment reported triggered the conversion of inorganic carbon describes a system in which no cellular
in Nature, a team showed that pyrimidine into organic compounds and kick-started components are necessary to form life; instead,
ribonucleobases can be formed in a process constructive metabolism (forming new it started with a compound such as pyrite –
that bypasses the fusion of ribose and molecules from a series of simpler units). This a mineral which was abundant in early Earth’s
nucleobases, passing instead through a series process became self-sustaining by the oceans. When considering that the oceans
of other processes that rely on the presence of generation of a sulphur-dependent metabolic during the Hadean and early-Archean eons
other compounds, such as cyanoacetylene and cycle. Over time the cycle expanded and were extremely acidic – and that the planet’s
glycolaldehyde – which are believed to have became more efficient, while simultaneously overall temperature was still very high –

1.4 BYA 1.2 BYA 542 MYA 541 MYA 106 MYA
Fungi Reproduction Explosion Phanerozoic Spinosaurus
The earliest signs With the dawn The Cambrian The Proterozoic The largest theropod
of fungi according of sexual explosion occurs – a eon finally draws dinosaur ever to live
to current fossil reproduction, the rapid diversification of to a close and the on Earth, weighing
evidence suggest rate of evolution organisms that leads to current geologic eon up to an astonishing
they developed here increases rapidly the development of most – the Phanerozoic – 20 tons, emerges at
in the Proterozoic. and exponentially. modern phyla (groups). commences. this time.

Earth Cyanobacteria Solar nebula
Our planet forms out of accreting Photosynthesising The solar nebula is formed by the A journey
dust and other material from a
protoplanetary disc.
cyanobacteria – also known as
blue-green algae – emerge
over the planet’s oceans.
gravitational collapse of a fragment
of a giant molecular cloud. through time
See how life evolved over
millions of years to fill a
range of niches on Earth

Sponges in general –
but particularly
demosponges – develop
throughout the seas.

Eukaryotes – cellular
organisms with a
nucleus (nuclear
envelope) – appear.

During the late-Triassic
period pterosaurs appear –
the earliest vertebrates
capable of powered flight.

Primitive organisms that
are precursors to fungi,
capable of anastomosis
(connection of branched
tissue structures), arrive.

Dinosaurs diverge
from their Archosaur
ancestors during the
mid-Triassic era.

a model similar to the iron-sulphur world type Humans evolve from the
is plausible, if not as popular as the RNA theory. family Hominidae and
There are other scientific theories explaining reach anatomical
modernity around
the origins of life – for example, some think 200,000 years ago.
organic molecules were deposited on Earth via
a comet or asteroid – but all return to the notion
that early life was tiny. It’s also accepted that
life undertook a period of fierce evolution in While pre-existing in primitive
order to adapt to the ever-changing Earth. But forms, after the K-T extinction
without the right initial conditions, we might event mammals take over most
ecological niches on Earth.
never have evolved to call this planet home.

65.5 MYA 55 MYA 2 MYA 350,000 200,000

K-T event
The Cretaceous-
Birds take off
Bird groups
Homo genus
The first members
years ago years ago
Palaeogene extinction begin to diversify of the genus Neanderthal First human
event occurs, wiping dramatically, with Homo, of which Neanderthals evolve and Anatomically modern
out half of all animal many species still humans are spread across Eurasia. humans evolve in Africa;
species on Earth, around today – such members appear They become extinct 150,000 years later they
including the dinosaurs. as parrots. in the fossil record. 220,000 years later. start to move farther afield.

50 amazing
weather facts

020 50 amazing facts about 036 Predicting the weather

the weather Discover how we get forecasts for
Your burning climate questions the days ahead
are answered
038 Lightning
026 Where does acid rain Learn the science behind how and
come from? why lightning strikes
How does this damaging
substance form? 042 Firestorms
What are the causes of nature’s
034 026 The smell of rain
Find out why precipitation
most violent infernos?
A stunning creates a distinctive aroma
cave system
027 Cloud-spotting guide
Identify the common cloud types
028 How deserts grow
Why farmland is being swallowed
030 How do jet streams work?
Invisible phenomena vital to
our climate
032 The sulphur cycle
The vital element that takes many
different forms
030 034 Cave weather
Jet streams The cave system that has
developed its own microclimate

How do we
predict the

explained 026
© Thinkstock; SPL

042 Why does

rain smell?

Weather wonders

How many
strikes are How high
there each is a typical
second cloud?
globally? 2,000m
100 (6,550ft)

How many
break out
worldwide How hot is the Sun?
at any given The core is around
2,000 15,000,000˚C

We answer your burning questions about the incredible

variety and awesome power of the planet’s most intriguing
climatic phenomena
We like to be able to control everything, changes and forecast what we can expect to see on a huge number of factors, like the Earth’s rotation,
but weather – those changes in the when we leave our homes each day. But they’re not where you’re located, the angle at which the Sun is
Earth’s atmosphere that spell out rain, always right. It’s not their fault; we still don’t hitting it at any given time, your elevation, and your
snow, wind, heat, cold and more – is one completely understand all of the processes that proximity to the ocean. These all lead to changes in
of those things that is just beyond our power. Maybe contribute to changes in the weather. atmospheric pressure. The atmosphere is chaotic,
that’s why a cloudless sunny day or a spectacular Here’s what we do know: all weather starts with meaning that a very small, local change can have a
display of lightning both have the ability to delight contrasts in air temperature and moisture in the far-reaching effect on much larger weather systems.
us. Meteorologists have come a long way in their atmosphere. Seems simple, right? Not exactly. That’s why it’s especially tough to make accurate
capability to predict weather patterns, track Temperature and moisture vary greatly depending forecasts more than a few days in advance.

DID YOU KNOW? Many types of animals are reported to have fallen from the sky including frogs, worms and fish

Is there a way to tell 1. Start the count
Animals have fallen
how close a storm is?
Lightning and thunder always go together, because thunder is the sound that
When you see a flash of lightning,
start counting. A stopwatch would
be the most accurate way.
from the sky before,
but it’s not actually

results from lightning. Lightning bolts are close to 30,000 degrees Celsius
2. Five seconds ‘raining’ them. More likely
The rule is that for every five strong winds have picked up large
(54,000 degrees Fahrenheit), so the air in the atmosphere that they zip seconds, the storm is roughly 1.6
kilometres (one mile) away. numbers of critters from ponds or
through becomes superheated and quickly expands. That sound of expansion
other concentrations – perhaps
is called thunder, and on average it’s about 120 decibels (a chainsaw is 125, for 3. Do the maths
Stop counting after the thunder and from tornadoes or downspouts –
reference). Sometimes you can see lightning but not hear the thunder, but do the maths. If the storm’s close, then moved and deposited them.
that’s only because the lightning is too far away for you to hear it. Because take the necessary precautions.
Usually the animals in question
light travels faster than sound, you always see lightning before hearing it.
are small and live in or around
water for a reason.


A short period of unseasonable
weather isn’t confusing, but a
What is the fastest longer one can be. For example,
wind ever recorded, warm weather in winter may
not in a tornado? make plants bloom too early or
animals begin mating long before

407km/h (253mph) spring actually rolls around.


Gusts recorded during NIGHT, SHEPHERD’S
Cyclone Olivia in 1996 DELIGHT’ SAYING TRUE?
The rest of the proverb is, ‘Red sky
at morning, shepherd’s warning’.
Lightning occurs most often
in hot, summer-like climates Is it possible to A red sky means you could see the
red wavelength of sunlight

Where are you most likely stop a hurricane? reflecting off clouds. At sunrise, it
was supposed to mean the clouds
were coming towards you so rain
to get hit by lightning? We can’t control the weather… or might be on the way. If you saw
Generally lightning strikes occur most often during the
summer. So the place where lightning strikes occur the
can we? Some scientists are trying these clouds at sunset, the risk had
already passed. Which is ‘good’ or
most is a place where summer-like weather prevails to influence the weather through ‘bad’ is a matter of opinion.
year-round: Africa. Specifically, it’s the village of Kifuka
in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Each year, it gets cloud seeding, or altering the clouds’ WHAT ARE SNOW
more than 150 lightning strikes within one square
kilometre. Roy Sullivan didn’t live in Kifuka but he still
processes by introducing chemicals DOUGHNUTS?
Snow doughnuts, or rollers, are a
managed to get struck by lightning seven separate times like solid carbon dioxide (aka dry rare natural phenomenon. If snow
while working as a park ranger in the Shenandoah
National Park in the USA. The state in which he lived –
ice), calcium chloride and silver falls in a clump, gravity can pull it
down over itself as it rolls.
Virginia – does have a high incidence of lightning strikes iodide. It has been used to induce Normally it would collapse, but
per year, but since Sullivan spent his job outdoors in the
mountains, his risk was greater due to his exposure.
rainfall during times of drought as sometimes a hole forms. Wind and
temperature also play key roles.
well as to prevent storms.
What makes clouds? Air currents rise up and
become thermals – rising
columns of warm,
expanding air.

The warm, moist air builds
up somewhere between 305m
and 1,525m (1,000-5,000ft)
The bottom of
above the surface.
the cloud is the
saturation point
Warm, wet of the air, and it
air rises is very uniform.
Sunlight heats and
evaporates water from
the Earth’s surface.

Weather wonders
What causes hurricanes? What are the
WINDS? Depending on where they start, hurricanes the storm is officially a hurricane. When
odds of getting
From the Greek for
‘going downhill’, a
may also be known as tropical cyclones or
typhoons. They always form over oceans
hurricanes reach land, they weaken and die
without the warm ocean air. Unfortunately
hit by lightning
katabatic wind is also around the equator, fuelled by the warm, they can move far inland, bringing a vast in a lifetime?
known as a drainage
wind. It carries dense air
down from high elevations, such
moist air. As that air rises and forms clouds,
more warm, moist air moves into the area of
lower pressure below. As the cycle continues,
amount of rain and destructive winds.
People sometimes cite ‘the butterfly effect’ in
relation to hurricanes. This simply means
1 in 300,000
as mountain tops, down a slope winds begin rotating and pick up speed. something as small as the beat of a butterfly’s Cool, dry air
Cooled, dry air at the top of the
thanks to gravity. This is a Once it hits 119 kilometres (74 miles) per hour, wing can cause big changes in the long term.
system is sucked down in the
common occurrence in places centre, strengthening the winds.
like Antarctica’s Polar Plateau, Winds
where incredibly cold air on top of As the warm, moist air
the plateau sinks and flows down rises, it causes winds to
through the rugged landscape, begin circulating.
picking up speed as it goes. The
opposite of katabatic winds are
called anabatic, which are winds
that blow up a steep slope.


Several countries in Africa see
snow – indeed, there are ski
resorts in Morocco and regular
snowfall in Tunisia. Algeria and
South Africa also experience
snowfall on occasion. It once
snowed in the Sahara, but it was
How hot is
gone within 30 minutes. There’s lightning? Warm, moist air
even snowfall around the equator
if you count the snow-topped
peaks of mountains.
27,760˚C This air rises up from the
oceans, cooling on its way
and condensing into clouds.

(50,000˚F) High-pressure air flows downward
through this calm, low-pressure
area at the heart of the storm.
Usually lightning is white, but
it can be every colour of the
If the Moon didn’t exist it Why do clouds look different

rainbow. There are a lot of factors would have a catastrophic

that go into what shade the effect on world climates depending on their height?
lightning will appear, including
the amount of water vapour in the
Altocumulus Cirrus
Patchy clumps and These thin, hair-like
atmosphere, whether it’s raining layers make up this clouds form at, or
and the amount of pollution in mid-level cloud. It often above, 5,000m
the air. A high concentration of precludes storms. (16,500ft) and may
ozone, for example, can make arrive in advance of
lightning look blue.
What would happen to our These are low, Altostratus
HAVE THEIR OWN weather without the Moon? lumpy clouds
usually bringing
These very thin, grey
clouds can produce a
MICROCLIMATE? It’s difficult to know exactly what would happen to our a drizzling rain. little rain, but they
Some large metropolises have They may hang may grow eventually
weather if the Moon were destroyed, but it wouldn’t be as low as 300m into stratus clouds.
microclimates – that is, their own
good. The Moon powers Earth’s tides, which in turn (1,000ft).
small climates that differ from
influence our weather systems. In addition, the loss of Cumulus
the local environment. Often
the Moon would affect the Earth’s rotation – how it spins These vertically
these are due to the massive
on its axis. The presence of the Moon creates a sort of building clouds are
amounts of concrete, asphalt and puffy, with a base
drag, so its loss would probably speed up the rotation,
steel; these materials retain and sub-2,000m (6,550ft).
changing the length of day and night. In addition it
reflect heat and do not absorb
would alter the tilt of the Earth too, which causes the
water, which keeps a city warmer Stratus
changes in our seasons. Some places would be much
at night. This phenomenon Cumulonimbus These low-lying,
colder while others would become much hotter. Let’s not
specifically is often known as an This vertical, dense cloud horizontal, greyish
neglect the impact of the actual destruction, either; that clouds often form when
urban heat island. The extreme heaps upon itself and often
much debris would block out the Sun and rain down on fog lifts from the land.
energy usage in large cities may brings heavy thunderstorms.
Earth, causing massive loss of life. Huge chunks that hit
also contribute to this.
the ocean could cause great tidal waves, for instance.

BREAKERS The Huang He flood of 1931 covered over 100,000 square
kilometres (62,000 square miles) around the Yellow River basin
KILLER FLOOD in China, claiming up to a staggering 4 million lives.

DID YOU KNOW? Sir Francis Beaufort devised his wind scale by using the flags and sails of his ship as measuring devices

How many What is ball WHAT IS

volts are in IRIDESCENCE?
a lightning lightning? This happens when
small droplets of water
flash? This mysterious phenomenon or ice crystals in clouds

1 billion looks like a glowing ball of

lightning, and floats near the
scatter light, appearing as a
rainbow of colours. It’s not a
common phenomenon because
the cloud has to be very thin, and
ground before disappearing, even then the colours are often
often leaving a sulphur smell. overshadowed by the Sun.

Despite many sightings, we’re WHAT DO WEATHER

still not sure what causes it. The GOES (Geostationary
Operational Environmental
Satellite) system is run by the US
National Environmental Satellite,
Data, and Information Service
(NESDIS). The major element of
GOES comprises four different
geosynchronous satellites
(although there are other
Why are you safer inside a car geo-satellites either with other
during an electrical storm? uses now or decommissioned).
People used to think the rubber tyres on a car grounded any What causes The whole system is used by

lightning that may strike it and that’s what kept you safe. giant hailstones? NOAA’s National Weather Service
However, you’re safer in your car during an electrical storm for forecasting, meteorological
because of the metal frame. It serves as a conductor of electricity, Put simply, giant hailstones come from giant storms research and storm tracking. The
and channels the lightning away into the ground without – specifically a thunderstorm called a supercell. It has satellites provide continuous
impacting anything – or anyone – inside; this is known as a a strong updraft that forces wind upwards into the views of Earth, giving data on air
Faraday cage. While it is potentially dangerous to use a corded clouds, which keeps ice particles suspended for a long moisture, temperature and cloud
phone or other appliances during a storm because lightning can period. Within the storm are areas called growth cover. They also monitor solar and
travel along cables, mobile or cordless phones are fine. It’s also regions; raindrops spending a long time in these are near-space activities like solar

best to avoid metallic objects, including golf clubs. able to grow into much bigger hailstones than normal. flares and geomagnetic storms.

How does the Sun cause the seasons? Winter solstice

The winter solstice marks the
Seasons are caused by the Earth’s revolution around the Sun, as beginning of winter, with the
well as the tilt of the Earth on its axis. The hemisphere receiving Sun at its lowest point in the
Vernal equinox sky; it takes place around 20
the most direct sunlight experiences spring and summer, For the northern
December each year.
while the other experiences autumn and winter. During the hemisphere, this day –
warmer months, the Sun is higher in the sky, stays above the around 20 March – marks
the first day of spring. On
horizon for longer, and its rays are more direct. During the this day, the tilt of the Earth’s
cooler half, the Sun’s rays aren’t as strong and it’s lower in the axis is neither towards nor
sky. The tilt causes these dramatic differences, so while those away from the Sun.
in the northern hemisphere are wrapping up for snow, those in
the southern hemisphere may be sunbathing on the beach.

The Sun is at its highest point in The Sun is at its lowest point in the
the sky and takes up more of the sky and there is less daylight. The
horizon. Its rays are more direct. rays are also more diffuse.

On, or around, 22
September in the
northern hemisphere,
Summer solstice this marks the start of
During the summer solstice, autumn. The tilt of the
around 20 June, the Sun is at Earth’s axis is neither
its highest, or northernmost, towards nor away
point in the sky. from the Sun.

Weather wonders
DOES A What’s the difference between
RAINBOW rain, sleet and snow?
LAST? When it comes to precipitation, it’s all about temperature. When the air is
There is no set rule for sufficiently saturated, water vapour begins to form clouds around ice,
the duration a rainbow salt or other cloud seeds. If saturation continues, water droplets grow
will last. It all depends on and merge until they become heavy enough to fall as rain. Snow forms
how long the light is refracted by when the air is cold enough to freeze supercooled water droplets – lower
water droplets in the air (eg rain, or than -31 degrees Celsius (-34 degrees Fahrenheit) – then falls. Sleet is
the spray from a waterfall). somewhere in between: it starts as snow but passes through a layer of
warmer air before hitting the ground, resulting in some snow melting.

How do tornadoes work?
This scent comes from bacteria in
the soil. Once the earth dries, the What are gravity Polar air
bacteria (called actinomycetes)
release spores. Rainfall kicks these
spores up into the air, and then the
wave clouds? A cold front full of very dry
air and at high altitude is
necessary for a tornado.
Tropical air
The cold front
meets a warm front
full of very moist air
moist air disperses them. They and at low altitude.
Gravity waves
tend to have a sweet, earthy odour.
are waves of air
HOW MUCH RAIN CAN moving through a stable
A HURRICANE BRING? area of the atmosphere. The air Funnel
The average hurricane, with a might be displaced by an updraft or The wind begins
something like mountains as the air rotating and forms a
radius of about 1,330 kilometres low-pressure area
(825 miles), can dump as much as passes over. The upward thrust of air creates
called a funnel.
21.3 x 1015 cubic centimetres (1.3 x 1015 bands of clouds with empty space between them.
cubic inches) of water a day. That’s Cool air wants to sink, but if it is buoyed again by the updraft,
enough rain to fill up 22 million it will create additional gravity wave clouds.
Olympic-size swimming pools!


Why is it so quiet
Droughts are about an extreme
lack of water, usually due to lower
after it snows? Tornadoes start out with severe thunderstorms called
supercells. They form when polar air comes in contact
than average rainfall, and last for
months or even years. There’s no
It’s peaceful after snowfall as the with tropical air in a very unstable atmosphere.

set definition of a heat wave, but it snow has a dampening effect; Supercells contain a rotating updraft of air that is known
as a mesocyclone, which keeps them going for a long
typically means higher than
average temperatures for several
pockets of air between the flakes time. High winds add to the rotation, which keeps

consecutive days. Both can lead to absorb noise. However, if it’s getting faster and faster until eventually it forms a
funnel. The funnel cloud creates a sucking area of low
crop failures and fatalities.
compacted snow and windy, the pressure at the bottom. As soon as this funnel comes in
to contact with the Earth, you have a tornado.
snow might actually reflect sound.
Rainbows are arched due to the
way sunlight hits raindrops. It
bends as it passes through
What is a weather front?
A weather front is the
Unstable masses of
warm air often contain
Fog often comes
before the slow-
because it slows during this Wet ’n’ wild stratiform clouds, full moving warm front.
separation between two If there’s a lot of of thunderstorms.
process. Then, as the light passes
different masses of air, which moisture in the cold air
out of the drop, it bends again as it mass, the wedge can
have differing densities,
returns to its normal speed. also cause a line of
temperature and humidity.
showers and storms.
On weather maps, they’re

How hot was the delineated by lines and

symbols. The meeting of
hottest day in different frontal systems
history? causes the vast majority
of weather phenomena.

58˚ C (136˚F)
Recorded on 13 Wedge Cold front Warm front
September 1922 in As cold air is denser, it Cold fronts lie in deep
troughs of low pressure
Warm fronts lie in broad
often ‘wedges’ beneath
Al Aziziyah, Libya the warm air. This lift and occur where the air
troughs of low pressure and
occur at the leading edge of
can cause wind gusts. temperature drops off. a large warm air mass.

DID YOU Day at night

© Martin Koitmäe
Noctilucent clouds occur when icy polar mesospheric clouds – the highest
KNOW? clouds in the Earth’s atmosphere at 76-85 kilometres (47-53 miles) – refract the
fading twilight after the Sun has set, temporarily illuminating the sky.

DID YOU KNOW? Fog is made up of millions of droplets of water floating in the air

What is a sea breeze?

Rising heat High pressure Cooler air High pressure
Dry land is heated by the High pressure carries the The cooled air High pressure carries the
Sun, causing warm air to cooled air out over the water. slowly sinks cooled air towards land.
rise, then cool down. down over land.

Cooler air Rising heat

The cooled air In the evening,
slowly sinks down the land cools
over the ocean. off faster than
the ocean.
Warm air rises
Surface wind Surface wind over the water,
Wind over the ocean blows the Wind blows the air back out towards where it cools.
cool air back towards land. the ocean. This is a ‘land breeze’.

What is the eye of a storm? Does lightning ever strike WHY ARE
in the same place twice? CLOUDS
The eye is the calm centre of a storm like a hurricane or tornado,
Yes, lightning often strikes twice in the same
without any weather phenomena. Because these systems consist of Fluffy-looking
location. If there’s a thunderstorm and lightning
circular, rotating winds, air is funnelled downward through the eye clouds – the big
strikes, it’s just as likely to happen again. Many
and feeds back into the storm itself. cotton-ball ones – are a
tall structures get struck repeatedly during
type called cumulus.
thunderstorms, such as New York City’s famed
They form when warm air
Empire State Building or NASA’s shuttle launch
rises from the ground, meets a
pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
layer of cool air and moisture
condenses. If the cloud grows
How cold was the enough to meet an upper layer
coldest day of freezing air, rain or snow may
fall from the cloud.
in history?
The eye at the centre of a
-89˚ C (-129˚F) Acid rain is full of chemicals like

hurricane tends to be 20- nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide

50km (12-31mi) in diameter and sulphur dioxide, which react
Recorded on 21 July with water in the rain. Much of it
1983 at Vostok II comes from coal powerplants, cars
Station, Antarctica and factories. It can harm wildlife
and also damage buildings.


Why does the BREATH IF IT’S COLD?
Your breath is full of warm water
Sun shine? vapour because your lungs are
moist. When it’s cold outside and
you breathe out, that warm vapour
The Sun is a super-dense cools rapidly as it hits the cold air.
What are red sprites ball of gas, where hydrogen The water molecules slow down,

begin to change form, and bunch

and blue jets? is continually burned into up together, becoming visible.

These are both atmospheric and electrical phenomena that take place
helium (nuclear fusion). This WHAT IS THE GREEN
in the upper atmosphere, and are also known as upper-atmosphere generates a huge deal of FLASH YOU SEE AS THE
discharge. They take place above normal lightning; blue jets occur
energy, and the core SUN SETS SOMETIMES?
around 40-50 kilometres (25-30 miles) above the Earth, while red At sunsets (or indeed sunrises), the
sprites are higher at 50-100 kilometres (32-64 miles). Blue jets happen reaches 15 million degrees Sun can occasionally change
in cone shapes above thunderstorm clouds, and are not related to colour due to refraction. This can
lightning. They’re blue due to ionised emissions from nitrogen. Red Celsius (27 million degrees cause a phenomenon called green
sprites can appear as different shapes and have hanging tendrils.
They occur when positive lightning goes from the cloud to the ground.
Fahrenheit). This extreme flash. It only lasts for a second or
two so can be very tricky to spot.
heat produces lots of light.
Weather wonders

Where does acid

We’ve all seen the effects of acid rain
rain come from? 3. Gasses dissolve
Upon combining with the water vapour (water and
on limestone statues, but how does oxygen) in the rain clouds, the gasses react to form
weak but potentially damaging acid. Sulphur dioxide
this damaging substance form? from industry becomes sulphuric acid.

All rainwater is a 4. Acid rainfall

little bit acidic, Acid rain When acid rain falls it can

because the in action damage plant life, infiltrate

waterways and erode
carbon dioxide buildings and statues.
2. Wind
present in the atmosphere The gases are carried on the
dissolves in water and forms wind to higher ground, Oxidation of sulphur
carbonic acid. Stronger acid towards rain clouds. and nitrogen
rain, however, can damage
stone structures and can also
be harmful to crops, as well
as polluting waterways. It
forms in the atmosphere
when poisonous gases
dioxide (SO2)
This is a by-product
emitted by human activities of heavy industry,
combine with the moisture such as power
within rain clouds. stations.
Fossil-fuelled power
stations and petrol/diesel Nitrogen oxides (NOx)
These are released in car
vehicles give off chemical
exhaust fumes.
pollutants – mainly sulphur
1. Acidic gases

dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen


Sulphur dioxide and nitrogen KEY:


oxides (NOx) – which when


oxides from industry and Blue: Nitrogen


mixed with the water in the


vehicles are released into Yellow: Sulphur


air react and turn acidic. the atmosphere. Red: Oxygen


The smell of rain

Find out why precipitation creates a distinctive
aroma that’s the same all over the world
It’s possible to smell rain before it has even fallen.
Lightning has the power to split atmospheric
nitrogen and oxygen molecules into individual
atoms. These atoms react to form nitric oxide,
which in turn can interact with other chemicals to form
ozone – the aroma of which is a bit like chlorine and a
specific smell we associate with rain. When the scent
carries on the wind, we can predict the rain before it falls.
Another smell associated with rain is petrichor – a term
coined by a couple of Australian scientists in the mid-
Sixties. After a dry spell of weather, the first rain that falls
brings with it a very particular aroma that is the same no
matter where you are. Two chemicals are responsible for the
production of this indescribable odour called petrichor. One
of the two chemicals is released by a specific bacteria found
in the earth; the other is an oil secreted by thirsty plants.
© Thinkstock

These compounds combine on the ground and, when it

rains, the smell of petrichor will fill your nostrils.

5 TOP Rising heat
1 When the Sun heats the
Airflow obstructions
2 Clouds often form around
Converging streams
3 When two streams of air,
Wind turbulences
4 Changes in wind speed
5 Fronts separate warm and

ground, hot air will rise off hills and mountains, as the flowing in different and height creates cold air. When a
of it in columns called warm air has to rise around directions, meet they will be turbulences, which in turn considerable amount of
thermals. These thermals the obstruction, which forced to converge upward will cause warm and cool warm air rises above large
can produce puffy means it then cools quickly, together. This process can air to meet, enabling amounts of cold air in a
CLOUD FORMATION cumulus clouds. creating clouds. create cumulus clouds. clouds to form. front, clouds can form.

DID YOU KNOW? Clouds on Venus are actually composed of sulphur dioxide and drops of sulphuric acid

High-flying cirrocumulus clouds

Curling cirrus clouds Appearing as a mass of small, thin puffs of
Milky cirrostratus clouds Known as mares’ tails, these
cloud, cirrocumulus clouds develop at high
Cirrostratus clouds cover the sky like a high-altitude clouds are thin and
altitudes between 6,100-12,190m (20,000-
smooth thin veil and can create the wispy with a distinct curved
40,000ft) and are similar in formation to
appearance of a halo around the Sun. shape. They appear in small
low-level altocumulus clouds. They are
They form high up between 5,490- bands up to 12,190m (40,000ft)
composed of ice crystals and supercool
9,100m (18,000-40,000ft) and indicate above ground and are composed
water droplets.
that there’s moisture at high altitudes. of minute ice crystals.

6,100m (20,000ft)
Vast altostratus cloud cover
A thin but large cover of featureless
altostratus clouds develop between
2,130-5,490m (7,000-18,000ft) above
Earth. They diffuse sunlight so shadows
Layered altocumulus clouds won’t appear on the ground.
Altocumulus is a middle-level cloud that Cumulonimbus
forms between 1,980-5,490m (6,500- thunderstorm clouds
18,000ft) above the ground. Its formation Cumulonimbus clouds have
varies between large patchy layers and low-lying dark bases that usually
spaced out flat or wavy shapes. They form between 335-1,980m
consist of cool water and ice crystals and (1,100-6,500ft). They are known
often indicate a coming change in weather. as thunderstorm clouds and are
associated with lightning,
thunder, heavy downpours of rain
or hail and even tornadoes!

Cloud-spotting guide
Find out what causes clouds to form and learn how to
identify the most common types in our atmosphere
2,000m (6,560ft)
Dense stratus clouds Floating cumulus clouds
Stratus clouds provide a Puffy cumulus clouds resemble
blanket of grey or white cloud cauliflowers and their bases form
Patchy stratocumulus clouds
Stratocumulus clouds spread like a
cover and can at times up to 1,980m (6,500ft) above the
shallow patchy sheet across the sky.
appear low on the ground as ground. They are usually seen in
They are low-lying clouds and are formed
a form of fog. They are also fair weather and if they continue to
by shallow convective currents in the
usually accompanied by grow in size, they will become
atmosphere. Their presence indicates
drizzle or snow. thunderous cumulonimbus clouds.
light precipitation and they are usually
seen before or after bad weather.
© The Art Agency

Weather wonders

How deserts grow

Discover why farmland across the planet is being
swallowed at a terrifying rate by creeping sands…
Each year 0.2 per cent of usable
farmland is lost from arid regions
Farmland to wasteland
See how intensive agriculture can transform
worldwide. That may not sound a fertile landscape into a barren terrain
like a lot, but pressure on food and
water resources is growing exponentially.
Indeed, Earth’s population is predicted to
increase by a staggering 4 billion people by Virgin forest
the year 2100. Around six per cent of the world’s forests
Desertification occurs when farmland is are in arid lands where they hold soil in
place, replenish ground water and are
overused in dry climates with fragile thought to also encourage rainfall.
ecosystems already vulnerable to drought.
Many affected areas are home to the poorest
people in the world.
Livestock overgraze grass and wear away
earth with their hooves, while intensive
arable farming depletes nutrients in the
soil. Toxic salts build up and farmland
becomes waterlogged when fields are
overwatered by irrigation. Water
and wind make the problem even
worse by removing nutrient-rich
soil, gradually leaving nothing
Nutrient loss
but a bare desert behind. When crops are harvested, nutrients
No continent is immune from are stripped from the earth. Unless
desertification. Around a third of our fertilisers are added, the farmland
becomes barren and degraded.
planet is directly affected and population
pressure is typically the root cause of it.
Land degradation is not a new problem,
though. Studies suggest the collapse of the
Mayan civilisation in 900 CE was triggered
by population growth followed by crop
cultivation on steep slopes with fragile soil.
Desertification has devastating effects on
people and the environment alike. Farmers
face famine or the threat of disease if they
migrate away from depleted farmland.
Dust from the affected land can also
cause lung diseases. In China,
sandstorms and dunes from the
advancing Gobi Desert swallow
up entire villages and affect air Heavy machinery
quality in Beijing some 80 Intensive ploughing loosens
kilometres (50 miles) away. the topsoil, creating a dry
powder, less capable of
In Africa’s Sahel, desertification holding water, susceptible
increases drought risk too; vegetation to drought and easily
dying back exposes the pale sand, which washed or blown away.

reflects more heat, reducing updraughts of Deforestation

Trees are cut down to graze livestock or
damp air that generate clouds and rain, so once plant crops. The forest recovers slowly
it begins, desertification is self-propagating. due to the limited water supply.

5 TOP 1
Easter Island
The ancient Rapa Nui who
built 900 giant hollow-eyed
2 Cutting trees for fuel and
livestock overgrazing may
3 The Ancient Romans are said
to have polluted the croplands 4
By the second millennium
BCE, farmers in southern
5 An ancient city in Turkey,
destroyed by landslides, soil

Moai statues – some
weighing 75 tons – may have
collapsed after stripping the
island of palm forest.
have contributed to the
disappearance of Vikings
from Greenland – a cold
desert – in mid-15th century.
around Carthage in modern
Tunisia with salt after winning
the Third Punic War, hoping to
render the city uninhabitable.
Mesopotamia had swapped
wheat for salt-tolerant barley,
forced by desertification
caused by irrigation.
loss and overgrazing. Forests
were stripped from the slopes
for construction and firewood
for Roman baths.

DID YOU KNOW? A single millimetre (0.04in) of soil can take hundreds of years to form in dry climates

The Aral Sea is an extreme example of Desert expansion around the globe
desertification, where the water has
receded so much that many ships now sit What places on Earth have been most affected by desertification?
Gobi Desert
rusting miles away from the once-huge lake Around 3,600km2 (1,400mi2)
Vulnerability Other Aral Sea
regions of China becomes desert each
Very high This giant lake began year, due to the expansion of
High Dry shrinking in the Sixties when the Gobi. Causes include
Cold water was diverted to grow
Moderate overcultivation and population
Humid not cotton. Today it holds ten per pressure on water and soil.
Low vulnerable cent of its original volume.

Great Plains
The US Great Plains turned
into a ‘dust bowl’ when wheat
production expanded after
WWI. Improved farming
methods helped the Plains
recover, but they remain Sahel region
vulnerable to desertification. Approximately 40 per cent of Australia
Africa is affected by desertification. An estimated 42 per cent of
Population growth of three to four Australia is affected by
per cent a year and extreme desertification. The main
poverty leads to overgrazing, cause is overgrazing by
overfarming and drought. sheep and cattle introduced
by European settlers.

Cultivated land is used for many years to
grow the same crops. In less intensive
agriculture, farmland is left idle some
seasons to allow the soil to recover.

Desert land
At this point farmers are
forced to abandon their
fields. What was once
cultivated land resembles
a desert – dusty, salty and
unable to support most
plant and animals.

Around 60 per cent of irrigated farmland
is in drylands. When water is added to the
soil, it evaporates, leaving salt behind. Salt
also rises to the surface when farmland
Vegetation loss becomes waterlogged.
As the soil becomes saltier and loose
nutrient-rich topsoil is removed, plants
struggle to grow. The ground is exposed to
further action by wind and water.

How can we fight desertification?

Reversing desertification depends on tackling which afforested 9 million hectares (22.2 million
human exploitation of land by providing sources of acres) in the first ten years.
income. Imagine a wall of trees and shrubs – 8,000 Large forested areas replenish the water table, act
kilometres (5,000 miles) long and 15 kilometres as wind breaks to stop sand dunes in their tracks,
(nine miles) wide – snaking west to east across and may increase rainfall; for example, an estimated
Africa. The Great Green Wall project began in 2011 to 60 per cent of Amazon rainfall is created by the
© Sol 90 Images; SPL; NASA

counter desertification on the Sahara Desert fringe. rainforest itself. Advocates of the African green wall
Since then, 12 million drought-resistant acacia trees believe it can even counter terrorism, providing jobs
have been planted in Senegal alone. by producing gum arabic from acacia.
Large-scale planting schemes were used to tackle Other techniques to fight desertification include
desertification in 1935 during the US Dust Bowl too. improving irrigation techniques, applying bacteria to
China initiated its own green-wall project in 1978, dunes and introducing sand fences and pools.

Weather wonders

How do jet
Earth’s jet streams
A closer look at some of the invisible phenomena
that play a major role in our planet’s climate

Polar cell

streams work?
They’re a vital component in regulating global
weather, but what do jet streams actually do?
Jet streams are currents of fast-moving air found Ferrel cell
high in the atmosphere of some planets. Here on
Earth, when we refer to ‘the jet stream’, we’re
Subtropical jet
typically talking about either of the polar jet
streams. There are also weaker, subtropical jet streams
higher up in the atmosphere, but their altitude means they
have less of an effect on commercial air traffic and the
weather systems in more populated areas.
The northern jet stream travels at about 161-322 kilometres
(100-200 miles) per hour from west to east, ten kilometres (six Hadley cell
miles) above the surface in a region of the atmosphere known
as the tropopause (the border between the troposphere and
the stratosphere). It’s created by a combination of our planet’s
rotation, atmospheric heating from the Sun and the Earth’s
own heat from its core creating temperature differences and,
thus, pressure gradients along which air rushes.
In the northern hemisphere, the position of the jet stream
can affect the weather by bringing in or pushing away the
cold air from the poles. Generally, if it moves south, the
weather can turn wet and windy; too far south and it will
become much colder than usual. The reverse is true if the jet
stream moves north, inducing drier and hotter weather than
average as warm air moves in from the south.
In the southern hemisphere, meanwhile, the jet stream
tends to be weakened by a smaller temperature contrast
created by the greater expanse of flat, even ocean surface,
although it can impact the weather in exactly the same way
as the northern jet stream does.

Hadley cell
This atmospheric cell is partly
responsible for the deserts and
rainstorms in the tropics.

Winds of change
Currents in the jet stream travel at various speeds, but the
wind is at its greatest velocity at the centre, where jet
Subtropical jet
streaks can reach speeds as fast as 322 kilometres (200 These winds are much
miles) per hour. Pilots are trained to work with these higher in the atmosphere
persistent winds when flying at jet stream altitude, but than their polar
wind shear is a dangerous phenomenon that they must be counterparts, at around
17,000m (55,000ft).
ever vigilant of. This is a sudden, violent change in wind
direction and speed that can happen in and around the jet
stream, affecting even winds at ground level. A sudden Southern polar jet
gust like this can cause a plane that’s taking off/landing to The southern hemisphere’s
crash, which is why wind shear warning systems are jet stream runs around
the circumference of the
equipped as standard on all commercial airliners.
Antarctic landmass.

The highest terrestrial wind speed ever recorded was in April 1934 on
Mount Washington, USA, where a very strong jet stream descended
onto the 1,917m (6,288ft) summit.

DID YOU KNOW? Mount Everest is so high that its 8,848m (29,029ft) summit actually sits in a jet stream

Northern polar jet

Travelling west to east
around the northern
Where is the
hemisphere, it helps keep jet stream?
northern Europe temperate. A layer-by-layer breakdown of
the Earth’s atmosphere and
whereabouts the jet stream sits

Ferrel cell
These cells are balanced by the
Hadley and Polar cells, and
create westerly winds. They
are sometimes referred to as
the ‘zone of mixing’.

Polar cell
These north-south
circulating winds bring
in cold air from the

freezing poles and

© SPL produce polar easterlies.

Weather wonders

The sulphur
Atmospheric sulphur
Once in the atmosphere some
sulphur aerosols can remain for
years, reflecting the Sun’s energy
back into space and lowering
surface temperatures many miles
away. The eruption of Mount
Tambora in Indonesia is thought

to have caused the ‘year without
summer’ reported in Europe and
North America in 1816.

Always mixing and mingling,

sulphur is an element that Sulphate runoff
really likes to get around Sulphates are
water-soluble and can
easily erode from soil.
The sulphur cycle is one microorganisms. This part of the Most of the sulphate
of many biochemical cycle can form its own loop in both entering the ocean
arrives via river runoff.
processes where a terrestrial and aquatic environments,
chemical element or as sulphur is consumed by plants and
compound moves through the biotic animals and then released again
and abiotic compartments of the through decomposition.
Earth, changing its chemical form But this isn’t the only iron that
along the way. As with both the sulphur has in the fire. Elemental
carbon and nitrogen cycles, sulphur sulphur is found around volcanoes
moves between the biosphere, and geothermal vents, and when
atmosphere, hydrosphere and volcanoes erupt, massive quantities
lithosphere (the rigid outer layer of of sulphur, mostly in the form of
the Earth). In biology, the water, sulphur dioxide, can be propelled
oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, into the atmosphere. Weathering of
phosphorus and sulphur cycles are rocks and the production of volatile
of particular interest because they sulphur compounds in the ocean can
are integral to the cycle of life. also both lead to the release of
Sulphur, which is present in the sulphur. Increasingly, atmospheric Plant and animal uptake
amino acids cysteine and sulphur is a result of human activity, Plants obtain sulphate ions made
methionine as well as the vitamin such as the burning of fossil fuels. available by microorganisms in
thiamine, is a vital part of all organic Once in the air, sulphur dioxide the soil and incorporate them into
proteins. These proteins are then
material. Plants acquire their supply reacts with oxygen and water to form
consumed by animals.
from microorganisms in the soil and sulphate salts and sulphuric acid.
water, which convert it into usable These compounds dissolve well in
organic forms. Animals acquire water and may return to Earth’s
sulphur by consuming plants and surface via both wet and dry Wet and dry deposition
one another. Both plants and deposition. Of course, not all the Organic deposition The airborne deposition of sulphur
When biological material breaks down, sulphur compounds, whether sulphate salts or
animals release sulphur back into sulphur is getting busy; there are also
is released by microbes in the form of hydrogen sulphuric acid, is the dominant cause of
the ground and water as they die and vast reservoirs in the planet’s crust as sulphide and sulphate salts, as well as organic acidification in both terrestrial and
are themselves broken down by well as in oceanic sediments. sulphate esters and sulphonates. coastal ecosystems.

Sulphur and the climate

Human activities like burning fossil fuels effects on natural communities, upsetting somewhat offsetting the temperature
and processing metals generate around 90 the chemical balance of waterways, killing increases caused by the greenhouse effect.
per cent of the sulphur dioxide in the fish and plant life. If particularly In addition, when acid rain deposits
atmosphere. This sulphur reacts with water concentrated, acid rain can even damage sulphur in bodies of wetlands, the
to produce sulphuric acid and with other buildings and cause chemical weathering. sulphur-consuming bacteria quickly
emission products to create sulphur salts. However, the environmental impact of out-compete methane-producing microbes,
These new compounds fall back to Earth, sulphur pollution isn’t entirely negative; greatly reducing the methane emissions Burning fossil fuels
accounts for a large
often in the form of acid rain. This type of atmospheric sulphur contributes to cloud which comprise about 22 per cent of the
proportion of the sulphur
acid deposition can have catastrophic formation and absorbs ultraviolet light, human-induced greenhouse effect. dioxide in the atmosphere

Do you smell something?
DID YOU Most famous for its stench of rotten eggs, sulphur can really make its presence
known. Decomposing organic matter results in the formation of hydrogen sulphide.
KNOW? Not only does it smell terrible but hydrogen sulphide can also be dangerous to
aerobic (oxygen-using) organisms as it interferes with respiration.

DID YOU KNOW? Sulphur is actually the ‘brimstone’ of biblical fame, where it is said to fuel the fires of hell

The cycle in action

Sulphur is ubiquitous on Earth but much like your average teenager, the behaviour of sulphur
depends heavily on its companions. The element is both necessary for all life and potentially
highly toxic, depending on the chemical compound. It moves through different
compartments of the planet, taking a range of forms, with many and varied impacts.


Human impact
SO2 Industrial activity at mines,
metal processing plants and
power stations releases

© Science Photo Library

hydrogen sulphide gas from
sulphide mineral deposits, Its yellow colour led
plus sulphur dioxide from some alchemists to
sulphates and fossil fuels.
try and re-create gold
with sulphur
Sulphates in water
SO42- Once in the water, some
sulphates may be reduced to
sulphides by aquatic plants What is
and microorganisms.

Release of
Sulphur is one of the most
sedimentary sulphur
Volcanic and industrial important and common elements
activity release hydrogen on Earth. It exists in its pure form as
sulphide gas from sulphide
a non-metallic solid and is also
mineral deposits, and
sulphur dioxide from found in many organic and
sulphates and fossil fuels. inorganic compounds. It can be
found throughout the environment,
from the soil, air and rocks through
to plants and animals.
Because of its bright yellow
colour, sulphur was used by early
SO42- alchemists in their attempts to
synthesise gold. That didn’t pan out,
Deposition of but people still found many useful
sulphate minerals applications for it, including making
Sulphates are also deposited
black gunpowder. Today sulphur
in sediments as minerals,
such as gypsum, a form of and sulphur compounds are used in
calcium sulphate. many consumer products such as
matches and insecticides. Sulphur
is also a common garden additive,
bleaching agent and fruit
preservative, and is an important

Deposition of sulphides industrial chemical in the form of

Many different fungi,
Photo Libr

actinomycetes and other bacteria in sediments sulphuric acid.

are involved in both the reduction Iron sulphide, known as pyrite, Early users mined elemental
and other sulphide minerals
© Science

and oxidation of sulphur. sulphur from volcanic deposits, but

become buried in sediments.
when the demand for sulphur
outstripped supply towards the end
Large quantities of sulphur of the 19th century, other sources
in its mineral form are had to be found. Advances in
found around volcanoes
mining techniques enabled the
extraction of sulphur from the large
salt domes found along the Gulf
Coast of the United States. Both
volcanic and underground sulphur
deposits still contribute to the
global supply, but increasingly,
industrial sulphur is obtained as a
byproduct of natural gas and
petroleum refinery processes.

Weather wonders

Cave weather
Explore one of China’s most stunning cave systems
to learn why it has developed its own microclimate
Cut off from the Sun, rain and wind 6 million cubic metres (211.9 million cubic feet).
that we experience on the surface, Once in an open chamber this humid air rises.
you might assume meteorological While there are numerous entrances into
conditions in caves never change. this subterranean complex, exits are few and
However, the reality is that their climates do far between. In Cloud Ladder Hall’s case, it’s a
vary significantly – not only from location to hole in the roof some 250 metres (820 feet)
location, but within individual caves over time. above the floor, leading to a bottleneck effect.
Indeed, some examples, like the Er Wang Dong As the damp air hits a cooler band near the
cave system in Chongqing Province, China exit, tiny water droplets condense out to create
(main picture), even host their own weather. wispy mist and fog. In other chambers plants
Ultimately this is because very few caves are and underground waterways can also
100 per cent cut off from their surroundings. contribute to underground weather.
In the case of Er Wang Dong, it all comes Even caves without any direct contact with
down to an imbalance in the local topology. the outside world can still experience climatic
There are several tunnels around the cave variations, as they are subject to fluctuations in
system’s perimeter where wind can blow in. atmospheric pressure and geothermal activity,
Once trapped underground air from outside where the heat from Earth’s core emanates
gains moisture, pooling into huge chambers through the rocky floor. However, in such
like Cloud Ladder Hall – the second-biggest caves, changes are more evenly distributed so
natural cavern in the world with a volume of take place over longer time frames.

Here, fog clouds can be seen

in the deep sinkhole at the
entrance of the caves while
the Sun shines above it
5 Wembley
2.5 Statues


Sizing up Cloud
of Liberty
7 football

Ladder Hall
HUGE CAVERN 10mn m 3 The Cloud Ladder Hall is only beaten by the Sarawak Chamber in
Borneo in scale. Sarawak is estimated to have almost double the
volume of the Chinese cavern, in the range of 10mn m3 (353.1mn ft3).

DID YOU KNOW? Although previously mined, the Er Wang Dong cave system was properly explored for the first time in 2013

© Robbie Shone

Weather wonders
Looks like high pressure Cold front
has moved in… conditions
As the warm air is forced
upwards so quickly, when it
cools and condenses it forms
cumulonimbus clouds and
therefore heavy rain or
thunderstorms. Cumulus
clouds follow on from this,
with showery conditions and
eventually clear skies.

Cold front
Heavy, cool air comes from the east
behind a body of warm air, which is forced
sharply upwards. The quick movement of

air causes cool, windy conditions.

the weather
To take an umbrella or not?
How we get those all-important forecasts…
The simple fact of the matter is that pressure (a depression), which is associated with meteorologists require vast quantities of weather
weather is unpredictable. So how is it unsettled conditions like wind and rain. data – including temperature, precipitation, cloud
that we can gather information and We know how a frontal weather system will coverage, wind speed and wind direction – collected
make predictions about what behave and which conditions it will produce down from weather stations located all over the world.
conditions on Earth will be like? on the ground. The man who first brought the idea of Readings are taken constantly and fed via computer
Most weather phenomena occur as a result of frontal weather systems to the fore in the early 20th to a central location.
the movement of warm and cold air masses. The century was a Norwegian meteorologist called Technology is essential to both gathering and
border between these bodies of air are known as Vilhelm Bjerknes. Through his constant observation processing the statistical data about the conditions
‘fronts’, and it’s here that the most exciting weather, of the weather conditions at frontal boundaries, he down on Earth and in the upper atmosphere. The
including precipitation and wind, occurs. discovered that numerical calculations could be massive computational power inside a
As a body of air passes across different types of used to predict the weather. This model of weather supercomputer, for example, is capable of predicting
terrain – such as over the oceans, low-lying areas or prediction is still used today. the path and actions of hurricanes and issuing
even mountainous regions – air temperature and Since the introduction of frontal system weather life-saving warnings. After taking the information
moisture levels can change dramatically. When two forecasting, the technology to crunch the numbers collected by various monitors and sensors, a
air masses at different temperatures meet, the less involved has advanced immeasurably, enabling far supercomputer can complete billions of calculations
dense, warmer of the two masses rises up and over more detailed analysis and prediction. In order to per second to produce imagery that can reveal how
the colder. Rising warm air creates an area of low forecast the weather with the greatest accuracy, the hurricane is expected to develop.

2 FREAKY 1. Moonbows
These are rainbows
caused by moonlight.
They often appear
white to the naked eye,
and appear best with a
full moon.
FREAKIER 2. Sundogs
A phenomenon whereby there
appears to be more than one sun
in the sky. Sundogs are faint
rings of light created when
horizontal ice crystals in the
atmosphere align to refract light.
FREAKIEST 3. Raining
It has been known to
‘rain’ frogs and fish. It is
thought that the animals
are picked up by strong
winds over water.

DID YOU KNOW? The MET office has more than 200 automatic weather stations in the UK; they are usually 40km (25mi) apart

In practice Warm front conditions

Warm and The red curves of a warm front
and blue triangles of a cold
As the warm air slowly rises, it cools
and condenses and clouds are formed.

cold fronts
What do these terms mean
front are shown on a map to
show where the fronts are,
where they’re heading and
These are nimbostratus, causing
steady rainfall, then altostratus
accompanied by drizzle, and finally
and how do they affect us? the weather they’ll bring. cirrus, when clearer skies can be seen.

Warm front
In this case, warm air from the
south meets cold air from the
north, and the warm air rises
gradually above the cold air.

© Thinkstock
The tops of storm clouds
are full of tiny ice crystals
that grow heavier until

they fall through the

K Im
cloud. The biggest hail

stone on record was

17.8cm (7in).

A flash of lightning is a
giant spark caused when
WEATHER FORECAST MAP Learn what these weather-related signs
and symbols mean
the molecules in a
thunder cloud collide and
build up static electricity.
High pressure Wind Low pressure The flash occurs when a
Weather here will be clear and dry, due to the The conditions at this point will be At the centre of these
high pressure. If this high pressure occurs in windy. This is indicated by the position circular patterns of spark jumps through a
summer weather will be warm, whereas in of the isobars; the closer together they isobars is where cloud, or from the cloud to
winter it will be cold and crisp. are the windier the conditions. systems of high or low the ground, or from one
pressure lie. Where
there is low pressure cloud to another.
conditions will be
rainy and windy. Thunder
This is the noise produced
by lightning. An increase
in pressure and
Isobars Occluded temperature cause the air
These indicate front
atmospheric pressure. This is where one nearby to rapidly expand,
Areas of equal front ‘catches up’ which produces the
atmospheric pressure with another. In this characteristic sound of a
are joined together with example, the cold
the lines shown and the has caught up with sonic boom.
numbers indicate the warm. Occluded
pressure measured in fronts cause the Storm cloud
millibars. Lower weather to change Your typical run-of-the-
numbers indicate low quite quickly and, in
pressure, while higher mill cloud can be
this case, become
numbers indicate similar to that of a hundreds of metres high.
high pressure. cold front. A storm cloud, however,
© DK Images

can reach heights of over

ten kilometres (that’s
six miles).
Cold front In between Warm front How many…?
As with any cold front, the weather here After the passing of the warm front and The warm front will cause steady rainfall,
will be expected to be cool with heavy before the arrival of the cold front followed by drizzle, accompanied by 16 million thunderstorms
rainfall and possibly even thunderstorms. conditions should be clear and dry, but cloudy skies. These are typical conditions occur each year globally.
This will be followed by showers. normally only for a short period. caused by any warm front.

Weather wonders

Lightning Capable of breaking down

the resistance of air, lightning is a highly visible
discharge of electricity capable of great levels
of destruction. But how is it formed?

Intense upthrust of volcanic particles

can help generate lightning

Lightning occurs when a region of cloud and a negative one to the larger ice-water mixture, it and completes the connection, generating a return
attains an excess electrical charge, either with the former rising to the top on updrafts and the stroke that due to the channel now being the path of
positive or negative, that is powerful latter falling to the bottom under the effect of gravity. least resistance, returns up through it to the cloud at
enough to break down the resistance of The consequence of this is gradual separation of one-third the speed of light and creating a large flash
the surrounding air. This process is typically charge between the upper and lower parts of in the sky.
initiated by a preliminary breakdown within the the cloud. This leader-return stroke sequence down and up
cloud between its high top region of positive charge, This polarisation of charges forms a channel of the ionised channel through the air commonly
large central region of negative charge and its partially ionised air – ionised air is that in which occurs three or four times per strike, faster than the
smaller lower region of positive charge. neutral atoms and molecules are converted to human eye is capable of perceiving. Further, due to
The different charges in the cloud are created electrically charged ones – through which an initial the massive potential difference between charge
when water droplets are supercooled within it to lightning stroke (referred to as a ‘stepped leader’) areas – often extending from ten to 100 million volts
freezing temperatures and then collide with ice propagates down through towards the ground. As – the return stroke can hold currents up to 30,000
crystals. This process causes a slight positive charge the stepped leader reaches the Earth, an upwards amperes and reach 30,000°C (54,000°F). Typically the
to be transferred to the smaller ice crystal particles connecting discharge of the opposing polarity meets leader stroke reaches the ground in ten milliseconds

5 TOP Technicolour
1 The super-rare ball lightning
can materialise in different
2 The ancient Greeks believed
that lightning was the product
3 Since 1980 lightning has been
looked at by energy companies 4
In 1769 in Brescia, Italy,
lightning struck the Church of
5 From satellite data, scientists
postulate that there are

colours, ranging from blue
through yellow and on to red. It
is also typically accompanied
by a loud hissing sound.
of the all-powerful deity,
weather controller and sky
god Zeus. His weapon for
smiting was the lightning bolt.
as a possible source of energy,
with numerous research
projects launched to
investigate its potential.
St Nazaire, igniting 100 tons of
gunpowder in its vaults. The
explosion killed 3,000 and
destroyed a sixth of the city.
roughly 1.4 billion lightning
flashes a year. 75 per cent of
these flashes are either
cloud-to-cloud or intra-cloud.

DID YOU KNOW? The peak temperature of a lightning bolt’s return-stroke channel is 30,000°C (54,000°F)

Cloud-to-cloud Cloud-to-air
Explaining the As with cloud-to-ground, cloud-to-cloud lightning
discharges occur between polarised areas of differing
Similar to cloud-to-cloud, cloud-to-air strikes
tend to emanate from the top-most area of a cloud

formation of lightning charge, however here the ionised channel runs

between clouds instead of a cloud to the ground.
that is positively charged, discharging through
an ionised channel directly into the air.

Centre of
-40 oC positive charge -40 oC

Centre of
-15 oC negative charge -15 oC

Small centre of
positive charge
-5 oC
-5 oC

Cloud-to-ground Intra-cloud Charge differential

Cloud-to-ground lightning occurs when a channel of Intra-cloud lightning is the most frequent type worldwide Clouds with lightning-generating potential tend to consist of
partially ionised air is created between areas of positive and occurs between areas of differing electrical potential three layers of charge, with the top-most part a centre of
and negative charges, causing a lightning stroke to within a single cloud. It is responsible for most positive charge, the middle a centre of negative charge, and
propagate downward to the ground. aeroplane-related lightning disasters. the bottom a secondary small centre of positive charge.

and the return stroke reaches the instigating cloud

in 100 microseconds. “Due to the massive potential difference
Lightning, however, does not just occur between
clouds (typically cumulonimbus or stratiform) and
between charge areas the return stroke
the ground, but also between separate clouds and can hold currents up to 30,000 amperes
even intra-cloud. In fact, 75 per cent of all lightning
strikes worldwide are cloud-to-cloud or intra-cloud, and reach 30,000°C (54,000°F)”
with discharge channels forming between areas of
positive and negative charges between and within
Atmospheric lightning
© Science Photo Library

them. In addition, much lightning occurs many

miles above the Earth in its upper atmosphere (see Unseen apart from by satellites, a major part of the world’s annual
‘Atmospheric lightning’ boxout), ranging from types
that emanate from the top of clouds, to those that lightning is generated in Earth’s upper atmosphere.
span hundreds of miles in width.
100 Thermosphere Elves
Interestingly, despite the high frequency of Vast 250-mile wide flattened discs of light, elves
lightning strikes and their large amount of occur above low-lying thunderstorms. They are
contained energy, current efforts by the scientific caused by the excitation of nitrogen molecules
due to electron collisions in the atmosphere.
community to harvest its power have been fruitless. Mesosphere
This is mainly caused by the inability of modern
technology to receive and store such a large Sprites
Sprites are caused by the discharges of positive
quantity of energy in such a short period of time, as lightning from thunderclouds to the ground.
each strike discharges in mere milliseconds. Other They vary in colour from red to blue and appear
issues preventing lightning’s use as an energy akin to large jellyfish.
Altitude (km)

source include its sporadic nature – which while Stratosphere

perfectly capable of striking the same place twice, Blue jets
rarely does – and the difficulties involved in Emanating from the top of cumulonimbus
clouds and stretching in a cone shape up into
converting high-voltage electrical power delivered the stratosphere and mesosphere, blue jets are
by a strike into low-voltage power that can be stored 10 Troposphere caused by intense hail activity within a storm.
and used commercially.

Weather wonders

Lightning types
Far from uniform, lightning is an
unpredictable phenomenon
Bead lightning
A type of cloud-to-ground lightning where the strike
seems to break up into smaller, super-bright sections (the
A look at some of the most dangerous
beads), lasting longer than a standard discharge channel. Multiple strikes
places to be when lightning strikes The Empire State Building is
Frequency: Rare struck 24 times per year on
average. It was once struck
Danger zone eight times in 24 minutes.
Ribbon lightning Ten per cent of all people
Only occurring in storms with high cross winds and struck by lightning were
multiple return strokes, ribbon lightning occurs when in Florida at the time.
each subsequent stroke is blown to the side of the last,
causing a visual ribbon effect.

Frequency: Quite rare

A heavily branched
© Scotto Bear

lightning strike with 70% OF GLOBAL

short duration stroke and
incredibly bright flash.

Frequency: Common

Sheet lightning
A generic term used to describe
types of cloud-to-cloud
© Christian Artntzen

lightning where the discharge

path of the strike is hidden from
view, causing a diffuse

© Thechemicalengineer
brightening of the surrounding
clouds in a sheet of light.
Frequency: Common Global
Megalightning The small village of
© Cgoodwin

A term commonly used when referring to upper- Flashes Kifuka is the most
Above the Catatumbo River in struck place on
atmospheric types of lightning. These include sprites, blue Venezuela lightning flashes Earth, with 158
jets and elves (see ‘Atmospheric lightning’ boxout) and several times per minute 160 strikes per square
‘Damn! And to think that tree was nights of the year. kilometre per year.
occur in the stratosphere, mesosphere and thermosphere. just two months from retirement’
Frequency: Frequent

Ball lightning
Considered as purely hypothetical by meteorologists, ball
lightning is a highly luminous, spherical discharge that
What are the chances?
The odds of being hit by lightning aren’t as slim as you think…
according to few eyewitnesses last multiple seconds and
can move on the wind.
Frequency: Very rare 1 in
The chance of you getting struck
by lightning is one in 300,000.
Which, while seeming quite
unlikely, did not stop US park
ranger Roy Sullivan from being
struck a world record seven times
during his lifetime.

1. Percy Jackson &
The Lightning Thief
A film in which Percy ‘Perseus’ Jackson, son
of Poseidon, must fight mythological beasts
and travel to Hades to retrieve Zeus’ stolen
lightning bolt in order to prevent a war.
2. Back To The Future
Protagonist Marty McFly travels back in
time in Doc Brown’s time travelling,
lightning-inducing DeLorean, in order to
ensure his parents hook-up and
guarantee his own existence.
3. Highlander
An immortal Scottish swordsman must
confront his last two rivals in order to win
the fabled ‘Prize’. Of course, each time a
foe is vanquished his power is absorbed
in a lightning strike.

DID YOU KNOW? The irrational fear of lightning is referred to as astraphobia

Cloud-to-cloud lightning streaks

across the Masai Mara Game
Reserve in Kenya, Africa
What happens when you
get struck by lightning?
The parts of the body that feel the effect if struck by lightning
When a human is hit by lightning, part of Audio visual Organs
the strike’s charge flows over the skin – Eyes and ears are Organ failure is also
© Science Photo Library referred to as external flashover – and part commonly affected by statistically
a strike, with hearing probable. Death by
of it goes through them internally. The cardiac or
loss, tinnitus and
more of the strike that flows through, the blindness common. cardiopulmonary
more internal damage it causes. The most Many of these arrest is the main
common organ affected is the heart, with neuropsychiatric source of death for
problems develop lightning strike
the majority of people who die from a over time. victims.
strike doing so from cardiac arrest. Deep
tissue destruction along the current path
© Thinkstock

can also occur, most notably at the

entrance and exit points of the strike on
the body. Lightning also causes its victims
to physically jump, which is caused by the
charge contracting the muscles in the
body instantaneously.
Deadly Burns are the most visible effect of
In July 2007, 30 people being struck by lightning, with the
were killed by lightning electrical charge heating up any objects in
in the remote village of contact with the skin to incredible levels,
Ushari Dara in
causing them to melt and bond with the

© Thinkstock
northwestern Pakistan.
human’s skin. Interestingly, however,
unlike industrial electrical shocks – which
can last hundreds of milliseconds and
tend to cause widespread burns
over the body – lightning-induced
burns tend to be centred more
around the point of contact, with
a victim’s head, neck and
shoulders most affected.
Post-strike side-effects of being
struck by lightning range from amnesia, Skin
seizures, motor control damage, hearing When struck a
loss and tinnitus, through blindness, portion of the
sleep disorders, headaches, confusion,
Muscles strike’s charge
Muscles flows over the
tingling and numbness. Further, these contract skin, while the rest
Singapore strikes! symptoms do not always develop instantly on flows through the
Singapore has one of the world’s highest strike, causing body internally.
instantaneously, with many – notably the victim to Skin burns and
rates of lightning activity. neuropsychiatric problems (vision and jump and hair loss are
hearing) – developing over time. suffer common side
muscular effects as well as

in comparison… seizures. the bonding of

worn fabrics.

1 in 14,000,000 1 in 11,000,000
The chance of winning Flying on a single-trip
the lottery in the UK is one commercial air flight
in 14 million. That is over inflicts you to a one in 11
45 times as unlikely as million chance of being
being struck. killed in an accident.

1 in 12,000,000 1 in 8,000
© Science Photo Library

The odds of getting hit by In order to get better

lightning are 40 times odds, go out in your car. Body tissue Nervous system
more likely than the Over 3,000 people are Deep tissue destruction is Motor control damage is common, often
common along the current permanently affecting muscle and limb
chance of dying from Mad killed every day on path, which courses through movement, neural circuitry and motor
Cow Disease in the UK. roads worldwide. the body from cranium to feet. planning and execution decisions.

Weather wonders

From tornado-force winds to superhot
flames, dare you discover nature’s
most violent infernos?

BREAKERS 2 The Black Thursday bushfires on 6 February 1851 burnt
the largest area of any Australian bushfire in European-
HOT DOWN UNDER recorded history: a quarter of Victoria!

DID YOU KNOW? Large wildfires have increased by 300 per cent in western USA since the mid-Eighties

Firestorms are among nature’s

most violent and unpredictable
phenomena. Tornado-force winds
sweep superhot flames of up to
1,000 degrees Celsius (1,800 degrees
Fahrenheit) through buildings and forests
alike. Victims often suffocate before they can
flee and entire towns can be obliterated. The cloud has a puffy,
Survivors of firestorms describe darkness, cauliflower appearance
100-metre (330-foot)-high fireballs and a due to bubbles of rising
hot air and falling cold air.
roaring like a jumbo jet. To give you an idea of
the sheer heat, firestorms can be hot enough to
melt aluminium and tarmac, warp copper and
even turn sand into glass.
Firestorms happen worldwide, especially in Mushroom cap
The top of the lower
the forests of the United States and Indonesia, atmosphere stops the air
and in the Australian bush. They occur mostly rising any farther. Instead Smokescreen
in summer and autumn when vegetation is it spreads out beneath. Ash and smoke mask
tinder dry. Although they are a natural the base of the cloud
and typically turn it a
phenomenon, among the most devastating grey or brownish colour.
were triggered deliberately. During World War
II, for instance, Allied forces used incendiaries
and explosives to create devastating firestorms
in Japanese and German cities. Firestorms also
erupted after the cataclysmic impact 66 million How do mushroom clouds form?
years ago that many believe to have triggered The terrifying mushroom clouds produced water vapour, ash and dust. The vapour starts
the extinction of the dinosaurs. after nuclear bombs are examples of to cool high in the atmosphere and condenses
Climate change may be already increasing pyrocumulus, or fire, clouds. This towering as water droplets on the ash. As a result, a
phenomenon is caused by intense ground cloud forms that can quickly become a
the risk of mega-fires by making summers ever
heating during a firestorm. Their tops can thunderstorm with lightning and rain, if
hotter and drier. The Rocky Mountain Climate reach an incredible nine kilometres (six enough water is available. The lightning can
Organization, for example, has reported that miles) above the ground. When the fire heats start new fires, but on the bright side, rain can
from 2003 to 2007, the 11 western US states the air, it rises in a powerful updraft that lifts extinguish them.
warmed by an average of one degree Celsius (1.8
degrees Fahrenheit). The fire danger season
has gone up by 78 days since 1986.
The risk of an Australian firestorm striking a
major city has also heightened in the last 40
How firestorms change the weather
Firestorms can release as much
years. Climate change may have exacerbated energy as a lightning storm on a
this by increasing the risk of long heat waves hot summer’s afternoon.
Warm air above the fire is lighter
and extremely hot days. In January 2013 alone, than the surrounding air so it rises;
a hundred bushfires raged through the states the swirling pillar of lifting air above
of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania the fire is called a thermal column.
This tornado-like structure is
following a record-breaking heat wave. responsible for a firestorm’s power. 2. Pyrocumulus
Maximum daily temperatures rose to 40.3 Under the right weather conditions, The air cools as it rises.
degrees Celsius (104.5 degrees Fahrenheit), air can rise inside the column at Moisture condenses onto
eye-watering speeds of 270 suspended ash particles
beating the previous record set in 1972. kilometres (170 miles) per hour! and a dense cloud forms
Firestorms can happen during bush or forest Cooler air gusts into the space left that can become a storm.
fires, but are not simply wildfires. Indeed, a behind by the ascending air, causing
violent winds that merge fires
firestorm is massive enough to create its own together into a single intense entity.
weather (see boxout). The thunderstorms, They also blow in oxygen, wood and
powerful winds and fire whirls – mini other flammable material that serve
to fuel and intensify the blaze.
tornadoes of spinning flames – it can spawn are Turbulent air spiralling around the
all part of its terrifying power. thermal column can spawn fire 1. Thermal column 3. Filling the gap
The intense fire can have as much energy as a tornadoes and throw out sparks. The fire warms the air Air rushes into the space
These can set light to trees and above, causing it to left by the rising air,
thunderstorm. Hot air rises above it, sucking in houses tens of metres away, become lighter than its creating violent gusts that
additional oxygen and dry debris, which fuel increasing the conflagration’s range. surroundings so it rises. only intensify the fire.
and spread the fire. Winds can reach

Weather wonders
tornado speed – tens of times the ambient wind
speeds. The huge pillar of rising air – called a
thermal column – swirling above the firestorm
Firestorm step-by-step Flanking and
backing fires
See how a deadly firestorm starts as a single The fire front burns any
can generate thunderclouds and even spark and spreads rapidly through the forest fuel ahead. Flanking and
lightning strikes that spark new fires. backing fires set light to
The thermal column, in turn, can spawn a Fire front vegetation to the sides of
number of fiery tornadoes, which can tower to The fire moves quickly the fire front and behind the
forward in a long, point of origin, respectively.
200 metres (650 feet) and stretch 300 metres broad curve. Its intense
(980 feet) wide, lasting for at least 20 minutes. heat preheats and
These fling flaming logs and other burning dries out vegetation
and other fuel ahead
debris across the landscape, spreading the of the flames.
blaze. The turbulent air can gust at 160
kilometres (100 miles) per hour, scorching
hillsides as far as 100 metres (330 feet) away
from the main fire. It’s far more powerful than
a typical wildfire, which moves at around 23
kilometres (14.3 miles) per hour – just under the
average human sprint speed.
Like all fires, firestorms need three things to
burn. First is a heat source for ignition and to
dry fuel so it burns easier. Fuel, the second
must, is anything that combusts, whether that
be paper, grass or trees. Thirdly, all fires need
at least 16 per cent oxygen to facilitate their
chemical processes. When wood or other fuel
burns, it reacts with oxygen in the surrounding
air to release heat and generate smoke, embers Spot fires
and various gases. Firestorms are so intense If a fire ignites the
tree canopy, the fire
that they often consume all available oxygen, intensifies and burning
suffocating those who try to take refuge in embers explode many
ditches, air-raid shelters or cellars. metres in every direction.

Fire wardens, air patrols and
lookout stations all help detect
fires early, before they can
spread. Once a fire starts,
helicopters and air tankers head
to the scene. They spray
thousands of gallons of water,
foam or flame-retardant chemicals
around the conflagration. In the
meantime, firefighters descend by rope or
parachute to clear nearby flammable material.
We can reduce the risk of fire breaking out in
the first place by burning excess vegetation
under controlled conditions. Surprisingly this
can actually benefit certain plants and animals.
Canadian lodgepole pines, for example, rely
partly on fire to disperse their seeds. Burning Crown fires
also destroys diseased trees and opens up Fires in the tree canopy,
congested woodland to new grasses and Ignition aka crown fires, are
shrubs, which provides food for cattle and deer. Dried-out vegetation is intense and spread
Vegetation in fire-prone areas often recovers ignited by a lightning strike, quickly, often threatening
quickly from a blaze. Plants like Douglas fir, for the heat of the Sun or by human settlements.
instance, have fire-resistant bark – although it human activity – eg a Large expanses of forest
can only withstand so much heat. Forest discarded cigarette, arson can be destroyed and
owners help flora to return by spreading mulch, attack or faulty power cable. take decades to recover.
planting grass seed and erecting fences.

DID YOU KNOW? The biggest man-made firestorm took place in Dresden, Germany, in 1945; 70 per cent of the city was destroyed

Cloud Five mega

The hot air cools as it
goes up, and droplets of
water condense on the
ash particles. A puffy
cloud forms with pockets
of billowing, moist air.
Thermal column
Air is warmed by the fire,
1 Black Saturday
In 2009, one of Australia’s
worst bushfires killed 173
becomes lighter than the people, injured 5,000,
surrounding air and rises
Airtanker to create a thermal
destroyed 2,029 homes, killed
Aerial firefighters dump numerous animals and burnt
column. The lifting air
water from above, or for
carries smoke and ash 4,500 square kilometres
more serious blazes, fire
from the blaze with it.
retardants like ammonium (1,700 square miles) of land.
sulphate are used, which Temperatures may have
also act as a fertiliser to
help promote regrowth. reached 1,200 degrees Celsius
(2,192 degrees Fahrenheit).

Sparks and embers flying
2 Great Peshtigo
The deadliest fire in
American history claimed
off the tree canopy are
blown with the breeze. 1,200-2,500 lives, burned
They cause the fire to 4,860 square kilometres (1,875
spread and advance in square miles) of Wisconsin
the direction of the wind.
and upper Michigan and
destroyed all but two
buildings in Peshtigo in 1871.

3 Ash Wednesday
More than 100 fires swept
across Victoria and South
Australia on 16 February 1983,
killing 75 people, destroying
3,000 homes and killing
50,000 sheep and cows. It was
the worst firestorm in South
Australia’s history.

4 Hamburg
This firestorm brought on
by an Allied bomb strike in
1943 killed an estimated
44,600 civilians, left many
more homeless and levelled
Winds blow in towards a 22-square-kilometre
the conflagration to (8.5-square-mile) area of the
replace the rising air. This German city. Hurricane-force
brings oxygen to feed the
fire. The thermal column winds of 240 kilometres (150
Going up becomes self-sustaining miles) per hour were raised.
Fires move faster uphill and a firestorm ensues.
for several reasons: the
flames are closer to fuel 5 Great Kanto
A 7.9-magnitude
© Alamy; Thinkstock; Peters & Zabransky

sources; vegetation is earthquake on 1 September

typically drier on slopes
so easier to ignite; and 1923 triggered a firestorm that
winds often blow upslope burned 45 per cent of Tokyo
because warm air rises. and killed over 140,000. This
included 44,000 who were
incinerated by a 100-metre
(330-foot) fire tornado.


062 How do air 060
plants survive?
048 How plants work
The incredible life cycle of a
plant explained
052 Plant cell anatomy explained
Take a look inside a plant cell
054 Why do flowers smell?
Luring insects from afar
054 What are orchids?
Discover what makes these
beautiful flowers unique
055 How the Venus flytrap kills
It’s so easy catching prey when
you’re a Venus flytrap
055 Why is poison ivy so irritating?
The common toxic shrub explained
048 056 The world’s deadliest plants

Life cycle of Find out which lethal plants you

a plant should avoid

063 How is
coffee grown?

© Ana_Labate
The world’s biggest flower

055 The
057 The world’s biggest flower 058 Venus flytrap
What is the corpse flower? Life of an
oak tree
058 The life of an oak tree
Discover the amazing way these
trees go on surviving
060 How do cacti live?
The survival methods of these
prickly flowers
061 How are plants cloned?
How identical copies of plants
benefit us
062 How do air plants survive? 056
How epiphytes grow without soil
062 Climbing plants explained plants
Tactical ways of getting sunlight
063 Coffee plants
From a tiny seed to a steaming
hot cup

Plants & organisms
A sunflower head comprises up
to 2,000 tiny individual flowers

How plants work

Could you stay put in your birthplace for hundreds of years,
surviving off whatever happens to be around?
Truly, it’s not easy being green. But much other than photosynthesise. They floated sending shoots up into the dry air, topped with
plants not only survive, they thrive all around in the ocean, soaking up water and rays and leaves that soak up sunshine to power the food
over the globe, without the benefit of reproducing asexually. Then, around 500 million factory. This feature allows vascular plants to
muscles, brains or personalities. It’s a years ago, plants evolved to live on land, to obtain evolve to a larger size than non-vascular plants.
good thing they do: plants head up nearly all food the power boost of more abundant sunlight. The first Plants can store this food in their roots, in the form
chains, pump out the oxygen we breathe, hold off landlubber plants still needed to stay wet all over, of root tubers, like carrots and sweet potatoes.
erosion and filter pollutants out of the atmosphere. however, so they were confined to perpetually Above ground, vascular plants protect themselves
Over the past 3.5 billion years, they’ve diversified damp areas. Today’s mosses, liverworts, and and retain their water supply with a waxy,
into an estimated 320,000-430,000 separate species, hornworts have the same limitations. waterproof covering called cuticle. Cuticle makes
with more coming to light every year. Things got more exciting 90 million years later, plants hearty enough to reach high into the air or
All this stems from one neat trick: harnessing the when plants went vascular. Vascular plants have spread far along the ground.
Sun’s energy to power a built-in food factory. tissue structures that can distribute water and Plants grow at meristems, areas with cells that are
Through this process, called photosynthesis, plants nutrients absorbed by one part of the body to the capable of division – that is, making new cells.
combine carbon dioxide with water to create rest of the body. Instead of spending its days soaking Hormones control this cell division to grow
carbohydrates that they use to grow and reproduce. in a puddle, a vascular plant can grow roots down particular forms, like leaves, as well as controlling
The earliest plants, similar to today’s algae, didn’t do into the ground to soak up water and minerals while the direction of growth, guided by what the plant

5 TOP Tobacco
1 Ranked by human death toll,
Coniine, the toxin in the poison
Oleander is a true
4 This stinging tree species
Giant pitcher plant
These Philippines natives

the tobacco plants (multiple
species in the genus Nicotiana)
are easily the most notorious
killers. These herbs cause one
hemlock that killed Socrates,
paralyses the respiratory
system. The cicutoxin in water
hemlock causes seizures with
heart-stopping beauty. If you
chow down on this surprisingly
common backyard shrub,
however, it’s likely to send you
lurks in northern Australia
and Indonesia. It penetrates
your skin with tiny glass-like
silicon hairs, covered in a
are trouble for insects and
rodents. Lured by nectar,
victims – or nutrient sources
– slip into a vat of acid with
in ten adult deaths every year. violent muscle contractions. into cardiac arrest. deadly neurotoxin. ribs that block escape.

DID YOU KNOW? Some seeds can lie dormant for years. In 1966, scientists successfully planted 10,000 year-old tundra lupine
© Thinkstock

‘senses’. Based on the settling of starch 1. The carpel

grains that indicate the direction of
gravity, the growth hormone auxin
The female centrepiece of a flower
comprises the ovary and a slender
Life cycle of
drives stems to grow up towards the sky
and roots to grow down towards water.
neck called the style, which has a
sticky top called a stigma. a flowering
Then, plants actually turn leaves toward
the Sun. Triggered by light-sensitive 6. The ovary
The ovary includes
cells that effectively ‘see’ light, the multiple compartments 2. The stamen
hormone auxin causes more cells to called ovules, each The flower’s male members include
grow on the dimmer side of a stem, housing one this stalk-like filament, topped with
gametophyte the pollen-producing anther.
making the stem and attached leaf bend
– technically, a tiny
towards sunlight. Similarly, vines
female plant. 3. The petals
automatically curl when they come
Flower petals are like a neon
across a larger plant, causing them to sign designed to attract insects
wrap and climb. that come for the free nectar,
Plants switch sexual orientation every then unintentionally carry
generation. Each sporophyte generation pollen to other flowers.
produces male and female spores, which
asexually yield male and female plants. 4. Gametophytes
In this gametophyte generation, males Inside each anther, gametophytes
– technically microscopic male
produce sperm and females produce 7. The embryo sac plants – are encased in pollen grain
eggs, which join up to create new In each ovule, cells divide to form an capsules. Each includes two sperm

© DK Images
sporophyte plants. Typically, the embryo sac, which includes an egg, two cells and a tube cell.
sporophyte generation is a large, nuclei and an opening for the pollen tube.
familiar plant, while the gametophyte 5. The stigma
Pollen grains stick to the stigma
generation is tiny. For example, pollen is
at the tip of the carpel, and
tiny male plants in the gametophyte produce a pollen tube down the
generation. The tiny males and females style and ovary.
produce an embryo, or seed.
When you can’t walk, spreading your 11. The seed
seed requires a little more creativity. For The casing surrounding the
example, flowering plants attract insects ovule hardens around the
embryo, to form a seed. When
with nectar, and then coat their legs with
it has ample warmth,
pollen to carry to the next plant. Plants 10. The embryo moisture, and oxygen
also develop tasty fruits around plant Through cell division, the (typically in the spring), the
seeds to entice animals to swallow zygote feeds off the endosperm. seed germinates – that is, begins
seeds, and then defecate those seeds to grow into an adult plant.
miles away. 8. The pollen tube
Plants enrich every corner of human When the pollen tube reaches and 9. The zygote
penetrates the ovule, it releases the One of the sperm cells fertilises the egg, creating
life, even beyond food and oxygen. From
two sperm cells into an embryo sac. a zygote. The two nuclei and the other sperm cell
invaluable herbs – plants with medicinal fuse to form a food supply called endosperm.
or flavour value – to towering trees made
from woody tissue, our original go-to
© DK Images

construction material, plants prop up

our civilisation. High-five one today.

Ferns reproduce in a different

way from flowering plants
4. Prothallus
Each spore grows into a type of
gametophyte called a
Life cycle
prothallus. This is much bigger
than the gametophytes in
flowering plants.
of a fern
1. The adult fern
Ferns date back 360 million years, 6. Archegonia
making them more than 2.5 times older Sperm from another prothallus
than flowering plants. fertilises the egg inside the
archegonia, to form a zygote.

5. Mature gametophyte
3. Spores The prothallus grows both a female
When enough spores sex organ (the archegonia) and a
form, they burst open male sex organ (the antherida),
the pod and disperse. which produces sperm.

2. Sporangia 7. Young fern

Inside these hard pods The zygote grows into a young
on the underside of fern fern, and the prothallus
fronds, spore cells multiply. structure withers away.

Plants & organisms

Most Plant plumbing:

unusual How transport works Movement

plants Internal transportation systems

in plants move water, food and
of water
Water moves from
the xylem vessels,
which run from the
other nutrients between roots, roots to leaves, into
stems and leaves. This system is the mesophyll cells.
the key adaptation that allowed
plants to evolve elaborate shapes
and towering forms. Evaporation
Water along the walls of
Upper epidermis the mesophyll cells

© DK Images
The waxy cuticle on the epidermis evaporates, forming
keeps the plant from drying out. water vapour.

The sensitive plant Palisade mesophyll

Touch a leaf on the sensitive plant,
These cells are rich in chloroplasts,
also known as mimosa pudica, and which are integral in photosynthesis. mesophyll
an electrical current activates Mesophyll cells fit
together to form most of
sudden water loss, causing leaves to Xylem vessel the tissue in a leaf.
drop abruptly. This imitation of an These vessels carry water, with dissolved
animal scares pests away. minerals, from the roots to leaves.
Lower epidermis
Phloem vessel The lower epidermis can be
These carry food created in photosynthesis thinner than the upper
from leaves to the rest of the plant. epidermis, since it doesn’t
get direct sunlight.
This water vapour exits the plant through leave
© Pharaoh han 2009

openings called stomata. This continual exit of Stoma

water creates negative pressure, which effectively Guard cells alongside each stoma (pore in the leaf)
pulls water up the xylem from the roots. open when sunlight and humidity are high.

Many species, collectively known as
myrmecophytes, have evolved to be
ideal homes for ant colonies. In
return, the ants viciously attack any
threats to the plant.

Flower stigmas come

in various shapes

The root of it: Insects seeking nectar pick

corpse flower
How absorption works up pollen on their legs

Roots soak up water

This flower can grow to be 0.9m (3ft) 2. Water enters xylem
through osmosis – the
wide and 11 kilograms (24 pounds). It Pressure from osmosis pushes water into
drive for water to move xylem vessels in the root core.
mimics the smell of rotting meat in
through a cell membrane
order to attract carrion-eating
insects, which then spread its pollen.
from a less concentrated 1. Root hairs
solution to a more Thin hairs extending from the
concentrated solution, in
3. Water enters root increase the surface area
the stem
© DK Images

for osmosis, and so handle

Snowdonia hawkweed order to achieve Water continues most water absorption.
This Welsh flower is possibly the equilibrium. Cells in roots flowing through the
world’s rarest plant. Botanists have a higher xylem, up into the
thought it extinct in the early-Fifties, concentration than the above-ground stem,
helped along by
but in 2002 it made a surprise surrounding water in the negative pressure in
reappearance near Bethesda. soil, so the water flows the leaves, created by
into the root. evaporating water.

HEAD 2 BIG 3. Montezuma
BIGGER 2. Coast
BIGGEST 1. Giant

© Thelmadatter 2009
Árbol del Tule is a massive Coast redwoods are the The biggest individual plant
specimen in Santa María del world’s tallest trees. At is Sequoia National Park’s
BIGGEST Tule, Mexico. With a 36.2m
(119ft) girth, it may well be
115.6m (379.3ft), a
redwood named Hyperion
General Sherman, which
weighs in at an estimated
PLANTS the world’s widest plant. is the tallest specific tree. 1,900 tons.

DID YOU KNOW? We eat only about 200 of the 3,000 known rainforest fruits, while indigenous peoples use more than 2,000

Inside the food factory:

How photosynthesis works

© Walter Siegmund 2009

In Greek, photosynthesis means
‘putting together’ (synthesis) using Harnessing sunlight Expelling oxygen
‘light’ (photo), and that’s a decent Chlorophyll and other pigments absorb The oxygen from the water isn’t
summary of what it’s all about. energy of light photons from the Sun. necessary to make food, so the
However, photosynthesis doesn’t plant releases it through pores Bunchberry dogwood
called stomata. This shrub holds the ‘fastest plant’
actually turn light into food, as you
sometimes hear; it’s the power source record. When its flower opens,
for a chemical reaction that turns stamens fling out like a catapult,
carbon dioxide and water into food. propelling pollen at 800 times the
The energy of light protons g-force astronauts experience.
temporarily boosts the electrons in
pigment molecules to a higher energy
level. In other words, they generate an
electrical charge. The predominant Vacuole
Nucleus Among other things,
pigment in plants – chlorophyll – The cell nucleus this organelle
primarily absorbs blue, red, and violet houses genetic contains water that
light, while reflecting green light (hence, instructions helps maintain the
the green colour). In some leaves, (DNA) and relays turgor pressure that
instructions to keeps plants erect.
chlorophyll breaks down in the autumn,
the rest of
revealing secondary pigments that the cell.
reflect yellows, reds, and purples. Parachute flowers
Pigments are part of specialised The different species of parachute
Making food flower have long flower tubes lined
organelles called chloroplasts, which Through additional
transfer the energy of excited electrons reactions, the plant with inward pointing hairs that
in pigments to molecules and enzymes
Breaking converts glucose temporarily hold insects trapped,
that carry out the photosynthesis water down into a range of to ensure they end up covered in
The energy from useful compounds.
chemical reaction. pollen before exiting.
light breaks water Sucrose acts as plant
molecules down fuel, starches store
into hydrogen energy for later,
and oxygen. protein aids cell
growth, and
cellulose builds
cell walls.

These are the engines
for photosynthesis. A
typical leaf palisade
cell includes up to Welwitschia mirabilis
200 chloroplasts. This so-called ‘living fossil’ plant of
© DK Images
Adding the Namib desert in Africa grows
carbon dioxide
Plants get all the CO2
ON THE only two leaves, over hundreds of
they need from the air.
CO2 combines with
hydrogen to make
MAP years. They grow continuously,
however, and can extend more
than 4 metres (13 feet).
glucose, a simple sugar.
Colourful petals are designed How much of the
to attract insects planet is covered
by forest?
40 million sq km (15,444,100 sq
© Science Photo Library

miles), or a third of the Earth’s

land area, is covered by forests.
1 34% Rest of the world
9 2 20% Russian Federation
4 3 12% Brazil
4 8% US
5 8% Canada
6 5% China Flypaper plants
10 7 4% Australia Also known as butterworts, these
8 3% Democratic plants are coated in super-sticky
11 8 Republic of Congo
7 digestive enzymes that absorb
9 2% India
nutrients from all manner of bugs
10 2% Indonesia
11 2% Peru
that happen to get trapped.

Plants & organisms

Plant cell anatomy

Cell membrane
The cell, or plasma, membrane is the layer that
covers the cytoplasm and separates the cell from its
external environment. It controls all substances
passing in and out of the cell.

Discover how these tiny Take a tour

living structures function around a
Without the plant kingdom, life on Earth would plant cell
be a very different prospect. This huge and
What are the main
diverse group of living organisms not only elements that make
nourishes the vast majority of animal life with up one of these cells?
tasty, nutritious roughage, but it also replenishes our
atmosphere with enough oxygen to keep us living and
breathing. Quite simply, life on Earth depends on plants.
There are a number of characteristics that make all living
things ‘alive’. For instance, they require food for growth and
development; they respond and adapt to their surrounding
environments; they have a life cycle of growth, reproduction
and death; and, importantly, they contain cells.
Discovered by Robert Hooke in the 1650s, plant cells
are the building blocks of all plant life. Just like animal
cells, they are eukaryotic, which means they contain a
nucleus – a structure that acts as the cell’s ‘brain’ or
command centre. Found in the nucleus is the plant’s
genetic information, which is used to inform the
rest of the cell which functions to carry out.
Everything inside the cell is contained within a
thin, semi-permeable lining called the plasma
membrane. Inside this membrane is a sea of
cytoplasm, a gelatinous substance in which all the
other parts of the plant cell are found – most of
which have specialised functions. These ‘expert’
structures have dedicated roles and are known as
organelles, or ‘mini organs’. Surrounding the
plasma membrane is a rigid outer cell wall made
from a fibrous substance called cellulose.
Another characteristic of a plant cell is its large
vacuole. This is an area filled with fluid and gas and it
accounts for most of a cell’s mass. The vacuole swells
with fluid to help maintain a cell’s shape. The tough cell
wall is strong enough to withstand this increased pressure
and ensures this organic ‘balloon’ doesn’t burst.

Cytoplasm is the jelly-like
substance inside the cell in which
energy-producing chemical
reactions occur. The cytoplasm fills Ribosome
the space between the cell Found either floating in
membrane and the nucleus. the cytoplasm or attached
to the endoplasmic
reticulum, ribosomes are
the tiny structures that
manufacture proteins.

The nucleus is the cell’s control
centre that gives out instructions
on how to keep the plant alive. It
contains the cell’s genetic
instructions, or DNA.

5 TOP 1
17th-century scientist Robert
Hooke was the first to study
Plant or animal?
2 Plant and animal DNA
molecules are chemically
Food factory
3 Sunlight turns CO2 and H2O into
glucose. When photons from 4
Free lunch
Most plants create their own
food, but some parasitic plants
Eukaryotic vs prokaryotic
5 Plant cells have a nucleus, which
makes them eukaryotic (the same

plant cells with a microscope.
In his book Micrographia he
described his observations
and coined the term ‘cell’.
similar, but the differences in
the way the nucleotides are
arranged determine whether
an organism is animal or plant.
the Sun hit the chlorophyll in a
plant, electrons are excited.
Chloroplasts then transfer this
energy to a plant’s organelles.
don’t have chlorophyll to
photosynthesise. These species
depend on a host to obtain
glucose and other nutrients.
as fungi). Cells that do not have a
nucleus are known as prokaryotic
and include single-celled
organisms like bacteria.

DID YOU KNOW? While all other animal cells are eukaryotic, red blood cells are erythrocytic as they do not contain a nucleus

Chloroplasts are effectively like solar panels
that capture the Sun’s energy and use it to
Plant cells vs
make food for the plant – a process called
photosynthesis. Inside a chloroplast is
chlorophyll, the pigment which gives most
The large vacuole is a kind
animal cells
As we’ve mentioned already, there are many similarities
plants their green colouring. Chlorophyll is of storage area for water and
essential for photosynthesis as it absorbs between plant and animal cells. However, there are also
waste gases. It helps to keep
the sunlight to produce glucose. several key differences. For example, animal cells are bigger
the cell plump and turgid.
and less regular in shape and size than those of plants, which
are generally regimented in appearance. Take a look at the
Cell wall main structures in a plant cell that are absent in animal cells.
Made of indigestible cellulose
fibres, the rigid outer cell wall
protects and supports the cell, while Cell wall
allowing water and gases to pass While both animal and plant cells have a thin cell membrane that
into it. This wall provides strength controls what goes in and out, plants differ in that they also have a
and gives the cell its shape. cell wall made of cellulose. This rigid outer wall enables the plant
to hold a lot of moisture under pressure without popping, while
also providing essential structural integrity. The contents of an
animal cell, meanwhile, are held by the cell membrane alone.
Animals tend to rely on endo- and exo-skeletons for support.
Within the nucleus, the
nucleolus is a smaller
Single large vacuole
Plant cells also contain a single, extra-large vacuole, which takes
sphere in which
up most of the space in the cell and keeps it plump and turgid.
Some animal cells do contain vacuoles, but they are always much
ribosomes are made.
smaller and never take up this much space.

Plants manufacture their own food (glucose) from sunlight,
water and carbon dioxide, but humans and animals must absorb
food obtained from plants and other living creatures. The
difference is that plant cells contain chloroplasts – the structures
that contain the green, sunlight-absorbing chlorophyll pigment
– in which photosynthesis can take place.

“There are several key

differences between
animal and plant cells”

Golgi apparatus
Also a kind of organelle, a Golgi body
processes and packages proteins
ready for transport outside the cell or
to other parts within the cell.

Endoplasmic reticulum
This membrane acts like a conveyor
belt that transports proteins
around the plant cell interior as
well as outside the cell wall.

Peroxisomes are the
organelles that aid
Mitochondrion photosynthesis. They
The mitochondria are contain enzymes that
organelles that produce break down toxins and
much of the energy the remove waste from the cell.
cell needs to function.

Plants & organisms

Why do flowers smell?

Scents take a lot of effort to make, but they ensure the next generation
Flowers have just one Stigma Anther
biological role: to guarantee
The role of scent Scent must attract the bug to Anthers dust pollen onto insects’
This lily has been picked apart to another flower. Once there backs when they brush against
pollination. Many blooms show the different structures the sticky stigma gathers them. Anthers and pollen may also
are pollinated by insects, that ensure pollination pollen off its back. produce a distinctive aroma.
attracted by a flower’s bright colours
and the reward of energy-rich pollen or
nectar. But flowers must also lure
insects from farther afield – enter, scent.
The aroma of some flowers contains
up to 100 different chemicals. These are
modified from chemicals in leaves
which deter grazing animals, but are
manufactured within the flower. Warm
weather stimulates their release – just
when bugs are most active
Characteristic scents encourage
insects to visit other flowers of the same
species and so transfer pollen between
them. The blooms of evening primrose
and night-scented stock release their
sweet aroma in the evening, attracting
nocturnal moths. These moths only visit
other night-scented flowers, thus
reducing pollen wastage.
Some species have ‘stinky’ flowers,
which only attract carrion-seeking

© SPL; Alamy
insects. The clove scent of one
Bulbophyllum orchid is so particular
that it lures just one species of fly, thus
ensuring efficient pollen transfer.

“Scents are Style Ovary Petal

generally secreted If the pollen is from a
flower of the same species,
The pollen tube reaches
the ovary, where it
Scents are generally secreted
from the petals. Sometimes lines
it enters a tube down the fertilises a female egg cell of scent guide insects in towards
from the petals” stalk-like style. to complete pollination. the centre of the bloom.

Dorsal sepal

What are orchids? Three sepals make the

flower’s outer whorl. The
dorsal sepal is at the top.
Three petals form an
inner whorl (two larger
petals and a smaller one
Discover why they’re unlike other flowers called the labellum).
With 25,000 species, the ability to grow up trees and other Column
This reproductive part
orchid is the largest of the structures using aerial roots. features the anther,
planet’s plant families with What sets an orchid apart from most stigma, column foot
the most diverse species flowering plants, however, is its and ovary, which are
growing in the tropics and subtropics. reproductive anatomy. Orchids have all separate entities on
other flowering plants.
Orchids are found on all continents three petals (including one colourful
but Antarctica and can survive pretty lower petal called the labellum) and
A modified lip petal that
much anywhere except true deserts three sepals. While on other plants Lateral sepals is often extra colourful,
and open water. Orchids grow on the male and female reproductive organs These enclose the the labellum serves as
ground using subterranean roots, remain separate, on an orchid these flower and protect it a kind of landing pad for
though some have also developed the parts are fused in a central column. when it’s still in bud. pollinating insects.

5 TOP Humans are irritated
1 The vast majority of humans
(approximately 90 per cent) are
Indirect contamination
2 You can be indirectly
contaminated by poison ivy
Do not burn
3 If you have poison ivy in your
garden, do not burn it as the
Sensitivity threshold
4 Everyone has different
sensitivity to poison ivy and so 5
The body’s antibodies become
sensitised to the urushiol in

sensitive to the urushiol irritant
that is present in poison ivy.
However, most animals are not
affected by the toxin.
as its toxic sap is easily
transferred by animals,
clothing or even gardening
equipment like secateurs.
urushiol oil can become
airborne in the smoke and
cause damage to the nose,
mouth, throat and even lungs.
the time it takes for the allergic
reaction to kick in and the
severity of the symptoms will
vary from person to person.
poison ivy so if contact is made
a second time the immune
system releases histamines
that cause inflammation.

DID YOU KNOW? The name, Venus flytrap, refers to Venus, the Roman Goddess of love

How the Venus flytrap kills

How does this carnivorous plant catch its prey? Cilia
Each lobe has a row of long,
Though it has no nerves, thin interlocking spines
down one edge – perfect for
muscles or even a entombing small victims.
stomach, the Venus These are called cilia.
flytrap can sense, trap
and consume its dinner like any Nectar
intelligent hunter. Indeed its As with any trap, bait is
distinctive design inspired the needed to lure victims in, so
mechanical traps we humans now for the flytrap nectar is ideal
for enticing hungry insects.
use to ensnare prey. These predatory
plants can grow in the inhospitable,
nutrient-poor soils that regular Digestive glands
Now for the really gory part: the plant
plants cannot, because flytraps can
secretes digestive enzymes through glands
gain nutrients in more resourceful (red dots) that dissolve the insect, causing it to
ways. As you’re about to find out… release nutritious carbon and nitrogen, which
nourish the flytrap. About a week later, the
trap will reset, revealing the bug’s remains.
Trigger hair
On the inner face of each lobe are between three
and five sensory ‘trigger’ hairs, which can detect Outer lobe pores
movement. When an insect touches at least one The electrical charge caused by the
trigger hair, within the space of 20-30 seconds, a trigger hairs opens pores in the outer
tiny electrical charge is sent to the midrib. faces of the lobes. Water from the inner
faces of the lobes floods to the outer
Lobe Midrib faces, making the interior suddenly
The flytrap’s two leaves are called lobes. The inner The hinged midrib is very limp and the exterior very turgid.
faces of the two lobes are lined with hairs and located where any This rapid pressure change causes the
enzyme-producing glands. When the trap is open, regular leaf would lobes to snap shut, incarcerating the
the lobes are in a convex position. have a central vein. bug in under a second.

Why is poison ivy so irritating?

It may look harmless enough but poison ivy is a toxic shrub
that grows in most areas of North America
Poison ivy is a
plant with leaves How poison 1. Toxin 2. Detection 3. Self-defence
that divide into
three leaflets and
ivy works Urushiol penetrates through
the skin where it breaks
The immune system detects
urushiol as a foreign
White blood cells are
summoned to the site
down (metabolises). substance (or antigen). in order to consume
often displays yellow or white
the foreign substance.
berries or small white
flowers. The glossy leaves,
roots and stem of the plant
contain an oily, organic toxin

called urushiol, to which nine

out of ten people are allergic.
If they come into contact with
this chemical their bodies
overreact, causing a skin
irritation known as urushiol-
induced contact dermatitis.
Thinking it’s under attack,
the body tells the immune
system to take action against
the foreign urushiol
substance. The resulting 5. Delayed reaction
allergic (anaphylactic) This reaction is called 4. Inflammation
delayed hypersensitivity Normal tissue is
reaction produces irritation in and symptoms may not be damaged and becomes
the form of redness, rashes apparent for several days. inflamed in the process.
and itchy skin.

Plants & organisms
The statistics…
Angel’s Trumpets
Binomial name: Brugmansia
Genus: Brugmansia
© Science Photo Library

Family: Solanaceae
Main toxins: Scopolamine, VI
atropine m
Antidote: Activated charcoal,
physostigmine, benzodiazepines
The statistics…
Deadly rating:

© Kurt Stueber
Deadly Nightshade
Binomial name: Atropa
Genus: Atropa
Family: Solanaceae
Main toxins: Atropine,
Severe mydriasis – scopolamine
excessive dilution of the Antidote: Physostigmine,
pupil – is a common side pilocarpine
effect of consuming
Angel’s Trumpets.
Deadly rating:
© Nato

The world’s
deadliest plants
Packed with toxins and capable of delivering a range of
The statistics…
Binomial name: Hyoscyamus

terrible effects including paralysis and hallucinations, Genus: Hyoscyamus

Family: Solanaceae
Earth’s most deadly plants claim many lives each year Main toxins: Hyoscyamine,
One of the most deadly plants in the western as in Deadly Nightshade, however due to their wide Antidote: Activated charcoal
hemisphere, Deadly Nightshade is packed species variety, have a larger and more exotic range of
from root to leaf tip with toxins. These include negative effects. In fact, there can be a 5:1 toxin variation
Deadly rating:
atropine and scopolamine, which due to their across plant species. Anticholinergic delirium is standard
anticholinergic properties (substances that effectively upon an overdose, while tachycardia (rapid heart-rate
compromise the involuntary movements of muscles exceeding normal range), severe mydriasis (excessive
present in the gastrointestinal tract, urinary tract, lungs dilation of the pupils) and short-term amnesia are also
and other vital parts of the body), can lead to common. Henbane is also loaded with tropane alkaloids,
hallucinations, delirium, violent convulsions and death. with the seeds and foliage of the plant containing the
Indeed, ingestion of two or more of its berries by children highest toxicity levels.
or five or more by adults can be fatal. Hemlock – perhaps the most famous of the world’s
The main cause of these negative side effects to the deadly plants – contains one of the most fatal naturally
parasympathetic nervous system (the automatic system produced neurotoxins to humans: coniine. Coniine has a
that regulates glands and muscles inside the body) is the similar chemical structure to nicotine – the addictive
tropane alkaloid atropine. Atropine achieves this as it is a alkaloid that is used in cigarettes – and works by The statistics…
competitive antagonist, a drug that does not provoke a disrupting the central nervous system, blocking the
biological response itself upon binding to a receptor, but neuromuscular junction. This has the effect of an Hemlock
Binomial name: Conium
instead blocks or dampens any response reducing the ascending muscular paralysis from toe to chest, with the
frequency of activation. In simple terms, this causes the eventual paralysis of the respiratory system and death
Genus: Conium
autonomous internal systems of organisms that consume due to lack of oxygen to the heart and brain. Adding to its
Family: Apiaceae
it to stop working correctly, causing semi-paralysis, danger, Hemlock is incredibly potent with any more than
breathing difficulty and fluctuating heart rate. 100mg of consumption (akin to consuming six of its leaves, Main toxins: Coniine
So poisonous that they were historically used in ritual or less of its root or seeds) leading to death. Death can only Hemlock can Antidote: Artificial ventilation
cause complete
intoxification, Angel’s Trumpets and Henbane contain a be prevented through attaching the consumer to an
Deadly rating:
bounty of toxic compounds. A close relative of Datura, artificial respiration machine until the effects wear off collapse
Angel’s Trumpets contain both scopolamine and atropine after 72 hours.

The world’s tallest living tree is 115.54m (379.1ft). Known as Hyperion,
this coast redwood (sequoia sempervirens) was measured by
climbing to the top and dropping a tape measure.

DID YOU KNOW? Another plant native to Sumatra that’s also known as the corpse flower is the equally stinky titan arum

How the
Though the rafflesia has
a relatively short life of
about a week, it can be
several years in the
making. First, parasitic
filaments of fungus-like
tissue penetrate the
vascular tissues of the
stem/root of the host
vine. Between a year and
a year and a half later,
the rafflesia then begins
to develop outside the
host vine as a tiny bud.
For nine months this bud
Disc swells into a growth that
Inside the centre of the cup eventually bursts out of
is a spike-covered disc the host’s stem or root.
beneath the rim of which
The growth will continue
are concealed either the
male (anthers) or female to expand until it looks
(ovaries) parts, depending like the head of a large
on the sex of the flower. brown cabbage. The
rafflesia usually
blossoms overnight,
producing the smelly,
record-breaking bloom
as the petals unfurl.

Size comparison
How the rafflesia arnoldii sizes
up to an average adult man

1 metre

The five leathery petals
called perigone lobes
are covered in warty
white markings.

The world’s biggest flower

Discover the enormous corpse flower, and find out why this is
one of the heaviest, rarest and smelliest blooms found on Earth The statistics…
Rafflesia arnoldii, with its massive one-metre stems or roots of a host plant, a kind of grape vine known as Rafflesia arnoldii
(3.3-foot)-diameter bloom, is the largest individual tetrastigma, and draining nourishment from this. (corpse flower)
flower yet found on the planet – usually in the Once the flower is ready to bloom it bursts out of the host to Genus: Rafflesia
tropical rainforests of Indonesia. reveal a vibrant yet foul-smelling blossom. And it’s this odour Habitat: Rainforests of
The plant has neither a stem, roots, nor leaves, and it doesn’t of rotting flesh that justifies rafflesia arnoldii’s other, more Southeast Asia
even contain chlorophyll, which means it’s incapable of familiar moniker: the corpse flower. This, together with its Diameter: 1m (3.3ft)
photosynthesis to produce food for itself. Instead this distinctive red-and-white polka-dot appearance, attracts Weight: 10kg (22lb)
endoparasitic plant survives by growing inside the damaged carrion flies, which help to pollinate the giant flower.

Plants & organisms

The life of an oak tree

Discover the amazing way mighty oak trees keep on surviving
All oak trees begin their life cycle as
an acorn. This is the seed of the oak
The oak tree from seed to snag
tree, which falls as the tree reaches How the oak tree keeps its own circle of life intact
maturity or is dislodged by weather
or animals. Acorns that fall at least 27 metres (89
feet) from the tree have the best chance of
surviving long enough to grow, as there is less
the end
The oak starts to lose
competition for space and nutrients. Once on energy and so allows
bits of the tree to die off.
the ground, the acorn will begin to germinate,
absorbing water to hydrate its enzymes.
Hydration instigates growth by causing the
enzymes in the acorn to become more active. A
tap root begins to form, burying down into the
earth. This root absorbs nutrients and water
from the soil, allowing a shoot to begin growing
upward. This is known as the seedling stage.
It continues to grow upward and outward,
thickening its shoot until it has a trunk
7Acorn production
The tree begins to
produce acorns at around 40
diameter of 7.5 centimetres (three inches), years old, which fall and
begin the cycle again.
where it officially becomes a sapling. After
around a year, it will have grown to a height of
30.5 centimetres (12 inches) when it is classified
as a pole. The oak will begin to produce acorns
after around 40 years when it should be
The tree falls to the
ground where it
approximately 10.5 metres (34 feet) tall and is decomposes, providing the
soil with nutrients for
fully matured. acorns to feed on.
The oak’s growth will begin to slow, but this
shouldn’t happen until over 80 years or so have
passed. Acorn production eventually stops, but 9Snag
Eventually the
entire tree has died
the tree can comfortably live for over 1,000
and becomes
years. Eventually parts of the tree begin to die known as a snag.
as the oak is forced to conserve what energy it
has left. A dead oak is known as a snag and will
fall to the ground, decomposing and providing
the soil with nutrients that will feed the next
generation of oak trees.

1 Seed
The acorn is the
seed of the oak tree.
The cycle begins when
it falls to the ground.

The mighty oak tree in

the prime of its cycle

VETERAN OAKS 13,000 years The Jurupa Oak is the oldest living oak colony
in the world at 13,000 years old. It has lived
this long by constantly cloning itself.

DID YOU KNOW? The oak tree is the most common species of tree in the UK and is a national symbol

Uses for oak

Before the Industrial Revolution oak
was the most commonly used
material for boat building. Its
strength and durability made it
perfect for constructing ships. It
was replaced by iron partly
The shoot officially
becomes a sapling
because iron is stronger, but also
because oak has to grow for 150
once the trunk is 7.5cm years before it can be used. It is still
(3in) tall. It continues used as a material for furniture and
to grow leaves. floor wood, as well as barrels for
storing wine, as the wood imparts
the unique and distinctive flavours
that differentiate types of wine.
The bark of the oak tree contains
both main types of tannin, a crucial
ingredient in turning animal hides
6Fully matured
It takes around 40
years for an oak tree to
into leather. Tannins are extracted
from the bark and rubbed into the
reach full maturity. By hides. This alters the collagens in
now it should be 10.5m the hides, pulling them together,
(34ft) tall. drawing out water and
strengthening the hide into leather.
This method has been in force
since Roman times.
After around 80 years
the tree will slow down
its growth and eventually
stop producing acorns.

Ships such as the HMS

Victory were constructed
from oak timber

2 Tap root
The acorn pushes
a root down into the Britain’s
soil to anchor it as
well as to suck up
favourite tree
nutrients for growth. In 2002, The Major Oak in
Sherwood Forest was voted
Britain’s favourite tree. The
Quercus robur is over 800 years
old and legend has it that it hid
Robin Hood and his merry men
from the Sheriff of Nottingham.
The tree’s branches spread
across 28 metres (92 feet) long
and have been held up – first by
metal chains and now by wooden
struts – for over 100 years to stop
them sagging under their
enormous weight.
The Major Oak weighs around 23
tonnes, about the same as four
fully-grown African elephants, and
its ten-metre (33-foot)
circumference trunk would need
six adults to create a ring around it
while holding hands.
© Thinkstock; The Art Agency

A mixture of
water, nutrients from
the soil and sunlight
helps the acorn begin
to grow a shoot.

Plants & organisms
Spines gather moisture and also

How do
serve as a defence mechanism Flowers
All cacti have a floral tube
that grows above a
one-chamber ovary. Cacti
flowers tend to be solitary,

cacti live?
large and very colourful, and
are pollinated by both wind
power and animals. After

© Science Photo Library

pollination, the entire floral
tube detaches from the body.

Take a closer look at the materials and

mechanisms cacti use to survive in the world’s
harshest environments

The main bulk of the
cacti’s body comes in
Spines the form of a
Cacti do not have water-retentive
the leaves of standard tissue, often in the
plants, but thorny optimal shape for
spines. These grow out of storage (a sphere or
specialised structures cylinder). At the
(called areoles) on its body centre of the body
and help collect rainwater tissue lies the stem,
© DK

and moisture from the the main organ for


atmosphere. They also act food manufacturing

as a deterrent to herbivores. and storage.

Roots Skin
Cacti roots are very The skin of a cactus is
shallow and have a specially adapted to
wide-spreading radius to reduce the harsh effects of
maximise water constant sunlight. It is
absorption. The salt constructed from a tough
concentration of cacti root and thick fibrous sheath
cells is relatively high, and coated with a thin
aiding absorption speed. layer of wax. These
Larger cacti also lay down factors, in conjunction

© Thinkstock
a deeper tap root for with its optimal shape,
stability purposes. aid water retention.

Cacti are hardy, flowering plants in the found, with little water being deposited for months body’s spiny matrix. In addition, due to the lack of
caryophyllales order that have evolved on end, only for a short monsoon to follow in the leaves, cacti have evolved so as to undertake
to survive in some of the Earth’s driest rainy season. This optimal structural form also photosynthesis directly within their large, woody
and most barren landscapes. This grants much-needed shadow for lower areas of the stems, generating energy and processing stored
unceasing survival is achieved through the plant, shielding them from the harsh sunlight. water safely away from the intense sunlight.
specialised tailoring of two main principles: form Second, cacti have evolved unique mechanisms Finally, cacti have modified their root structures
and function. and adapted traditional plant functions to grow and to remain stable in brittle, parched earth. Cacti roots
First, all cacti have developed optimal forms for thrive. Foremost among these changes are the cacti’s are very shallow compared with other succulents
retention of internal water supplies (spheres and spines, elongated spiky structures that grow out and are spread out in a wide radius just below the
cylinders), combining the highest possible volume from its central body though areoles (cushion-like Earth’s crust. This, in partnership with an intense
for storage with the lowest possible surface area for nodes). These act as a replacement for leaves, which salt concentration, allows cacti to maximise their
loss. This allows cacti to store vast quantities of would quickly die if exposed to high levels of access to and absorbability speed of ground water,
water for elongated periods – for example, the sunlight. The spines have a membranous structure sucking it up before it evaporates or trickles down
species Carnegiea gigantea can absorb 3,000 litres in and can absorb moisture directly from the deeper into the Earth. For stability, many cacti also
a mere ten days. This ability directly correlates to the atmosphere (especially important in foggy extend a main ‘tap root’ further into the Earth, in
typical weather patterns of Earth’s barren, dry conditions) and also from deposited rainwater, order to act as an anchor against high winds and
environments, where cacti are predominantly capturing and absorbing droplets throughout the attacks by animals.

KEY 1894 1902 1922 1952 1996
DATES Hans Driesch proves Physiologist Gottlieb Kolte and Robbins manage A viable frog embryo is Dolly the sheep is
CLONING separated cells retain
enough DNA data to
Haberlandt (right)
isolates a plant cell and
to create root and stem
tips respectively from
successfully cloned
from the embryo
created, cloned by
using a cell from
OVER TIME create life. attempts to culture it. plant-tissue cultures. of a tadpole. an adult sheep.

DID YOU KNOW? The first commercially cloned animal was a cat, Little Nicky. Born in 2004, it cost its owner £30,000 ($50,000)

How are plants cloned?

Find out how we make identical copies of plants and what benefits this offers
The process of cloning plants has The main benefit of cloning flora is that However this genetic modification remains a
been used in agriculture for growers are able to guarantee disease-free controversial topic, as some experts argue we
centuries, as communities split plants by cultivating cells from strong and can’t predict what the consequences of this
roots and took cuttings to healthy ones, leading to higher and more human interference will be.
efficiently create multiple plants. reliable crop yields. By taking cuttings from Plant cloning can be as basic as snipping off a
Taking a cutting from near the top of a plant, proven strains, a farmer can be sure his next stem from a begonia or as complex as growing a
placing it in moist soil and covering it will generation of crops is equally successful. tomato plant in a solution of inorganic salts and
enable a new offspring to grow with the same Back inside the lab, the development of yeast extract, but nevertheless the process by
genetic code as the parent from which it was cloning through cultivating plant tissue allows which you can create two plants out of one
taken. This method of cloning is very easy to do for species to even be adapted and improved. remains a triumph of natural science.
and is common among casual gardeners and
industrial farmers alike. However, in more
recent years the cloning of plants has made
Dolly lived to be almost
seven years old What about animals?
Most of us are aware of Dolly the sheep, the first
its way into the laboratory. animal cloned from an adult cell, but artificial cloning
Responsible for that shift is German dates back to the late-19th century. Hans Dreisch
physiologist Gottlieb Haberlandt who was the created two sea urchins by separating two urchin
embryo cells from which two offspring grew, proving
first to isolate a plant cell and then try to grow that DNA is not lost through separation. The next big
an exact replica of the parent. His attempt development came in 1952 when a frog embryo was
ultimately failed, but the experiment showed cloned by inserting the nucleus from a tadpole’s
embryo cell into an unfertilised frog egg cell. But the
enough promise to convince others to follow in creation of Dolly in 1996, cloned using a mammary
his footsteps. The likes of Hannig in 1904 and cell from an adult sheep, led to hopes that one day
Kolte and Robbins in 1922 ran successful we might be cloned as well. There’s still a while until
a human can be replicated, but Dolly represented a
experiments in which they also cultured plant huge leap forward in terms of cloning possibilities.
tissue to create new versions.

Plant duplication guide

Discover how plants can be cloned in the
lab through the process of cell separation

Sample taken
Tissue is scraped from
the root of the plant.

The cells are separated
out under a microscope.

Cells transform
Placed in a dish with
nutrients, cells turn into
undifferentiated callus
tissue, which can be
cultured into new plants
with growth hormones.

Laboratory plant cloning

© Alamy; SPL

New digs is used for scientific

A plantlet grows its own research and to develop
roots and is repotted. stronger strains

Plants & organisms
How do air plants survive?
Learn about epiphytes, the remarkable plants that grow
without any need for soil
Garden centres often call them
‘air plants’ because they seem
Plants that like the high life
to grow in mid-air. Dangling Cattleya orchid
roots help them to develop South America
without any need for soil – however, these The beautiful flowers of Cattleya orchids
fascinating plants do need to be watered: are a horticulturalist’s favourite. Most of
they live in air, not on air. the 70 species live as epiphytes on trees
In nature, these plants grow as and they take great skill to grow.
epiphytes (derived from the Greek for Bromeliads
‘upon plant’). That means they essentially Tropical Americas
piggyback on other plants, typically The narrow leaves of bromeliad plants
growing on the branches of trees high typically form a cup shape, which
above the ground, with no direct sometimes traps water at its base. They
connection to the earth. Without any soil can even grow on telephone lines.
to store water, epiphytes can only grow in Mosses
places that are constantly moist, so they
are most common in tropical rainforests. Mosses often live on tree trunks. To
They take nothing from the host tree, in keep moist, they grow on the side away
contrast to parasitic plants. Instead they from the Sun’s heat – eg the north side
rely on nutrients from dead leaves falling in the northern hemisphere.
from above. They use their roots only as Basket fern
Pink quill Ecuador
anchors and to gather water. Many ferns Tillandsia species are the classic air plants. So many pink South-east Asia/Australia
and mosses also grow as epiphytes on quills were collected from the rainforest as houseplants Small fronds wither into a brown basket
damp, shady tree trunks, even in more that they became endangered. Thankfully, most can now that protects the green fertile fronds
temperate countries. be mass cultivated, even in temperate regions. and collects leaf litter to feed the fern.

Climbing plants explained

Meet the plants that have developed some sneaky tactics in
their quest for sunlight
Without sunlight a plant needs a strong,
few plants are usually woody stem, but it
able to takes rather a lot of energy to
photosynthesise manufacture such a sturdy
in order to grow. A plant in structure, so other plants use
deep shade is therefore an alternative strategy. They
starved of food. All plants have only flimsy stems,
have some mechanism of which require less energy to
growing towards the light, produce, but have developed
just like an animal going in ways of climbing or
search of food, but some scrambling over their rivals
‘cheat’ in their quest to catch to reach the light from above.
some rays. They rarely harm the plant
The best way for a plant to they are growing over,
ensure plentiful light for its because if they killed it, they Climbing plants have evolved to use other plants, rocks or man-
leaves is to grow taller than would lose the climbing made structures for support. Vines have flexible, soft stems,
while lianas are tougher climbers with woody stems
its neighbours. To stand tall, frame taking them to the top.


Hooks & thorns Twining stems Twining leafstalks Tendrils Aerial roots
These help the floppy stems of Some climbers (eg honeysuckle) Other climbers (eg clematis) have These are grasping or twining Growing from swollen nodes along
scrambling or trailing plants to grapple produce stems that twist in a spiral as leaves that are sensitive to contact. If extensions from the leaves or stems and branches, some wrap
onto surrounding vegetation and hold they develop. When the stem makes they brush against other vegetation or leafstalks (like pictured above). Some around another plant; others grow into
them firmly in place. Roses are a prime contact with another plant, it twines a fence, the leafstalks wrap around it tendrils even have adhesive pads at the mortar of walls or under tree bark
example of this. around it for support. like grapples. their tips (eg Virginia creeper). to anchor the plant in place (eg ivy).

5TOP Climatic
1 Temperature and rainfall
There are two main species,
3 Plants’ fruit blooming and
4 Coffee plants are prone to
5 Today up to 1.3 tons of coffee

affect growth, with no variety
capable of surviving around
0°C (32°F) and 150-200cm
(60-80in) of rain per annum
the arabica and robusta.
These are grown worldwide,
with the arabica cultivated
mostly in Latin America and
maturing varies. Generally, the
arabica species takes seven
months and the robusta about
nine. Berries are ripe when
disease and parasites, which
attack plantations yearly. The
fungus hemileia vastatrix
and colletotrichum coffeanum
can be yielded per 0.4
hectares (one acre) of
plantation. This is more than
traditional methods, which
necessary for healthy growth. robusta in Africa. they’re red-purple. are common. only yielded 0.2-0.4 tons.

DID YOU KNOW? Ancient Ethiopians are credited as first recognising the energising effect of the coffee plant

Coffee plants
From seed to a steaming hot cup of tasty beverage,
we explain how coffee is grown and cultivated
Coffee production starts
with the plantation of a
Workers pick large
quantities of coffee berries
Coffee plants usually Anatomy of a
species of coffee plant, such
as the arabica species. Plants
have a dense foliage.
When cultivated, density
is controlled to prevent
coffee plant
are evenly spaced at a set distance to damage to its crop.
ensure optimal growing conditions
(access to light, access to soil nutrients, Flowers
space to expand). Roughly four years Two to four years after planting,
the arabica species of plant
after planting, the coffee plant flowers.
produces small, white,
These flowers last just a couple of days, fragrant flowers. These
but signal the start of the plant’s last a few days and
berry-growing process. signal the growth
Roughly eight months after flowering, of berries.
the plant’s berries ripen. This is
indicated by the change in shade, the dry method, the beans are then
The plants usually
beginning a dark-green colour before spread out on a patio for drying. Beans stand 1-3m (3-10ft)
changing through yellow to a dark-red. The final stage is milling. This is a Each plant can tall. Soil nutrients
Once dark-red, the berries are then series of four processes to improve the produce 0.5-5kg are absorbed and
harvested by strip picking or selective texture, appearance, weight and overall (1.1-11lbs) of dried distributed via
beans. The beans the stem.
picking. The former is an often quality. Beans that have been prepared
inside the berries
mechanised technique where an entire the dry way are first sent for hulling to are then removed
crop is harvested at once, regardless of remove the remaining pulp and and treated Berries
being fully ripe or not. By doing this, the parchment skin. Next, the beans are sent before roasting. Berries grow in clusters
producer can quickly and cheaply strip a for polishing. This is an optional process, around the stem. They
plantation but at the expense of overall in which the beans are mechanically start off a dark-green
shade, turning yellow,
bean quality. The latter technique is buffed to improve their appearance and light-red and finally
more labour-intensive, where workers eliminate any chaff produced during dark, glossy red. They
handpick only fully ripe berries over preparation. Third, the beans are sent are picked when
consecutive weeks. This method is through a battery of machines that sort they reach this
slower and more costly, but allows a them by size and density (larger, heavier final shade.
greater degree of accuracy and delivers a beans produce better flavour than
more consistent and quality crop. smaller and lighter ones). Finally the
Once the berries have been harvested, beans are graded, a process of
the bean acquisition and milling process categorising beans on the basis of every
begins. Processing comes in two main aspect of their production.
forms, wet and dry. The dry method is
the oldest and most predominant
worldwide, accounting for 95 per cent of
arabica coffee. This involves cleaning the
Anatomy of a Endosperm
Tissue produced inside the seed

berries whole of twigs, dirt and debris,

before spreading them out on a large
coffee berry provides nutrition in the form of
starch and contains oils and proteins.
concrete or brick patio for drying in the A thin protective layer that Exocarp
sun. The berries are turned by hand covers the coffee seed. Filled with oil glands and pigments,
every day, to prevent mildew and ensure this is the outer protective skin.
an even dry. The drying process takes up Endocarp
The inner layer of the berry, the
to four weeks, and the dried berry is then endocarp is membranous and
sent to milling for hulling and polishing. surrounds the epidermis.
The wet method undertakes hulling
first, with the beans removed from the Pectin
Pectin consists of a set of acids
berries before the drying process. This is
and are present in most primary
undertaken by throwing the berries into cell walls. It helps to bind cells.
large tanks of water, where they are mb
forced through a mesh mechanically. Y_
Mesocarp ©
The remainder of any pulp is removed The pulp of the coffee berry. The coffee beans dry on a concrete patio
through a fermentation process. As with

096 076
Marine Waterfall
habitats wonders

066 Surviving extreme Earth

Explore our planet’s wildest
environments and make it out alive
076 Waterfall wonders
What natural forces create these
stunning water features
080 The ever-changing Plitvice Lakes
Discover the incredible geology
behind this Croatian paradise
082 Antarctica explored
Earth’s coldest, windiest, highest and
driest continent
086 How fjords form
The story behind these amazing
coastal valleys
088 Glacier power
Gigantic rivers of ice
090 Wonders of the Nile
Arguably Earth’s longest river
094 Subterranean rivers
Underground caves explored
096 Marine habitats
Take a look inside Earth’s oceans
100 Hydrothermal vents
Inside these oceanic hot springs
102 The phosphorus cycle
A crucial element for landscapes Look inside
104 Petrified forests a glacier
How ancient trees turn to stone
105 The lithosphere
The structure of Earth’s crust
100 082 Antartica – the
Hydrothermal vents world’s coolest continent


© Hannes Grobe

104 Petrified forests 090 The

River Nile
© DK Images; Thinkstock; Alamy; NASA

094 Rivers below

the surface

KEY Aug 1910 Jan 1911 Sept 1911 Dec 1911 Dec 1911
Amundsen and his team
set off from Christiania,
Denmark with nearly 100
The boat reaches the Ross
Ice Shelf, sailing closer to
the Pole than Scott’s team,
In their first bid to get
closer to the Pole, bad
weather forces them to
By reaching 88°23’S, the
team is further south
than anyone has ever
Amundsen reaches the
South Pole where he and
his team place a
Greenland dogs. giving them an advantage. race back to their base. travelled before. Norwegian flag at the site.

DID YOU KNOW? Roald Amundsen beat Robert Scott to the South Pole by 34 days, despite Scott beginning eight weeks earlier

EARTH The skills you need to journey into the
wilderness and get out again alive
For many of us, the toughest
conditions we’d ever have to face
would probably be walking the
dog in the bucketing rain.
However, outside of the urban sprawl there are
some places on Earth that aren’t so hospitable
to humans. While mankind has successfully
populated large areas of the planet’s land
surface, there are still many places you
wouldn’t dare to venture unless you really
enjoy a challenge or have just got horribly,
horribly lost.
History is littered with people who have
faced the biggest tests this planet has to offer,
whether deliberately or accidentally, and lived
to tell the tale, but many have fallen victim to
frozen wastes or scorching plains. Even the
best-prepared adventurers can come unstuck
in the face of the amazing force of nature.
Over the next few pages we trek across
deserts in search of water, dredge through
jungles and scale icy mountains to uncover the
dangers you’re likely to come up against. Find
out the equipment and skills needed to survive
some of the most mind-boggling environments,
where temperatures can plummet in hours,
winds can reach breath-taking speeds and
poisonous frogs can kill you where you stand.
We’re not saying we will instantly turn you
into the next Ranulph Fiennes, but it will
hopefully give you a fighting chance should you
find yourself in the depths of the Arctic Circle or
in the middle of the Sahara.

Earth’s landscapes

Beat the freeze

How to stay alive when you’re freezing to death
The snowy wastes of
the polar regions are
difficult to navigate

Earth’s north and south extremities are

among the most inhospitable places on
the planet. Even in the summer,
temperatures are freezing and winds can reach
up to 327 kilometres (200 miles) per hour, so it’s
Polar bears are the
no wonder the cold is the biggest killer here. If Arctic’s deadliest hunters
you’re trekking across snowy wastes, better
pack your thermals. Shrug on multiple layers of
breathable fleeces and keep them dry. Any water
will instantly freeze, as will any exposed flesh.
Even nose hairs and eyelashes start icing over in
minutes, so covering up is key.
Your body will respond quickly to the heat loss
by tightening blood vessels near your skin. This
is the reason we look paler when we’re cold and
why our fingers and toes become numb.
Meanwhile, your muscles will start moving
involuntarily, causing you to shiver. It can boost
heat production by up to five times, but that uses
up a lot of energy so you’ll need to keep eating
and drinking. Consume six to eight litres (10.6 to
14 pints) of water every day and around 6,000
There is peril at every
calories, three times the typical recommended step as one wrong Little grows in this
daily allowance. You can get this by melting move can plunge you area so finding food
into icy waters is tough
butter into your food or munching on chocolate
and bacon, so it’s not all bad!
A word of warning, though: keep your eyes Life-saving kit Goggles
The best goggles have a
peeled. Hungry polar bears, particularly those A rundown of what to wear to stay warm photochromic lens to help
with cubs to feed, can be aggressive and are ward off glare from the ice
masters of disguise. Flares and loud noises will Hat and make sure you see
A hat with ear flaps that cracks and holes.
often be enough to scare them away. You’ll also
covers the head and neck
need to watch your step, as slipping through a is vital. A strap to secure it Balaclava
crack in the ice can send you plummeting into on the head will be useful You’ll need to cover up as
the freezing cold ocean. It’s generally safe to in high winds. much as possible, so a
walk on white ice, but grey ice is only ten to 15 woollen balaclava will keep
the most heat in.
centimetres (four to six inches) thick and prone
Thermal shirt
to cracking, while black ice is to be avoided at all Your base layer should be a
costs since it will have only just formed. Tread thin, thermal insulating top Mittens
that wicks any sweat away Although gloves offer more
carefully, stay wrapped up and keep on the dexterity with actions,
from your body.
move if you want to have any hope of survival. mittens are better as they
keep your fingers together
Jacket and much warmer.
Amazing animal Your jacket will need to be
The arctic fox is an incredible little animal, well both wind and waterproof
adapted to living in one of the harshest to keep you dry and warm.
environments on Earth. Its furry feet and short ears Wrist holes in the cuffs
are ideally suited to conserving heat in the keep it secured.
unforgiving, freezing environment. Its coat is also Waterproof and windproof
adaptable; while its habitat is snowy its fur is trousers are a must. Make
brilliant white, hiding it from both prey and Boots sure they are also
predators. However, as the ice melts, its coat turns Warmth is vital – literally breathable, however, as
brown or grey to hide among the rocks of the region. – so fleece-packed boots you don’t want your legs to
The arctic fox is an omnivore, feasting on rodents, are good. Straps are better become sweaty and lose
fish and birds, but it will also eat vegetation when than laces but don’t fasten valuable fluid.
meat is difficult to find. them so tight it cuts off
the blood supply.

DEEP FREEZE -93.2˚c A bone-chilling temperature of -93.2°C (-135.8°F) was
recorded in Antarctica in 2010 by satellite, making it
the lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth.

DID YOU KNOW? USA, Russia, Norway, Canada and Denmark all lay claim to territory in the Arctic, but none are allowed to own it

Survive the night

Build an igloo for protection

Find your spot

The first trick to making your igloo is to build it on the
side of a slope. This will mean less building for you to do.
Dig a trench in the snow around 0.6m (2ft) deep. Get in
and slice out blocks of packed ice from either side of the
trench to ensure they are nice and uniform.


Make a hole in the ice with an auger – a kind of IN ANTARCTICA – 2,126
drill that bores large holes. The ice you bore on
should be light grey and about 15 centimetres (six
Dig yourself in

inches) deep. Produce a hole approximately 0.5
metres (1.5 feet) in diameter. Set up your chair Dig another trench into the side of the hill. It should be
one metre (three feet) away from the hole and
hold your rod over the top of it, with the line
EIFFEL TOWERS about 0.5 metres (1.6 feet) wide. This is the entrance
trench. Leave a gap and dig another hole, but don’t make
dangling in the water. The rod should only be it as deep as the entrance trench. This is your sleeping
about a metre (three feet) long and made of a chamber, so make sure you fit in it!
sturdy material. Drop the baited line down around
two metres (seven feet) and wait for a bite. Reel it
in and keep it chilled before cooking!





THE SEA WOULD RISE Construct the walls
This simple tool can 58M (190FT). THE Stack the ice blocks in a circle around the sleeping trench,
find you a life-saving STATUE OF LIBERTY leaving a gap around the entrance trench. Over the
entrance trench, stack the blocks in a semicircle. Make
IS 93M (305FT) TALL
source of food
the entrance tunnel as small as possible to minimise heat
loss. Rub water over the blocks to fuse them together.

Earth’s landscapes

Get out alive

Uncovering the dangers that lurk beneath the canopy of trees
Few places on Earth house quite as be deadlier than the big cats. The golden poison mechanism to warn against eating that
many things that can kill you in so dart frog is particularly lethal to humans, as it particular plant.
many ways as the jungle. From snakes has enough poison to kill ten adults. The poison But while it’s possible to survive for about 60
to poisonous frogs, berries to rivers, anyone is held in their skin, so eating or even touching days without food in warm conditions, you’ll
walking through the jungle needs to have their one could have disastrous consequences. Add last less than 72 hours without water. Always
wits about them at all times. in the dangers of snakes, mosquitos, piranhas, ensure you have a filtration device or water
The most obvious threat will come from big crocodiles and bears, the jungle is not a place purification tablets to make the water safe, or
animals like tigers and jaguars that inhabit the for the faint of heart. Take plenty of DEET-based catch rain before it has hit the ground to
jungles of India and the rainforests of South insect repellent and make lots of noise as you prevent catching diseases like cholera.
America respectively. Your best bet for evading travel so as to ward off creatures that would Although there are a multitude of things that
these huge predators is to stand still and hope attack you out of fear or surprise. can kill you in the jungle, being clued up on
you weren’t seen, or run and hide. If you are While on your travels, be on the lookout for what you can and can’t eat and how to avoid

spotted, make yourself as big as possible and your next meal. On the menu will be fruit, predator attacks will help enormously. If you’re
shout loudly as this will surprise and plants, insects and fish, but you’ll need a book lost and ready to scream “Get me out of here!”
intimidate them. to help weed out the edible from the poisonous. then following water will take you out of the
Don’t be fooled into thinking the smaller Avoid anything that’s brightly coloured, jungle to the end of the waterway. Ant and Dec
critters pose less of a threat, though. Many can because this is often an evolved defence almost certainly won’t be there to meet you.



Bonobo monkeys are
found in the jungles of the
DR Congo and are one of our
closest relatives. They share
over 98 per cent of our DNA and have an
astonishing ability to mimic human behaviour,
including using tools and solving problems.
They have adapted superbly to life in the
jungle, surviving on a varied diet of fruit, plant life
small rodents, insects, and even soil. This
flexibility means they will never go hungry.
They are extremely social animals, living
Tigers in the jungles of together in groups of up to 100. The females
India are deadly predators move from group to group to prevent inbreeding
and the males stay in their social groups for life.

STRANGE What tells a sun bear’s age? Much like you can do with trees, you can determine

BUT TRUE A Rings on their teeth B Length of their

the real age of a sun bear by counting the rings on
their teeth. Their jaws are incredibly strong and can
break open nuts and coconuts quite easily, which
AGE TEST tongue C Wrinkles on their forehead also requires considerably strong teeth.

DID YOU KNOW? Earth’s largest rodent, the capybara, lives in South American jungles and can weigh as much as an adult human

Avoid man-eating predators

Three steps to remaining undetected in the jungle
Cover your tracks Camouflage Cover your scent
Predators like big cats are excellent trackers and they’ll Hide yourself as you walk through the jungle using Jackets lined with charcoal are excellent for preventing
be keen to find you, especially if it’s dinnertime. Walking camouflage. If you don’t have a specific outfit, coat your natural odours from escaping into the environment.
in water will stop physical evidence of your movements, yourself with mud and attaching leaves and foliage to your Otherwise, cover yourself in things like mud and strong
giving you a better chance of going undetected. body will make you less likely to be spotted. smelling plants to mask your scent.

Jungle protection The edibility test

The clothes and kit to keep you hidden, cool and safe Hat If you aren’t a trained botanist, you might
A large brimmed hat will struggle to identify which plants are safe to eat.
Sunglasses protect you from bugs That’s where the universal edibility test comes
The sunlight can be falling from the trees and into play. Eat nothing and drink only water for
incredibly strong so you’ll keep you relatively hidden eight hours before the test.
need some sunglasses from animals above you. Your first task is to split up the plant you are
with UV filters. testing into its individual components, such as
Backpack the stem, root, leaf, flower and bud. Crush each
You’ll need your hands free part of the plant and, one-by-one, rub them on
so a backpack is crucial. It your skin to see if you have a bad reaction to it. If
needs to be waterproof, your skin blisters or forms a rash, it’s unlikely to
Long sleeve shirt blend in with the be good to eat.
A light, breathable fabric environment and be If it’s good, the next stage is to boil the plant, if
will keep you cool, but comfortable. possible. Hold the plant on your lip for a few
make it baggy so minutes, removing instantly if it begins to burn.
mosquitos can’t get to Finally, if the plant has passed the test so far,
your skin. place it on your tongue. Again, if it begins to feel
Sudden downpours are painful or look bad, spit it out and wash your
Bug spray features of jungle and mouth thoroughly. Remember though, tasting
Mosquitos carry a huge rainforest life, so a bad isn’t the same as being poisonous!
array of diseases, not least lightweight, quick-drying Chew it for around 15 minutes and, if all still
malaria, so 100 per cent poncho is useful. feels good, swallow it. Don’t eat anything else for
DEET spray is vital. eight hours and see if you have any bad reaction
to what you’ve eaten. If you’re good, you’ve found
a potentially life-saving food source!

The jungle is a tough
landscape to negotiate, so
LifeStraw a large knife or machete
This device really could will help you work your
save your life. The filter way through the thick and
inside the straw wipes out difficult undergrowth.
99.99 per cent of bacteria
in dirty water.

Trousers Your shoes don’t want to
Length is key here. You be too thick and heavy
can’t let your ankles get because they’ll wear you
exposed because that’s down. Sturdy trainers or
where mosquitos Wellington boots will
especially love to bite. surprisingly be enough.

Earth’s landscapes

Escape scorching heat animal
How to survive the extreme temperatures of the desert The camel is known as
While the polar regions are always deliver a sting with their tail that can paralyse the ship of the desert, as
this remarkable creature
bitterly cold no matter what time of and eventually kill. Sturdy boots will protect can travel without food or
day it is, one of the major challenges in you from these creepy crawlies, as well as make water for a long time.
surviving the desert is dealing with the travelling over sand much easier. While they Domesticated 3,000 years
ago, camels have been an
ridiculous changes in temperature. In the don’t make great pets, scorpions do provide a invaluable help to those who make their
midday Sun, the mercury can reach as high as crucial source of nutrition. Picking them up by livelihood travelling the desert. They can carry
50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in the tail just behind the stinger is the safest 90kg (200lb) on their backs effortlessly and can
travel up to 32km (20 mi) a day, with the added
the Sahara, but drop to below freezing by night. method and it will give you vital protein for bonus of being able to last for at least a week
Your best bet is to wear a loose-fitting robe. This your journey. Just don’t eat the tail. without water and months without food.
will let air circulate around the body and you In the desert, you’ll need to adjust your body Camels store fat in their hump to use as a
food source and consume 145l (32gl) of water in
won’t get nearly as hot and sticky. At night, clock. Aim to shelter during the day and travel one go, which they also store for later use. They
when the temperature plummets, you can wrap at night. This has the dual benefit of avoiding have adapted wonderfully to the desert,
it around you for warmth. the scorching sun and keeping you active developing a membrane across the eye and
extra-long eyelashes to counteract sand storms.
It is vital that you protect your head. If you during the freezing night. It also means you can Their feet also are incredibly well protected with
think a touch of sunburn from staying by the keep on the right track easily by following the calluses and spread out for walking on sand.
pool on holiday is bad, that’s nothing compared stars, hopefully leading to civilisation.
to the effects of walking all day in the parched Shelter can come in the form of large rocks or
desert. Even if it means burning another part of cliffs. Alternatively, you can dig a trench down
your body, wrap something around your head into the cooler sand and use clothing or some
and neck so you don’t succumb to sunstroke, other material you have available to form a
which can lead to hallucinations and fainting. canopy over the top, secured by rocks or sand.
Other dangers in the desert will mostly come As long as it is at an angle and not touching you,
from scorpions. They hide in the sand and you’ll be protected from the Sun’s glare.

Desert dress
The essentials to surviving in the hottest places on Earth

Headwear Sunglasses
If you don’t have any The desert throws up an
headwear, you could suffer awful lot of sand and glare,
with heatstroke, so protect so sunglasses will be
your face and neck. absolutely vital.

Sleeping bag Water bottle Miles and miles of

A brightly coloured blanket This will be your greatest sand can leave you
will be useful as it would friend. Take small, regular hopelessly lost
enable any search party to sips and if you ever find a
find you, will keep you water source, fill it up as
protected in the day and much as possible.
warm at night. Finding your
way around
The desert is not only barren and featureless, but it
is also a moving entity. Therefore, finding your way
around is tough. The easiest way to find your way
Shirt around is with a compass, but if that isn’t available,
Your clothes will need to travel at night and use Polaris, the North Star, as
Sun cream be as loose fitting as your makeshift compass.
The baking temperatures possible to minimise Even though they are always shifting, sand dunes
will burn you in no time at sweating and dehydration. can also provide useful navigation hints. They
all, so a high factor sun always build up at 90 degrees to the direction of
cream will provide at least the wind, as the wind pushes sand upward to form
some protection. them, so even when there’s no wind, if you know
Footwear the wind is northerly, the dunes will go east to west
Even though you’ll be and you can use that information to navigate.
desperate for sandals, If you are lucky enough to have any landmarks,
trainers or walking boots try and make a straight path between them so you
will give you grip and know you are going in a straight line.
necessary protection.

2 1. BIG Gobi Desert
This 1.3mn km2
(502,000mi2) rocky
desert covers a large
portion of China and
Mongolia, experiencing
harsh and dry winters.
2. BIGGER Arabian
At a staggering 2.3mn
km2 (888,000mi2), the
Arabian Desert takes
up most of the
Arabian Peninsula.
3. BIGGEST Sahara Desert
The most famous desert
in the world measures
9.1mn km2 (3.5mn mi2),
making it over three times
bigger than any other non-
polar desert.

DID YOU KNOW? Contrary to popular belief, drinking cactus water won’t quench your thirst but make you very ill

Fight extreme thirst

Locate the desert’s most precious resource

70.7°C (159.3°F)
Hottest temperature
ever recorded (Lut
Desert, Iran)

58°C (136.4°F)
Hottest Saharan
temperature (Sahara
Desert, North Africa)

Follow the wildlife

There are a number of birds and land animals that live in
the desert and they all need water. Try and follow them
wherever possible and hopefully they should lead you to a 56.7°C (134°F)
water source. Hottest directly
recorded temperature
(Death Valley, Arizona)

34.4°C (94°F)
Hottest average yearly
temperature (Afar
Depression, Ethiopia)

26°C (78.8°F)
Hottest average
temperature in Europe
(Seville, Spain)

Shady cliffs
In your quest for precious shade, you might also be lucky
THE TEMPERATURE IN CELSIUS enough to find water. Dips and ridges that face north
0°C (32°F)
THAT CAUSES HYPERTHERMIA could be housing puddles and pools in their shaded,
Night temperature in
the Saharan Desert

The plunging temperatures

can leave you freezing cold
without the right preparation -20°C (-4°F)
Coldest average
desert temperature
(McMurdo Dry
Valleys, Antarctica)

-89.2°C (-128.6°F)
Coldest directly
Grass is always greener recorded desert
Plant life and vegetation means there is water around temperature (Vostok
somewhere. Head down into valleys where there is plenty Station, Antarctica)
of greenery and even if there isn’t a spring or pool around,
you should be able to extract water from leaves or roots.

Earth’s landscapes

Battle life-threatening altitude

How to cross the world’s most treacherous terrain
Mountains are the ultimate test of hand, try to find a stream or melt some snow or walking in circles. As well as being potentially
survival. They’re prone to rapid ice to drink. confusing, mountains also hide dangerous
changes in weather and it’s near The altitude is a real issue for many crevices. Keep your eyes peeled for breaks in
impossible to predict. Even if the base is warm mountaineers. As you climb higher, the air the snow or ice and if you are ever unsure, try to
and sunny, by the time you reach the summit, pressure reduces, meaning there is less oxygen find rocks or stones to throw in front of you that
low cloud can blind you, rain can make the for you to breathe. This lack of oxygen will could give away a hidden abyss.
terrain slippery and the cold can freeze you. cause your brain to reduce activity in all but the If the visibility does become too poor, the
Good preparation is essential and you’ll need most important organs, making your limbs safest thing might be to bed down. Find a spot
a lot of kit. Pack a rucksack with a map, heavy and head dizzy. The most important out of the wind and protected from any snow or
compass and a flashlight or headtorch, along thing to do is rest and re-oxygenate your body. rainfall, like a cave or overhanging cliff. Even
with a brightly coloured emergency blanket, If you are trying to escape the mountain, the though it might sound strange, pack your
and dress in thermals and waterproof and best way is to head downward, but this isn’t surroundings with snow, because it does have
windproof clothing. You’ll also need to keep always possible. Mountains have complicated insulating properties. Pile yourself with as
well hydrated. A lack of fluid at high altitude structures and often there isn’t an easy path many layers as possible and this should provide
will result in dizziness, intense headaches and down. If possible, put markers along your route the warmth so you can make it through the
even frostbite. If you don’t have any water to to show where you have already been, to avoid night and try to find your way out in the light.

Amazing animal GoPros are a

great way to Keep a record
The mountain goat is amazingly adapted to life on record your It’s always handy to have a visual record of your
the mountainside. Their hooves are curved and adventure travel by using a video recorder like the Hero3+
flexible to provide them more grip and traction on from GoPro. This camcorder is incredibly robust,
the treacherous slopes. Despite looking spindly and lightweight and waterproof. It can also be attached
thin, their legs are actually very strong and they onto helmets or bags, leaving your hands free to
can leap surprisingly large distances. scale the treacherous mountainside.
They have two coats, a warm, woolly undercoat Using a GoPro camera will also be useful as, once
and a thinner but longer overcoat, which keeps the you get off the mountain to safety, you and a
insulating undercoat dry. This system is how they professional will be able to look over the footage,
can stand the cold temperatures long after bigger determine what went wrong and see how you could
animals have given up and descended down the avoid getting stuck in the same situation again. The
mountain in cold weather. Hero3+ is available at

Mountain gear Headlight

What you need to brave the harsh, mountainous environment A powerful headlight will be essential for
finding your way around in darkness
without wasting a hand on a torch.
A tight-fitting hat will keep lots
of heat in as well as not being
likely to fly away! Coat
Lightweight is key here because you don’t
want to be weighed down. Bright colours
will also make you visible to rescuers.
Although it would be useful to have T-shirt
fingers available for gripping ledges, A tight-fitting T-shirt made of
it’s more important to have your breathable material will keep
fingers warming each other. body heat in without making
you sweat.

Rope Flare
A strong and sturdy rope will help If you can send up a flare, do so at
you protect yourself while asleep night. Not only will it attract the
and also aid you in climbing or attention of rescuers, it might
negotiating dangerous paths. ward off predators.

Trousers Boots
You need to keep dry and have items A high-legged boot will keep the worst of
accessible, so a pair of waterproof the snow and water out, while the sole will
trousers with zipped pockets will be the need to be rugged and have tons of grip.
most useful.

DID YOU KNOW? The tallest volcano is Mauna Kea, as it starts 6,000m (19,685ft) below sea level, making it 10,205m (33,480ft) tall

Keep the fire burning

How to warm up on the mountainside

Find some wood Build your base Light the fire

You’ll want a variety of wood, from small sticks and twigs, Dig a small pit in the ground. Surround it with stones so Place the larger branches and logs at an upwards angle,
all the way up to sizeable branches and logs. The smaller the fire doesn’t get out of control. Place the smallest bits allowing the air to circulate and ensuring all the wood is
bits will light much more quickly while the bigger pieces of wood at the bottom of the pile, but leave some gaps to getting burned evenly. Make sure everything is connected
will burn longer, hotter and form the bulk of the blaze. keep the fire supplied with the oxygen it needs to burn. so fire can transfer from one piece of wood to another.

The weather can turn in an

instant, so make sure you’re
prepared for anything


Crevices and cracks await

the unwary traveller

Earth’s landscapes

The story behind the world’s
greatest waterfalls

Big waterfalls are among the most series of new waterfalls appeared in minutes, geological time. Debris carried by the Iguazú
spectacular geological features on some up to seven metres (23 feet) high – taller River is slowly eroding the soft sediments at the
Earth. The thundering waters of than a double-decker bus. base of the falls, causing the lava above to
Niagara Falls can fill an Olympic- Many waterfalls were created by rivers of ice fracture and collapse. Erosion has caused the
sized pool every second. Visitors are drenched during past ice ages. These glaciers deepened falls to retreat 28 kilometres (17 miles)
with spray and deafened by volumes reaching big valleys, such as Milford Sound in New upstream, leaving a gorge behind.
100 decibels, equivalent to a rock concert. Zealand. The ice melted and shallow tributaries The erosional forces that birth waterfalls
A waterfall is simply a river or stream flowing were left ‘hanging’ high above the main valley. eventually destroy them. In around 50,000
down a cliff or rock steps. They commonly form Today the Bowen River joins Milford Sound at a years, there will be no Niagara Falls to visit. The
when rivers flow downhill from hard to softer waterfall 162 metres (531 feet) high, almost as Niagara River will have cut 32 kilometres (20
bedrock. The weak rock erodes faster, tall as the Gherkin skyscraper in London. miles) back to its source at Lake Erie in North
steepening the slope until a waterfall forms. Waterfalls vary enormously in appearance. America and disappeared.
The Iguazú Falls on the Argentina-Brazil Some are frail ribbons of liquid while others are The sheer force and power of waterfalls
border, for example, tumble over three layers of roaring torrents. All waterfalls are classed as makes them impossible to ignore. Daredevils
old resistant lava onto soft sedimentary rocks. cascades or cataracts. Cascades flow down across the centuries have used them for stunts.
Any process that increases the gradient can irregular steps in the bedrock, while cataracts The first tightrope walker crossed the Niagara
generate waterfalls. A 1999 earthquake in are more powerful and accompanied by rapids. Falls in 1859. Risk-takers have ridden the falls
Taiwan thrust up rock slabs along a fault, Gigantic waterfalls seem ageless, but they on jet skis, in huge rubber balls or wooden
creating sharp drops along several rivers. A last only a few thousands of years – a blink in barrels and many have died. The steep drops

2 1. TALLEST Angel Falls
The world’s highest
waterfall drops 979m
(3,212ft) from a flat
plateau in Venezuela,
barely making contact
with the underlying rock.
2. WIDEST Khone Falls
These waterfalls in Laos
are about 10.8km (6.7mi)
across. They also have a
very high average flow
rate of over 10,000m3/s
3. LARGEST Victoria Falls
Known as the ‘smoke that
thunders’, Victoria Falls
spans the African
Zambezi River and
produces the largest
sheet of falling water.

DID YOU KNOW? Fictional detective Sherlock Holmes fell into the Reichenbach Falls while fighting his nemesis Professor Moriarty

Erosion power Hard rock

Water flows from a
Rock step
The riverbed
Waterfalls appear to be permanent
layer of hard rock steepens, forming a
landscape features, but they are onto softer rocks. rock lip over which Plunge pool
constantly changing thanks to the water falls. Rock debris
geological process of erosion. Erosion is swirls around
the gradual wearing down of rock. Rivers beneath the falls
and erodes a
transport sand, pebbles and even deep plunge pool.
boulders, which act like sandpaper to Ledge collapses
grind down rock. The overhang eventually
Waterfalls often form when rivers flow tumbles into the river
Soft rock and the waterfall
from hard to softer rocks. Over thousands The softer rocks are retreats upstream
of years, the softer rocks erode and the preferentially worn toward the source.
away and carried
riverbed steepens. The river accelerates off by the river.
down the steep slope, which increases its
erosive power. Eventually the slope is
near vertical and the river begins cutting Water tumbling over the rock
backward. As sections of the overhang step cuts back into the softer
collapse, the waterfall gradually moves rock, creating an overhang.

upstream toward the river’s source.

What is the biggest waterfall on Earth? Frozen waterfalls

This is a tricky question as there is no standard way to Every method has problems. Boyoma Falls in the Congo Ice climbers in Colorado every winter
judge waterfall size. Some use height or width, but the is one of the biggest waterfall on Earth by volume, but tackle a frozen waterfall called the Fang
tallest one, Angel Falls, is only a few metres across at its some argue the turbulent waters are simply river rapids. – a free-standing icicle over 30m
ledge so is nowhere near the widest. Others group Shape is a popular and easy-to-digest, but unscientific, (100ft) tall and several metres wide.
waterfalls into ten categories based on volume flowing way to classify waterfalls, as many of them fall (literally) The idea of a frozen waterfall may seem
over the drop. into several different categories. strange. Rivers are slow to cool because
their moving waters constantly mix and
Horsetail Block redistribute heat. When temperatures
In horsetail A wide river tumbles drop below freezing, water cools and
waterfalls, the water over a cliff edge, ice crystals called frazil form. Only a
stays in constant forming a rectangular few millimetres across, these start the
contact with the ‘block’ waterfall that freezing process by gluing together. Ice
underlying rock, as it is often wider than it sticks to the bedrock or forms icicles on
plunges over a is high. Famous the rock lip. After a lengthy cold spell,
near-vertical slope. examples include the entire waterfall will freeze.
One example is the Victoria Falls in Africa
famous Reichenbach and the Niagara Falls
Falls in Switzerland. in North America.

Punchbowl Plunge
A river shoots Water spills straight
through a narrow gap over a ledge while
and cascades into a barely touching the
deep plunge pool. rock beneath. Angel
The name Falls in Venezuela,
‘punchbowl’ refers to the world’s highest
the shape of the pool. uninterrupted
An example of a waterfall, is a
punchbowl fall is member of this
Wailua Falls, Hawaii. category.

Tiered Chute
The waterfall has These resemble
several drops, each extreme rapids more
with their own than waterfalls. A
plunge pool. One pressurised frothy
example is Gullfoss, mass of water is
Iceland. Some tiered forced through a
waterfalls, such as suddenly narrower
the Giant Staircase, channel. An example
USA, resemble is Barnafoss, a
several separate falls. waterfall in Iceland.

Earth’s landscapes
mean waterfalls often pose a navigation biggest waterfall by volume, were submerged in river must flow over the falls – an incredible
problem. In the 19th century, the Welland Canal the 1980s by the building of the Itaipu 2,832 cubic metres per second (100,000 cubic
was built to bypass Niagara Falls. hydroelectric dam. feet per second).
People have long dreamed of harnessing the These days, the conflict between power and Yet these summer flow limits have a price.
power and energy of the biggest falls. The first nature is greater than ever. Dr Ryan Yonk is a One study says the loss of potential electricity
recorded attempt to use the swift waters above professor of political science at Southern Utah from the current treaty is 3.23 million megawatt
Niagara, for example, was in 1759 to power a University. According to him, “the demand for hours each year – enough to run four million
water wheel and sawmill. Today many electricity generation in the developing world is light bulbs.
hydroelectric plants generate electricity near not going away and it’s going to ramp up.” Withdrawing more water could have benefits
big waterfalls, such as the Sir Adam Beck Power Controversial hydroelectricity projects, like above hydropower generation. Samiha
Plants above Niagara Falls. River water is some in Asia, involve a trade-off between Tahseen is a civil engineering PhD student,
diverted downhill past propeller-like turbines. beauty and tackling climate change. Dr Yonk studying Niagara flow at the University of
The rushing flow spins the turbine blades, believes “the alternatives in those countries are Toronto. According to her, “you can reduce the
creating renewable electricity. The bigger the likely to be very dirty coal.” erosion of the falls.”
drop, the faster the water, and the more energy Above Niagara Falls, treaties have balanced Another advantage to limiting the flow is that
it contains as a result. energy generation with iconic scenery since all it minimises the mist that obstructs the view.
Harnessing rivers for electricity can conflict the way back in 1909. During the summer, when Samiha adds: “There is no denying that the mist
with the natural beauty of their waterfalls. The most of the 12 million annual tourists visit the is dependent on the flow so if you decrease the
Guaíra Falls on the Paraná River, probably the site, about half of the total water carried by the flow of the falls a little bit, that helps.”

The birth of Iguazú Falls

A gigantic eruption millions of years ago created a mighty
waterfall on the Argentina-Brazil border
Iguazú Falls
The Iguazú River joins
the Paraná River via a
canyon beneath the
82m (269ft) high

Geological fault
The Paraná River cut
down into a crack in the
Earth’s crust until its
waters flowed lower
than the Iguazú.


DID YOU KNOW? The first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel was a 63-year-old teacher in 1901 – she survived

Volcanic rock
Paraná River A gigantic eruption
The second- covered the Iguazú area
longest river in with layers of lava up to Sedimentary rocks
South America, 1km (0.6mi) thick. Beneath the layers of lava
after the Amazon. are softer, older rocks made
from sandy sediments.

Niagara Falls
The first large power station to
use alternating current was built
at Niagara Falls in 1895. It
was the first big supplier
of AC, the form of
electricity that supplies
Iguazú River businesses and homes today,
The river begins near the invented by genius Nikola Tesla.
Atlantic Ocean and runs Tesla imagined harnessing the
over 1,300km (800mi) power of the falls. His dream was
through Brazil to join the fulfilled when industrialist George
Paraná River. Paraná Traps Westinghouse built a Niagara
The lava beneath Iguazú Falls station big enough to supply the
formed around 100 million eastern United States. The plant
years ago during one of the was the largest of its age and,
biggest eruptions on Earth. within a few years, its power lines
electrified New York City.

Iguazú Falls tumble over
three successive lava
flows, giving them a
staircase shape with
several cascades.


Where in the world 2

1 Niagara
2 Victoria
3 Iguazú
Sol90; Alamy

4 Angel
5 Reichenbach
© Credit

6 Boyoma

Earth’s landscapes

The ever-changing
Plitvice Lakes
How incredible geology has formed
Croatia’s waterfall paradise
The spectacular Plitvice Lakes are actually
part of one large river flowing between the
Mala Kapela and Licka Plješivica mountains
in central Croatia. The river has divided into
this series of interconnected lakes and waterfalls because
of a geological phenomenon known as a karst landscape,
where rock, water and organisms all work together to
create new features.
The Plitvice river basin is made of limestone and
dolomite, and as the water passes through it dissolves
these rocks and becomes saturated with calcium
carbonate. This chemical compound then sticks to the
mucus secreted by the microscopic bacteria and algae
that grow on moss plants in the water. The plants
gradually become encrusted with the calcium carbonate
and it slowly builds up at a rate of about one centimetre
(0.4 inches) per year to form barriers of travertine rock.
Some of these barriers, which have been growing since
the Upper Triassic period, are around 4,000 meters (13,123
feet) thick and act as natural dams that split the river into
lakes. As more water travels down from the mountains, it
flows over these barriers to create waterfalls that cascade
down the river basin.
Just as quickly as the flowing water erodes the
travertine, more is formed when the calcium carbonate-
saturated water pools at the base of the waterfalls. This
means that the Plitvice Lakes are constantly changing
size and shape as old waterfalls run dry and new ones
are formed.
This clever geology is also responsible for giving the
Plitvice Lakes their distinctive blue-green colour. When
the white calcium carbonate coats the bottom of the lakes
it reflects sunlight and the sky to create vivid colours that
change depending on how the Sun’s rays hit the water and
how many organisms and minerals are present.

“The Plitvice Lakes are

constantly changing
size and shape ”

DID YOU KNOW? Plitvice Lakes National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is home to many endangered species

On the map


Bosnia &

How does a
waterfall form?
Usually, waterfalls form when a river flows over
areas of soft and hard rock. The flowing water
erodes the soft rock more quickly than the hard
rock, undercutting it to leave an overhang. This
forms a basic waterfall, and as the water flows over
this ledge, it often takes some rocks with it. These
rocks crash into the riverbed below, so more erosion
occurs to form a plunge pool. The soft rock behind
the waterfall is also eroded as water splashes at the
bottom, cutting into the rock to form a cave-like
structure called a rock shelter. Eventually the water
erodes the overhang of hard rock too, causing the
waterfall to recede upstream. This process is
slightly different to that which occurs at the Plitvice
Lakes, as instead of carving existing rock into an
overhang, the mineral-rich water there helps to
create new ledges that the water can flow over.


Hard rock
Soft rock Plunge

The tallest Plitvice waterfall is over 70 metres (230

© Getty Images

feet) high, the equivalent of almost 16 double-decker

buses stacked on top of each other

Earth’s landscapes


Antarctic mountains,
pack ice and ice floes

What’s large, hostile and used to trial missions to

Mars? Antarctica – the world’s coolest continent
Antarctica is the world’s last test equipment for space missions, and (-128.6ºF). The temperature in most
great wilderness and Earth’s perpetually dark lakes where bacteria freezers is only about -18ºC (-0.4ºF).
coldest, windiest, highest may have survived unchanged since The continent is also Earth’s windiest.
and driest continent. Antarctica had lush forests like the Antarctica’s ice cools the overlying air,
Around 98% of the land area lies buried Brazilian rainforest. Living in and which makes it sink. This cold, heavy air
beneath kilometres of snow and ice, yet around the Southern Ocean that accelerates downhill, creating wind
Antarctica is – paradoxically – a desert. encircles Antarctica are fish with gusts of over 200 kilometres (124 miles) an
In fact, it is so inhospitable that no one antifreeze in their blood, the world’s hour. The sinking air at Vostok is so dry
lives there permanently, despite it being biggest animal, and a giant penguin that that some scientific researchers pack
25% bigger than Europe. This frozen survives nine weeks without eating hospital IV (intravenous) drip bags to
continent remained unexplored until the during the harsh Antarctic winter. stop becoming dangerously dehydrated.
19th century. Unveiling its mysteries Antarctica is the chilliest place on Few clouds can form in the dry air, and
claimed many lives. Earth. At the Russian Vostok scientific most moisture falls as snow or ice
Antarctica is definitely worth a visit research station in the cold, high crystals. Any snow that falls accumulates
from your armchair, however, because it continental interior, it can get cold because it can’t melt in the cold.
may also be Earth’s quirkiest and most enough for diesel fuel to freeze into If the climate wasn’t harsh enough,
© Jason Auch

remarkable continent. Among its icicles – even in summer. Vostok is the Antarctica never sees daylight for part of
marvels is a river that flows inland, site of the coldest temperature ever the winter because the sun barely rises
Mars-like valleys where NASA scientists recorded on Earth – an amazing -89.2ºC over the horizon. Even in summer, the

5TOP 1
Blue whales, Earth’s largest
animals, are among ten whale 2
There are 17 penguin
species living in and around
3 Most of Earth’s seals live in
Antarctic waters. These
4 Most Antarctic life wouldn’t
exist without these shrimp-like
5 Several fish species are
adapted to Antarctica’s

species found in Antarctic
waters. Others include the
killer whale and the sperm
whale – the star of Moby Dick.
Antarctica. The emperor
penguin – the world’s
tallest, largest penguin – is
found nowhere else.
mammals hunt underwater for
up to 30 mins and even sleep
underwater, surfacing to
breathe without waking.
animals. Krill are about 6cm
(2.4 inches) long, live up to five
years and are food for most
Antarctic predators.
oxygen-rich, icy waters,
such as the Antarctic
toothfish, whose blood
contains antifreeze.

DID YOU KNOW? Lake Chad in Antarctica was named by Robert Scott after Lake Chad in Africa

A world without ozone?

A ‘hole’ still exists over Antarctica
It’s 2065, and skin cancer rates are soaring. Step outside in some cities and you’d be
sunburned in ten minutes. That’s the vision of NASA chemists, who predicted Earth’s future
if 193 countries hadn’t agreed to stop producing CFCs in 1987. CFCs are man-made, chlorine-
containing chemicals that destroy the Earth’s ozone layer high in the atmosphere, which
protects us from the sun’s UV radiation. A ‘hole’ in this layer was discovered over Antarctica
in the Eighties and persists today, because CFCs linger in the atmosphere for 50 to 100 years.
The hole formed because the freezing winters allow unusual cold clouds to form. Chemical

reactions on the cloud surface transform the chlorine in CFCs into an ozone-destroying form.

Size comparison 120

Antarctica is 14 million km2
New York
(5.4 million mi2) in area. 110
Compare that with
Europe’s 10.2 million km2 100
(3.9 million mi2) and
you can see just

how vast the Antarctica is 99% covered with frozen water, but –
continent is. surprisingly – it’s a desert. Antarctica’s average snowfall
is equivalent to less than 5cm (2 inches) of rain each year,
which is about the same as the Sahara. Deserts have
70 annual rainfall of less than 25cm (10 inches) each year.


Leningradskaya station, Antarctica

km Vostok station, Antarctica
500 Sahara
2 20













million years old. The West Antarctic ice sheet is
“We’re afraid if your name’s not
smaller, and drained by huge rivers of ice or
on the list, we can’t let you in…”
glaciers. These move slowly in Antarctica’s
interior, but accelerate to up to 100m (328ft) per
year towards the coast. The fastest is Pine Island
glacier, which can flow at more than three
kilometres (two miles) per year. When these
glaciers hit the sea, they form huge, floating
sheets of ice attached to the land called ‘ice
shelves’. The biggest is the Ross Ice Shelf, which
covers approximately the area of France and is
several hundred metres thick.
One of the world’s biggest mountain ranges
separates the two ice sheets. The Transantarctic
Sun is feeble and low in the sky. The extreme Mountains are more than two kilometres (1.2
cold partly explains why two huge ice sheets miles) high and 3,300 kilometres (2,051 miles)
cloak Antarctica. The white ice cools it further by long – more than three times the length of the
reflecting away about 80% of incoming sunlight. European Alps. The mountains were formed
Together, these ice sheets contain around 70% of around 55 million years ago during a period of
the world’s fresh water. If they melted, global sea volcanic and geological activity. Volcanoes like
levels would rise by 70m (230ft) and swamp many Mount Erebus are still active today.
of the world’s major cities. Antarctica’s main ice-free area is the McMurdo
The East Antarctic ice sheet is the largest on Dry Valleys, a region with conditions like Mars
Earth, with ice more than three kilometres (two through which runs the continent’s longest,
miles) thick in places. Under the ice sheet are largest river. The Onyx River carries summer
some of the oldest rocks on Earth – at least 3,000 meltwater 40 kilometres (25 miles) inland from

Earth’s landscapes

coastal glaciers to feed Lake Vanda, which is
saltier at its bottom than the Dead Sea. The
salinity of Dry Valley lakes like Lake Vanda
allows their deep water to stay liquid at
temperatures below the freezing point of
fresh water. Other strange Antarctic lakes
include Lake Untersee in the East Antarctic
interior, which has water with the alkalinity
of extra-strength laundry detergent.
top sights
Despite the harsh conditions and lack of Larsen Ice Shelf
soil, animals and plants survive on ice-free A Luxembourg-sized area of the Larsen Ice
parts of Antarctica. In the windswept Dry Shelf collapsed in only 35 days in 2002.
Scientists said it was the first time the shelf
Valleys, lichens, fungi and algae live in had collapsed in 12,000 years.
cracks in the rocks. Towards the coast, on
islands and the peninsula, mosses are fed on Antarctic Peninsula
by tiny insects, including microscopic The Antarctic Peninsula is a mountain chain
worms, mites and midges. Some insects typically more than 2km (1.2mi) high that
protrudes 1,334km (829mi) north towards
called springtails use their own natural
antifreeze, so they can survive temperatures
South America. It’s the warmest, wettest part West Antarctic
of Antarctica. ice sheet
of less than -25ºC (-13ºF). There are even two The West Antarctic ice sheet
species of flowering plants. South Pole is Antarctica’s second
In contrast, the Southern Ocean The geographic South Pole is where Earth’s largest ice sheet and is
longitude lines converge. The striped drained by huge ice rivers.
surrounding Antarctica is among the richest Some scientists fear it could
ceremonial Pole where pictures are taken is
oceans in the world. The annual growth and about 90m (295ft) away from the real Pole, de-stabilise and collapse
melting of sea ice dredges nutrients from the which is on a moving glacier. under climate change.
ocean depths, resulting in phytoplankton.
A single litre of water can contain more than
a million of these tiny plants. The
phytoplankton are eaten by krill – tiny
shrimp-like creatures that are the
powerhouse of Antarctica’s ecosystem and
feed most of its predators, including seals,
fish, whales and penguins. They form dense
swarms, with more than 10,000 krill in each
cubic metre of water. Some swarms extend
for miles and can even be seen from space.
Alarming recent studies show that krill
stocks have fallen by 80% since the
Seventies, probably due to global warming.
All of Antarctica’s species are adapted to
the extreme cold. Seals and whales have a
Ross Ice Shelf
The Ross Ice Shelf is the world’s largest ice shelf and
thick layer of blubber for insulation and covers 510,680km (317, 322mi) squared, roughly the area
penguins have dense, waterproof plumage of France. It’s about 1km (0.6mi) thick in places.
to protect them from salty, surface water at a
frigid -1.8 ºC (29ºF). Some species of fish Antarctica, carrying out experiments.
The ice-clogged waters of the
McMurdo Sound, Antarctica have antifreeze in their blood. Antarctic Some are drilling to extract cylinders of
icefish have transparent blood and ice more than three kilometres (two
absorb oxygen through their skin. miles) long, to provide a record of climate
The most common birds are penguins. covering perhaps the last 740,000 years.
Of the 17 species of Antarctic penguins, The ice contains ancient air bubbles and
only two live on the continent itself. One compressed layers of snow. Scientists are
is the world’s largest penguin, the also drilling into underground lakes like
emperor penguin, which grows to 115cm Lake Vostok, which may contain water
(4ft) tall. Being large helps the penguin to and microbes isolated from the outside
keep warm. Emperor penguins breed on world for a million years.
Antarctica’s sea ice during the cold, dark Astrophysicists also benefit from
winter, enduring blizzards and low Antarctica’s clean, dry air. IceCube is an
temperatures. The male penguins keep Antarctica-based experiment that tracks
their eggs warm by balancing them on neutrinos, ghostly particles created by
their feet for up to nine weeks, while the exploding stars. Another experiment is
female goes fishing at sea. During this attempting to detect faint light from the
fasting period, these super-dads huddle Big Bang that created our universe.
in groups of up to 5,000 penguins to keep Scientists are also studying the feeding
warm, losing 45% of their body weight. habits of Adélie penguins, using scales to
During the summer, around 4,400 check their weights on their favourite
scientists and support staff live on walking routes.

THE TEMPERATURE −89.2°C AREA 14 million km
4,892m LOWEST
POPULATION Nil POPULATION~4,400 people POINT −2,540m

DID YOU KNOW? Antarctica’s biggest purely terrestrial animal is a wingless midge, which grows to just 1.3cm (0.5 inches) long
Lake Vanda has the clearest ice in the
world (as transparent as distilled
water), and it’s possible to see Lake Vostok –
straight down for many metres
an alien world
Discover the largest lake
beneath Antarctica’s surface
Ice flow Life search
The mass of ice on top of Russian researchers are drilling to
the lake takes thousands the lake water through 4km (2.5mi)
of years to creep from of ice to search for life.
shore to shore.

East Antarctic
Mount Erebus ice sheet
Mount Erebus is among Earth’s largest The East Antarctic ice sheet
active volcanoes. Heat escaping the is Earth’s largest. It is more
volcano melts the snow above into than 3km (2mi) thick in
caves. The steam released freezes places and mainly flat,
instantly into chimneys up to 18m vast, featureless polar
(60ft) high. desert swept by icy winds.

Dry Valleys Lake Vostok

The McMurdo Dry Valleys are Antarctica’s Lake Vostok is the biggest of
largest ice-free area and resemble Martian 145 lakes buried beneath Ancient water y
landscapes. They contain mummified seal Antarctica’s ice. Discovered in Water in Lake Vostok Lib
remains, salty lakes and a river that flows 1996, it’s the largest geographic Ph
could be 1 million years ien
inland in the summer. feature discovered on Earth in old, compared to a few ©
the last 100 years. years for a typical lake.
Sloping lake
Extreme living surface
Bacteria may live in Lake The lake surface slopes
Vostok despite the perpetual downwards because the ice
darkness, icy water and is about 400m (1,312ft) thicker
enormous pressures. at one end than the other.

An over-sea ice seismic

survey in progress

Transantarctic Mountains
The Transantarctic Mountains are among the world’s biggest
mountain ranges and divide Antarctica in two. They are 3,300km
(2,051mi) long, with treeless peaks over 3km (2mi) high. ag
K Im

Early expeditions
across Antarctica
By the late 19th century, Antarctica was Earth’s last unexplored
Ernest Richard continent. The South Pole was the remotest place. The Pole was
Shackleton Byrd reached in December 1911 by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen
1914-1916 1928-1930
who pioneered a new route. Amundsen’s party raced the British
expedition led by Robert Scott who arrived 33 days afterwards,
having battled harsh weather and terrain. Scott’s dispirited party
died from starvation and exposure on the return journey. In 1914,
Ernest Shackleton tried crossing Antarctica, but his ship
‘Endurance’ was crushed by winter ice. All his crew survived almost
two years camping on the ice, until Shackleton led an epic 1,300
kilometres (808 miles) trip in a small boat to seek help. From 1928
© Science Photo Library

onwards US explorer Richard Byrd led five expeditions to

Antarctica, claiming vast territories for the USA. In November 1929,
Roald Robert
Scott he flew over the South Pole. Today, the Pole is no longer uncharted
1911 to 1912 1911-1912 territory – it even has its own post office!

Earth’s landscapes

Fjord system
Other smaller glaciers
would have flowed into
the main channel of ice,
creating long, sprawling
networks of fjords.

Terminal moraine
The debris once pushed
ahead of the glacier
now lies at the fjord
opening. It can affect
water circulation
throughout the system.

Life in a fjord
How fjords form
As a product of the epic clash between ice and rock,
The water in a fjord is distinctly stratified,
which affects the animals and plants that
call it home. Dense seawater flows over
the sill at the fjord’s entrance and sinks to
the bottom. Hardy deep-water animals
such as sea cucumbers live down here in
find out how these amazing valleys are created the thick mud, deposited over thousands
of years. Deep-water coral reefs can also
be found, providing valuable habitats for
Fjords are long, steep-sided coastal the glacier and was pushed in front of it as the other species of algae, deep-water fish,
valleys that are flooded by the sea. glacier travelled – known as a terminal crustaceans and molluscs.
Higher up in the water column, algae
The majority of fjords developed moraine. Such is the sheer power of the glacier can thrive on the steep rocky sides of the
during the last ice age, peaking to gouge out rock that the bottoms of fjords are fjords, providing food for hundreds of fish
approximately 20,000 years ago. Glaciers often deeper than the ocean that they open species. Oxygen-rich fresh water from
rivers and meltwater streams runs into
dominated the landscape, snaking their way to into. For example, the deepest point of the the fjord too, which combined with sunlit
the ocean and tearing through anything that Sognefjord in Norway is approximately 1,300 conditions can serve as the perfect
stood in their path. These massive valleys are metres (4,265 feet) below sea level whereas the environment for phytoplankton blooms.
The sheltered nature of a fjord can also
typically found in mountainous, coastal areas sill is just 100 metres (328 feet) below sea level. offer a safe haven for larger marine-
of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and are As the ice age came to a close, the oceans mammal visitors such as seals and
common in Norway, Sweden, Greenland, flooded into these extra-deep glaciated valleys, whales, which often go there to mate.
Canada, Chile, New Zealand and Alaska. forming what we now know as fjords.
As a glacier carved its way through the rock, it It’s the rock formations of a glaciated
cut a distinctive U-shaped valley. The floor was landscape that are left for us to see today. The
flat and the sides were steep and high. As the glacial moraine will still be present at the
massive river of ice – which could reach up to entrance of a fjord – a large sill acting as a
three kilometres (1.9 miles) thick – bore through barrier between fjord and open ocean. There
the valley floor, it picked up rocky debris and are also other features such as skerries, which
carried it along for the ride, adding to the are rocky islands within a fjord that can be
glacier’s rock-shattering abrasive power. This both large and mountainous or small and
rubble eventually made its way to the head of treacherous to navigate in a boat.

2 LONGEST 1. Scoresby
Located on the east coast of
Greenland, the huge Scoresby
Sund inlet is believed to be the
longest fjord system found
anywhere in the world.
NARROWEST 2. Nærøyfjord
Branching off Norway’s
larger and more famous
Sognefjord near Bergen,
the Nærøyfjord is just 250
metres (820 feet) wide at
its narrowest point.
DEEPEST 3. Fiordo Baker
This fjord in Chile boasts the
largest-known over-
deepening of 1,344 metres
(4,409 feet) – that equates to
about three Empire State
Buildings stacked together!

DID YOU KNOW? The milky-turquoise colour of the glacier meltwater in a fjord is caused by super-fine debris called ‘rock flour’

Hanging valleys
Fjords often have
waterfalls pouring into
them, caused by
‘tributary’ glaciers
flowing into the main
channel higher up than
the current water level.

Steep sides
The flooded valley
carved out by the glacier
has a classic U-shape,
with a flat bottom and Deep channels
high, steep sides. The deepest parts of the
fjord’s channel are likely
to be slightly farther
inland, where the glacial
force was strongest.

Some fjord systems have
islands scattered near
the opening of the fjord
to the open ocean, which
are known as skerries.

© Alamy; Hannes Grobe

Earth’s landscapes
Briksdalsbreen, one of the
best-known arms of the
Jostedalsbreen glacier

Glaciers in Wrangell St Elias

National Park, Alaska

Discover the awesome
Earth-shaping power
of gigantic rivers of ice
Glaciers are huge rivers or sheets of ice, which have DK
sculpted mountain ranges and carved iconic peaks like ag
the pyramid-shaped Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps. The
secret of this awesome landscape-shaping power is
erosion, the process of wearing away and transporting solid rock. 8. Snout
Glacial erosion involves two main mechanisms: abrasion and The end of the glacier is called
plucking. As glaciers flow downhill, they use debris that’s frozen its snout, perhaps because it
looks like a curved nose. The
into the ice to ‘sandpaper’ exposed rock, leaving grooves called
snout changes position as the
‘striations’. This is the process of abrasion. Plucking, however, is glacier retreats and advances.
where glaciers freeze onto rock and tear away loose fragments as
they pull away. 2. Medial moraine
A medial moraine is a debris ridge or
Today glaciers are confined to high altitudes and latitudes, but mound found in the centre of a valley,
during the ice ages glaciers advanced into valleys that are now free formed when two tributary glaciers
of ice. Britain, for example, was covered by ice as far south as the join and their lateral moraines merge.
Bristol Channel.
You can spot landforms created by ancient ice. Cirques are
armchair-shaped hollows on mountainsides, which often contain melted, tributary valleys were left hanging high above the
lakes called ‘tarns’. They’re also the birthplaces of ancient glaciers. main valley floor.
During cold periods, ice accumulated in shady rock hollows, Hard rock outcrops in the valley were smoothed into mounds
deepening them to form cirques. When two cirques formed orientated in the direction of ice movement. Rock drumlins are
back-to-back, they left a knife-edge ridge called an ‘arête’. shaped like whalebacks, adopting a smooth, convex shape.
Pyramidal peaks were created when three or more cirques formed. Roche moutonnée have a smooth upstream side, and a jagged
Modern-day glaciers are
Eventually the cirque glacier spilled from the hollow and flowed downstream side formed by plucking. Where valley rocks
found where it’s cold enough
downhill as a valley glacier. This glacier eroded the valley into a varied in strength, the ice cut hollows into the softer rock, for ice to persist all year round
U-shape, with steep cliffs called ‘truncated spurs’. When the glacier which filled with glacial lakes known as paternoster lakes.

2 BEAUTIFUL 1. Landscape
Arch, USA
This delicate natural arch –
Earth’s third largest – is only
2m (6.5ft) thick at its
narrowest, but spans a
whopping 90m (295ft).
LIVELY 2. Transgondwanan
Nutrients eroded from a giant
mountain range 600 million years
ago may have helped Earth’s first
complex life to develop.
Canyon, USA
The Grand Canyon was
eroded into the Colorado
Plateau by the Colorado
River, as mountain building
uplifted the plateau.

DID YOU KNOW? Ten per cent of the world’s land is covered by ice, compared to about 30 per cent during the last ice age

Spotter’s guide to lowland glaciers Inside an ice-

When you stand at the bottom – or snout – of a valley it grow again, it collects and bulldozes this debris.
glacier, you can see landforms made of debris
dumped by the ice. The debris was eroded further up
To understand why the snout moves up and downhill,
you need to see glaciers as systems controlled by
carved valley
the valley and transported downhill, as if on a temperature and snowfall. On cold mountain peaks, Pyramidal peak Arête Cirque Hanging valley
conveyor belt. Meltwater rushing under the glacier snow accumulates faster than the glacier melts. As ice
sculpts the debris heaps. flows into warmer lowlands, melting begins to exceed
The snout is the place in the valley where the glacier accumulation. The snout advances or retreats
melts completely. This changes over time. If the depending on whether inputs of snow exceed ice loss
glacier shrinks, it leaves a debris trail behind. Should from the system by melting.

1. Lateral moraine
Lateral moraines are made from rocks that have
fallen off the valley sides after being shattered by
frost. When the glacier melts, the moraine forms
a ridge along the valley side.

3. Terminal or end moraine

An end moraine is a debris ridge that
extends across a valley or plain, and
marks the furthest advance of the glacier Tarn
and its maximum size.
es U-shaped valley
Roche moutonnée ag
DK Paternoster lakes
Truncated spurs ©

An aerial shot
of a glacier
7. Erratics
Erratics are boulders picked up
by glaciers and carried,
sometimes hundreds of
kilometres, into areas with a
different rock type.

How does a
glacier move?
Glaciers can only move, erode and
transport debris if they have a wet bottom.
Polar glaciers are frozen to the bedrock all
year round and typically move around 1.5
metres (5 feet) per year, as ice crystals slide
under gravity. In temperate climes like the
European Alps, however, glaciers can slide
6. Braided streams downhill at 10 -100 metres (30-330 feet) per
These streams have a braided
shape because their channel year, due to the fact that meltwater forming
becomes choked with coarse under the glacier during mild summers acts
debris, picked up when the as a lubricant.
stream gained power during
periods of fast glacier melt. If meltwater accumulates under a glacier,
the ice can race forwards at up to 300 metres
(990 feet) per day. During the fastest
5. Outwash plain recorded surge, the Kutiah Glacier in
4. Recessional moraine Outwash plains are made of gravel, sand
Pakistan sped more than 12 kilometres
A recessional moraine is left when a and clay dropped by streams of
glacier stops retreating long enough for meltwater that rush from the glacier (7.5 miles) in three months.
a mound of debris to form at the snout. during the summer, or when ice melts.

Earth’s landscapes


It is one of Earth’s most astounding waterways, but
how does the Nile affect its arid surroundings?
Understandably considered to be the ‘father of 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Lake Tana, is the third
African rivers’, the River Nile is quite simply and smallest source, joining the other two bigger
awe-inspiring. Rising from south of the equator waterways at the eponymous Sudanese city of Atbara.
in Uganda and winding through north-east Combined, these three primary sources create the River
Africa all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, it is not just Nile, which today is naturally split into seven distinct
Earth’s longest river (though some have contested it’s regions ranging from the Lake Plateau of eastern Africa
beaten by the Amazon), but indisputably one of the most down to the vast Nile Delta that spans north of Cairo. These
historic and diverse. areas are home to diverse peoples and cultures, exotic flora
The Nile is formed from three principal sources: the and fauna, as well as a variety of notable features ranging
White Nile, Blue Nile and Atbara. The White Nile begins at from fierce rapids, to towering waterfalls and lush swamps.
Lake Victoria, Uganda, and is the most southerly source. While the Nile flows through many countries including
The Blue Nile begins at Lake Tana, Ethiopia, and is its Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia, the country it is most
secondary source, flowing into the White Nile near affiliated with is Egypt, the most northerly and the last it
Khartoum. Lastly the Atbara River, which begins around passes on its course to the Mediterranean.

5 TOP Origins
1 It has been suggested that
the River Nile was created in
Vast Victoria
2 The primary source of the
Nile is Lake Victoria, which
Dam pollution
3 While the construction of the
Aswan Dam has prevented the
Back to black
4 In Ancient Egyptian times the
River Nile was known as ‘Ar’,
5 According to Greek
geographer Strabo, the Nile

its modern incarnation
approximately 25,000 years
ago when Lake Victoria
developed a northern outlet.
covers an area of more than
69,400km2 (26,795mi2).
Despite its size, it is very
shallow and warm.
Nile from flooding yearly in
Egypt, it has also reduced its
fresh water flow, in turn
increasing pollution content.
or ‘Aur’, which translates as
‘black’, referring to the dark,
fertile sediment that was left
behind after it flooded.
Delta used to comprise
seven delta distributaries.
Today there are only two:
the Rosetta and Damietta.

DID YOU KNOW? The name ‘Nile’ is derived from the Greek ‘Neilos’, which means ‘river valley’

Beasts of the Nile A desert

Dromedary camel
The second-largest species of
camel, the dromedary has
1 Papyrus
This species of
aquatic flowering
come to be a key image plant belongs to the
associated with Egypt. They Hippopotamus sedge family. The tall
are technically Arabian in Hippos are found the entire leafless grass has a
origin but are now kept and length of the Nile, but due to greenish cluster of stems at its
used domestically throughout many decades of poaching, tip and has been used
Egypt. They are commonly their numbers are dwindling. historically to produce
used to transport both goods The species is semi-aquatic, papyrus paper.
and people, and are also a inhabiting the river itself, its
popular source of milk. many lakes and swamps as
well as the fertile banks. They 2 Plume thistle
Found all over
Egypt, but especially
are one of the most aggressive
Red spitting cobra animals in Africa, often around the Nile, the
This venomous snake is a attacking people on sight. plume thistle is a tall
native resident of Egypt’s biennial plant that consists of
southern regions. It preys a rosette of leaves, a taproot
primarily on amphibians and a flowering stem.
like frogs, however records Traditionally, the stems
indicate they will also take on were peeled and boiled
birds and rodents. Human for consumption.
attacks are recorded too, with
bite symptoms including
muscle pain, numbness and
3 Chamomile
This is a daisy-
like plant from the
disfigurement of the skin.
family Asteraceae.
There are many species of
chamomile, however the
Nile crocodile one common to the Nile is
A dark bronze-coloured Matricaria – a type commonly
species of reptile, Nile used in herbal remedies.
crocodiles frequent the banks
Grey heron
A large bird that frequents various parts of Africa, the
grey heron is a common sight along the length of the
of the river throughout Egypt
and other east African
4 Blue Egyptian
water lily
The ‘blue lotus’ is
river. Standing at approximately 100 centimetres countries. These crocodiles one of the most iconic
(39 inches) tall and sporting a pinkish-yellow bill, the are the largest found in the plants on the Nile. With
heron can typically be found on the Nile’s banks and continent and are agile and broad leaves and colourful
throughout the Egyptian Delta, where it feeds on fish, rapid predators, feeding on a blue blooms, this water lily
frogs and insects within the shallow waters. The bird wide variety of mammals. stands out amid the sandy
appears in a lot of Ancient Egyptian artwork. tones of Egypt. It had a
spiritual link to the Ancient
Egyptian deity Nefertem.

5 Opium poppy
As the name
suggests this is the
species of poppy from
which opium is derived
– the source of narcotics like
morphine. The plant has
blue-purple or white flowers
and silver-green foliage.

Earth’s landscapes
It is here in Egypt that historically the Nile was at its most total inflow rise from 45.3 million cubic metres (1.6 billion
variable, with the river flooding annually. While the river cubic feet) per day up to a whopping 707.9 million cubic
still floods, thanks to the construction of the Aswan Dam metres (25 billion cubic feet).
and Lake Nasser, it only does so in southern Egypt, with the Crucially, while the dam at Aswan prevents annual
lower-lying north remaining relatively protected. flooding in Egypt, it does not stop its historical uses, which
The flooding is largely caused by the rainy season in the remain to this day incredibly wide ranging. The Nile is used
Ethiopian Plateau, an area from which both the Blue Nile as a source of irrigation for crops, water for industrial
and Atbara draw their water. As such, when the floodwaters applications, transportation via boat and the cultivation of
enter Lake Nasser in late-July, the Blue Nile accounts for 70 region-specific goods like papyrus. It’s also an ecosystem for Lake Nasser has become a
per cent of all water, the Atbara 20 per cent, with the White many unique plants and animals and a vital source of haven for all kinds of wildlife,
including migratory birds
Nile only accounting for ten. This flooding sees the Nile’s power, driving turbines that generate electricity.

Take a grand tour down the River Nile from its main
Journey down the Nile origin in Lake Victoria through to the Mediterranean

White Nile
Starting at Malakal, the
White Nile heads for
800km (500mi) to Lake
Nasser – of which it
supplies 15 per cent of the
total inward-flowing
volume. Prior to entering
Fula Rapids the lake it is joined by the
Lake Victoria The now-called Albert Nile River Nile’s other primary
The Nile begins in the world’s then passes through Nimule source: the Blue Nile.
largest tropical lake, Lake and proceeds to the city of
Victoria. The lake is so big Juba over a 193km (120mi)
that it ranges over three stretch that is typified by
countries – Kenya, Uganda narrow gorges and a series
and Tanzania – with a total of rapids – eg the Fula Bhar al-Ghazal
surface area of more than Rapids. Past Juba the river After the clay plain the river
69,400km2 (26,795mi2). The passes over a large clay plain is joined by the Al-Ghazal
lake is fed by a number of that during the rainy season River at Lake No. Beyond
small spring sources in is completely flooded. this large lagoon the river
Tanzania and Rwanda. proceeds through the
Sudanese town of Malakal.
From here on in it becomes
known as the White Nile.

Victoria Nile
The White Nile, one of
the River Nile’s two main
tributaries – here referred to
as the Victoria Nile – leaves
Lake Victoria to the north at
Ripon Falls, Uganda.

Murchison Falls Lake Albert Blue Nile

From Ripon Falls, the Victoria At the bottom of the Murchison The Blue Nile originates on
Nile proceeds northward for Falls the river proceeds 32km the high Ethiopian Plateau,
approximately 500km (311mi), (20mi) west through the where it proceeds on a
through the shallow Lake Kyoga Murchison Falls National Park until north-north-west course
and out the other side over the it reaches the northern tip of Lake from 1,800m (5,905ft)
Murchison Falls, which is part of Albert – a deep, narrow lake with above sea level. The Blue Nile
the East African Rift System mountainous sides. Here the river begins properly at Lake Tana,
(EARS). The Murchison Falls waters merge with the lake before a shallow lake with an area
sees the river drop 120m (394ft) exiting to the north towards the of 3,626km2 (1,400mi2), and
over a series of three cascades. Sudanese town of Nimule. continues through Sudan.

DISCHARGE 2,830m /s AREA 3.4mn km
DID YOU KNOW? The White Nile has an almost constant volume, while the Blue Nile’s is much more variable

Egypt’s ancient capital

city, Cairo, is situated on
the banks of the Nile
Search for the source
While today the sources of the Nile are well documented and
clearly visible by satellite imagery, before the advent of such
technology its source remained one of the planet’s greatest
mysteries, with various historians, geographers and
philosophers speculating on its origin.
Arguably the earliest attempt to discern the source of the
Nile was undertaken by Greek historian Herodotus (circa
484-425 BCE), who as part of his Histories recounts theories
he gathered from several Egyptians. Unfortunately, while many
of the tales are accurate to a point – with most describing the
Nile to around modern-day Khartoum – none reveal its true
origins, with Herodotus assuming it must begin in Libya.
This confusion and speculation continued with the Romans,
with natural philosopher Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) picking up
from Herodotus stating the Nile’s origin lay ‘in a mountain of
Lower Mauretania’ – an area that correlates with modern-day
Morocco. Indeed, this confusion remained right up until the
19th century, when a series of European-led expeditions slowly
began to unearth the truth. These expeditions came to a head
in 1875, when the Welsh-American journalist and explorer
Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) confirmed that the White
Nile, which was considered the one and true source, did indeed
emanate from Lake Victoria in Uganda.

Nile Delta
Cairo After flowing through Cairo
Khartoum Lake Nasser For 322km (200mi) after the the River Nile enters a delta
Near Khartoum the two The Nile then enters Lake Aswan Dam the River Nile region, a triangular-shaped Mediterranean
primary rivers converge Nasser, the second-largest passes through an underlying lowland where the river Finally, after around 6,650km
to create the River Nile man-made lake in the world. limestone plateau, which fans out into two main (4,130mi), the Nile comes to an
proper, and proceed north With a potential maximum averages 19km (12mi) in distributaries: the Rosetta end in the Mediterranean Sea, a
for 322km (200mi). At this area of 6,735km2 (2,600mi2), width. After another 322km and the Damietta. These body of seawater that spans
point the Nile is joined by it covers approximately (200mi) the river flows distributaries are named after 2.5mn km2 (965,000mi2).
the Atbara River, the last 483km (300mi) of the Nile’s through the bustling city of the coastal towns where they
tributary, which supplies total length. The lake also sits Cairo, the capital of Egypt. depart the mainland.
roughly ten per cent of on the border between Sudan
the total annual flow. and Egypt, with the Nile
passing by the famous
temples at Abu Simbel.

© Thinkstock; Getty; Focusredsea; Orlova-tpe

Aswan Dam
The cause of the vast Lake Nasser, the
Aswan Dam is a huge embankment
situated across the Nile at Aswan,
Egypt. The dam was built to control the
river’s annual tendency to flood the
lowlands of central Egypt in late-
summer. The Nile’s flow is controlled
through the dam, continuing on a
northwards course towards Cairo.

Earth’s landscapes

Subterranean rivers
Discover how, over many millennia, water can create spectacular cave
systems and secret waterfalls all hidden deep beneath the ground
On the island of Palawan in the Karst, which covers 500,000 square kilometres caves are left abandoned when gravity causes
Philippines is a layer of limestone (193,000 square miles) of China’s Yunnan, the river to drain into lower passages. The
over 500 metres (1,640 feet) thick. Guizhou and Guangxi provinces. water seeps down through the limestone until
The rock is honeycombed with a Karst forms when acid water seeps down tiny it reaches impermeable rocks, then flows
complex network of caves – some big enough to cracks, called joints, in the limestone. The acid horizontally until it emerges near the base of
hold jumbo jets – that have formed due to slowly eats away the rock and enlarges the the karst as a spring or waterfall.
running water from rain and streams. Deep joints into vertical shafts and horizontal During floods, or when the water table rises,
inside the limestone is the Puerto Princesa passages. Rivers flowing onto limestone often the river can totally fill a cave and erode its roof.
Subterranean River, which flows 8.2 kilometres vanish from the surface down shafts called When the water retreats, the unsupported
(five miles) through a warren of passages. swallow holes and continue as underground ceiling may crumble. The Reka Valley in
Underground rivers like the Puerto Princesa waterways. Generally, dry valleys signal where Slovenia – a 100-metre (328-foot)-high gorge –
are found worldwide in a type of limestone the river once flowed on the surface. formed when a cave collapsed centuries ago.
terrain called karst. These dramatic landscapes Over millions of years, underground rivers This means the Reka River, which primarily
are riddled with huge caves, pits and gorges. can carve out huge cave networks – some that runs underground through the Škocjan Caves,
Famous examples include the South China extend for hundreds of kilometres. Higher now sees daylight for part of its journey.

Swallow hole Impermeable rock

When a river flows onto A river flows across the
limestone, it often vanishes surface of impermeable
down a swallow hole. rocks like shale and clay.

Cave system
Water slowly widens the Underground passage
passages into caves. The river enlarges the joints
Higher caves are left into vertical shafts and
abandoned as the river horizontal passageways.
moves downwards.
Dry valley
Cave formations A dry valley may
Limestone from drips of be left when a
water slowly builds up on the river disappears
cave roof and floor, creating Subterranean river below ground.
formations like stalactites. The river flows on through
underground shafts and
passageways on its
relentless path to the sea.

The river re-emerges
onto the surface,
usually at a junction
between limestone and
impermeable rock.
Limestone pavement
Rivers of ice scraped away
soil and vegetation during the Doline
last ice age, exposing a bare A doline, or sinkhole,
surface of cracked limestone. forms when a cave roof
collapses or where the
limestone is unusually
quick to dissolve.

150,000 tons/hr LENGTH 189km AVERAGE DIAMETER 16m

DID YOU KNOW? A 20-million-year-old fossil of an aquatic mammal is embedded in the walls of the Puerto Princesa cave

1 Swallow hole
Rivers can disappear
underground down openings
called swallow holes.
Swallow holes like Gaping Gill
in Yorkshire, UK, form where
limestone is heavily fractured
and jointed. Gaping Gill is
also the site of Britain’s
highest unbroken waterfall.

2 Caves
Earth’s largest
underground chamber
is in a karst formation.
Borneo’s Sarawak
Chamber is 100 metres
(328 feet) high and 700 metres
1,200m below the Jordanian (2,297 feet) long. It’s so wide it
Plateau, this slot canyon fed by a could fit in eight jumbo jets!
spring flows through a narrow
sandstone gorge to the Dead Sea

This is Llygad Llwchwr, an

3 Limestone pavement
A famous example of a
limestone pavement lies
underground river cave of the above Malham Cove, a cliff in
Black Mountain in Wales
the Yorkshire Dales. This bare
How limestone rock surface formed during

dissolves the last ice age when glaciers

scraped away soil to expose
Limestone is made of the shells of tiny sea
creatures that lived millions of years ago. Shells the limestone. It consists of
contain calcium, just like bones and teeth. slabs called clints, separated
Limestone is more than 80 per cent calcium by cracks known as grikes.
carbonate and – like teeth – is decayed by acid.
Rain and stream water absorb carbonic acid
from the atmosphere and humic acid from
decaying vegetation in the soil. When water
seeps down limestone joints, the acid dissolves
4 Dry valley
Cheddar Gorge in
Somerset is Britain’s
the calcium carbonate. Calcium bicarbonate is biggest dry valley. It
formed and washed away – sometimes in huge
quantities. An estimated 600 tons of calcium too formed during the
bicarbonate are removed daily by the waters of last ice age when cracks
Silver Springs in Florida, USA, for instance. in the limestone filled with
ice. Water couldn’t penetrate
the rock so it flowed across the
ON THE surface, gouging out a gorge.

5 Stalactites and
Underground river 4 2 Caves contain many stunning
caves around 6
formations like stalactites and
the planet
1 Puerto Princesa River, stalagmites. These spikes of
Philippines rock form when water drips
© Corbis; Alamy; SPL

2 Phong Nha, Vietnam

3 Križna Jama Cave, Slovenia from the ceiling, leaving
4 Rio Secreto, Mexico traces of limestone on the roof
5 Santa Fe River, FL, USA
and floor over many centuries.
6 Sof Omar, Ethiopia

Earth’s landscapes

Marine habitats
An in-depth guide to the
amazing ecosystems and
their inhabitants which
exist beneath the waves

Earth’s oceans support thousands of The upper tidal reaches are favoured by
unique habitats. Each species has a tough species such as barnacles, limpets and
niche and is adapted for the physical periwinkles. These shell-dwellers hunker
and chemical properties of its home down when the tide goes out and re-emerge as
in the water column (a pelagic habitat) or on the the water returns. The middle and lower-shore
seabed (a benthic habitat). Sunlight is a major habitats support the species that are a little less
governing factor and most species-rich areas adapted for the absence of water. Algae grow in
A giant kelp forest
are in shallow waters where light is plentiful. cracks and crevices with plenty of available off the rocky island
Likewise temperature is another key regulator light for photosynthesis. Mussels, sea snails of Catalina, CA
of life in the sea. This is due to its strong and chitons make the middle shore their home,
influence over the rate of chemical reactions, whereas crabs, oysters, anemones, urchins, oysters and some crabs can regulate their
which affects the growth, reproductive success starfish, kelp and even young fish can be found osmotic properties (the way that their bodies
and general activity of any creatures whose on the lower shore and in the shallows beyond. handle saltwater and freshwater) to deal with
body temperature is the same as the water On the sandy beaches that often accompany the daily salinity changes, whereas other
around them. Each ocean habitat is also rocky coastal habitats, the power of crashing creatures prefer to head out with the tides to
affected by many other factors such as salinity, waves erodes the shoreline and deposits fine stay in the salty realm. Other animals such as
pressure and nutrients to name but a few. gravel and silt. This creates a porous habitat glass eels actually live in estuarine
The rocky shore is the first frontier between that is perfectly suited to species of worms that environments and change their salinity
land and sea. It’s known as the littoral zone and live within the sandy material, as well as preferences throughout their life cycle.
is a high-energy environment, battered by flatfish that have evolved to blend in. In warmer climates, estuarine water is often
waves. Organisms living here have to be hardy, Estuaries also shoulder the boundary colonised by mangrove swamps, which are
as the waves take their toll and the tide floods in between land and sea. Characterised by tidal ecosystems with another unique set of salinity
and out twice a day, leaving rockpools to bake water that fluctuates in salinity, estuaries play adaptations. Mangrove trees, of which there are
in the Sun. Yet despite these hard conditions, host to species that are perfectly adapted to many types, have long, twisting roots that can
the littoral zone is full of life. these rapid chemical transitions. Animals like filter seawater. The leaves can also excrete salt,

STRANGE How is the fine sand near Answer:
BUT TRUE coral reefs produced? The reef-dwelling parrotfish mainly eat the
algae within coral polyps. The fish rip off
GRAINS coral chunks and grind it up. Excess coral is
OF TRUTH A Waves B Fish eating coral C Old sandcastles then excreted as fine sand – it’s fish poo!

DID YOU KNOW? At Earth’s deepest point, the pressure is 11,318 tons/m2 – about the same as trying to hold up 48 jumbo jets!

5 4
Ocean ecosystems
1 Mangrove swamps: 6
southern Florida
2 Kelp forests: Monterey
Peninsula, California
3 Seagrass beds: Shark Bay,
Western Australia
4 Lowest point on Earth:
Challenger Deep
5 Artificial reef (made of 25
tanks): Gulf of Thailand Man-made reefs
6 Hydrothermal vent fields: Man-made reefs are areas of the seafloor that
are known as the sublittoral zone. Light is still
Mid-Atlantic Ridge are colonised by marine species as a result of
plentiful in the water column here, which the reef’s placement by humans. Reefs can be
making them ideally adapted for living in means that productivity is high. Conditions are created in order to promote biodiversity in an
brackish water. The large mangrove roots hold ideal for plant and algal growth, and so can area, or to compensate for overuse of a habitat.
Other artificial reefs are less deliberate, as
the shoreline together and resist erosion as well support some of the ocean’s most diverse yet organisms colonise things such as shipwrecks or
as protecting the shore from wind and wave delicate ecosystems: coral reefs. oil platforms. The reefs can bring life to
energy. This provides shelter for animals and Reefs form when coral larvae in the water otherwise barren areas, providing a substrate for
many species to flourish. The ocean floor can be
other plants, and mangroves are important column attach to rocks and other substrates a very challenging place to live, and so once
nursery grounds and essential food sources for and start to grow. The coral is made up of lifted into the water column, organisms are
birds, crustaceans and fish, along with large calcium-carbonate skeletons that house coral exposed to ocean currents big and small, which
bring with them food (plankton) as well as other
marine mammals such as manatees. polyps. These polyps in turn contain tiny essential nutrients that enable life to thrive.
Seagrass beds are often found growing near photosynthetic plant cells called zooxanthellae, Once the reef is in place, the colonisation
mangrove ecosystems in estuaries, bays, inlets which lend coral its vibrant colour. The coral process will begin almost instantly. The first
arrivals will be encrusting species such as
or lagoons. Seagrasses are one of the few groups needs a specific set of physical and chemical barnacles and tubeworms. The larvae of these
of flowering plants in the sea and they need parameters to survive, which is why reefs are so critters land on the reef by chance; after being
clear, shallow water to grow. These underwater fragile. Lots of light and a relatively constant spawned, they hitch a ride on the currents and
are swept away to find a new home. Then come
lawns are home to animals such as seahorses temperature of around 20 degrees Celsius (68 the hydroids, closely followed by sea urchins and
and pipefish that rely on the shelter and degrees Fahrenheit) are essential. Because of scallops. As diversity increases, so does the
nutrients from the grass, but as fragile this, increasing global temperatures are deliciousness of the reef for other predators,
which are then drawn to the area for food. After
ecosystems, seagrass beds are under threat. threatening the existence of reefs across the a few years, the reef will be bursting at the
Pollution, competition from invasive species planet. If the temperature of the water gets too seams with life, which in turn attracts more new
and increased sediment in the water are high, bleaching can occur which is when the arrivals. Examples of man-made reefs include
sunken aircraft carriers, art sculptures, tanks and
endangering the longevity of these habitats. coral ejects the zooxanthellae algae. This even memorial gardens where a person’s ashes
Moving farther out from the coast, the causes the coral to turn white, and without the can be encased in a ‘reef ball’ and laid to rest.
shallow offshore waters of the continental shelf zooxanthellae to photosynthesise, the coral

Life in the mudflats Seamount ecology

Coastal mudflats are large intertidal expanses of
silt and sediment, usually found at the mouth of Seamounts are underwater mountains that rise
an estuary or in other sheltered environments. from the ocean floor. They appear near tectonic
Mudflats are highly productive and are teeming boundaries or hotspots and are formed as lava
with important biological species and processes. seeps out of the Earth and cools in the water to
The top layer of mud, which gives the flats their form a conical structure. When the mountain
characteristic brown colour is rich in oxygen, but gets large enough it will breach the surface – the
the lower layers are black and anoxic, and these Hawaiian islands formed this way, for example.
support a different type of microbial ecosystem Seamounts are oases of life in the open ocean
based on chemical reactions. Species diversity is as their conical shape provides a safe haven for
usually low, but numbers of these animals are deep-sea corals, sponges, worms, crustaceans
very high and the oxygenated mud generally and fish. The mountain soars high off the
harbours lugworms, cockles, mussels and some seabed, so strong currents run over it, providing
types of algae, among many others. Intertidal plankton for filter-feeding species and promoting
mudflats also provide a nursery ground for many the upwelling of nutrients to support thousands
creatures, eg salmon, which take advantage of of animals – many unique to these habitats. Fish
the sheltered waters to feed and mature before are drawn to this bounty of food, and themselves
leaving for the open ocean. Similarly migratory attract larger predators like sharks and tuna.
birds and coast-based mammals also depend on Seamounts are also thought to be navigational
the mudflats for their calorie-rich food stores. aids for migrating ocean dwellers like whales.

will die. Without the coral, the ecosystem it once such as bluefin tuna and marlin, but they are few and mate or confuse predators. However animals also have

supported will eventually decline and the thousands far between. These animals are specially adapted to to rely on the heightening of other senses, such as
of species living there will need to find a new home. living in this vast expanse of water, with streamlined smell or vibration to find a meal – or not become one.
In the clear, near-shore habitats that have cooler bodies, powerful muscles and clever camouflage. The abyssal plains and their alien-like inhabitants
temperatures, giant kelp forests make the most of the Deeper still, the seabed continues to drop through are interrupted by mountainous scores through the
sublittoral light. Instead of roots, kelp has finger-like the bathyal and bathypelagic zones and then levels off seabed in the form of oceanic ridges. Ridges are
holdfasts that grip on to rocks on the ocean floor. The at the abyssal plain and abyssopelagic zone. Marine hotspots of tectonic activity, and also boast one of the
cool, oxygen- and nutrient-laden water provides an biologists know very little about the life that survives at most interesting marine habitats: hydrothermal vents.
environment where the kelp can thrive. And, in turn, and below these depths. What we do know is it’s icy Hundreds of clam, mussel, shrimp, tubeworm and
the expansive forests provide food and shelter for fish, cold, pitch black and the staggering pressure would snail species populate the large chimneys that spew
seals, jellyfish and sea otters, among others. crush any air in the swim bladders of regular fish. out magma-heated, mineral-rich waters from the
As the continental slope begins to increase, the But deep-sea varieties have bodies that are made Earth’s crust. Chemicals dissolved in the vent waters
ever-deeper water provides new niches to fill. The mostly of water. Muscles are more gelatinous with less form the basis of the food chain in lieu of sunlight.
epipelagic zone is the upper sunlit layer of the open protein, meaning a slower pace of life is essential. These environments are totally different to those
ocean and this habitat bears a stark contrast to the Helpfully this saves energy in a deep-sea organism, as found in shallower waters hundreds of metres above.
species-rich environments of the littoral and food is often scarce. Another strange yet beautiful They are a prime example of how marine life is capable
sublittoral zones. Many large, ocean-going species are adaptation of animals in deeper habitats is of flourishing under some of the most extreme
found here, such as cetaceans like whales and bioluminescence. In the case of the anglerfish it is used conditions, and proof that the creatures which live in
dolphins, invertebrates such as jellyfish and large fish to lure prey; others use their flashing lights to attract a the ocean truly are masters of adaptation.

From surface to seabed

Explore the types of ocean ecosystem and see
how their inhabitants have adapted to them Pelagic species
Animals which live in
the open ocean have
streamlined bodies,
powerful swimming
muscles and often
camouflaged bodies to
Earth’s landscapes

afford them protection.


Open ocean
The sunlit top layer of the
open ocean offers minimal
nutrients and so is often
called the ‘marine desert’.

Sandy habitats
Animals which live
here are masters of
Coral reef camouflage, such as
Bright coral rays and other flatfish
species live in that blend into the
shallow water background to hide
with plenty of from predators.
light so symbiotic
algae can easily
5 TOP Plankton
1 Phytoplankton (algae) and
zooplankton (tiny animals) 2
Carnivores keep the food web
in check and regulate the
3 These microscopic
decomposers are as vital as 4
As well as microscopic algae,
larger algal species as well as
5 Usually animals such as small
fish graze on plants and algae.

provide food for many animals.
Larvae drift in zooplankton to
distribute species, phytoplankton
is the base of all marine food webs.
populations of their prey.
Without top predators, an
opportunistic species could
take over an ecosystem.
any bigger animal. They
convert dead organic matter
back into nutrients that are
then made available to plants.
marine plants are crucial. They
get energy from the Sun and
photosynthesise to provide an
entire ecosystem with food.
They are prey for carnivores
that then feed the apex
predators. A few mammals like
manatees are herbivores too.

DID YOU KNOW? Giant kelp that forms huge forests in shallow, sunlit waters can grow up to 30cm (12in) per day

Life in the dark

developed strong defence

living here has to cope with the

Life around hydrothermal

Vent communities

off the Earth’s geothermal

Many species here have

mechanisms, such as the

stinging power of the jellyfish.

Sunlight disappears
Defensive weapons

(3,280ft), so every organism

vents, or smokers, survives

energy instead of sunlight.

dark and cold. Many have
evolved larger eyes and/or use
bioluminescence in order to see.
completely before 1,000m

balances on fin rays above the

sludge and feels vibrations to
sense nearby food or danger.
In the dark, the tripod fish
Animal adaptation

Abyssopelagic zone
Food is scarce in the deep;

Bathypelagic zone
Mesopelagic zone

feed on scraps of dead

Dinner at depth
many benthic species

matter that fall down

from waters above.

© DK Images; Thinkstock

Earth’s landscapes

Hydrothermal vents
Find out how these oceanic hot springs form and why sealife depends on them
The deep ocean is one of the No one knows how many vents exist. The
harshest places to live on our planet deep ocean is largely unexplored by humans – How smokers work
– cold, dark and with pressures up the first vents were photographed by Learn why volcanic vents create chimneys
to 250 times greater than on land. unmanned research submersibles. The vents and colourful smoke in the ocean depths
When scientists discovered the first cool after a few years or decades as new ocean
hydrothermal vent in 1977, they were amazed crust moves outwards from the mid-ocean Smoke plume
to see heaps of clamshells clinging to it and ridges by 6-18 centimetres (2.4-7 inches) per The dissolved minerals
large colonies of shrimp. year. New vents are quickly colonised by form a cloud of particles
when hot water is chilled
Volcanic, or hydrothermal, vents (also called bacteria, which live in deep-sea rocks and by deep-ocean water.
smokers) are similar to hot springs on land, but water in small numbers.
sit around 2,100 metres (7,000 feet) beneath the Since vents were discovered, they’ve been
ocean surface. Superheated water spews out of found in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, in the
cracks in the seabed forming plumes of mid-Atlantic and the Arctic. Species vary
mineral particles that look like smoke. Fragile between vents. In the Atlantic Ocean, for
chimneys of minerals up to ten metres (33 feet) example, there are no worms, clams nor
high form around the plumes and can grow mussels, but many white shrimp.
upwards at 30 centimetres (12 inches) a day.
Temperatures vary between two degrees
Celsius (35.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in the deep
ocean to above boiling point around the
vents. The water is heated by molten
rock close to the seabed. Cracks and hot
rocks are found at rifts where vast tectonic
plates that make up Earth’s crust are slowly
moving apart. New ocean crust is created
in the gaps between plates.

Superheated water erupts

through cracks in the
Earth’s crust near oceanic
ridges and rifts

Upper crust
The ocean floor is Water spews out
spreading apart at Seawater erupts to the
mid-ocean ridges and rifts. seabed as plumes of
As a result new ocean mineral-rich fluid that can
crust is constantly forming billow 200m (650ft) into
which fills in the gap. the ocean above.

5 TOP Vent tube worm
1 These bizarre red-and-white
worms can be two metres (six
Pompeii worm
2 These bristle-covered worms
can survive in hotter conditions
Vent crab
3 Adult vent crabs have eyesight
similar to military night-vision
Vent shrimp
4 These blind invertebrates have
simple light detectors on their
Scaly-foot gastropod
5 The metal scales protecting
these snails from crab attack

feet) tall and have no mouth or
stomach. They rely on bacteria
living inside them to convert
chemicals into food.
than any other animal. They live
inside vent chimneys, where it’s
over 80 degrees Celsius (176
degrees Fahrenheit)!
goggles to help them see at
ocean depths of 2.7 kilometres
(1.7 miles). They are the top
predators around vents.
backs instead of eyes, which
may work like infrared heat
vision to help them spot
glowing vents in the gloom.
are unique – other snails have
soft, slimy feet. Their body
armour could inspire designs
of motorcycles or flak jackets.

DID YOU KNOW? There may be hydrothermal vents that could support alien life beneath an ocean on Jupiter’s moon Europa

Black smoker
Black smokers gain their
colour from metals, which
Living without
form particles if the vent
water is 375°C (707°F).
The first life able to exist without energy from
sunlight was discovered around a black smoker
vent. Before then, scientists believed life in the
dark deep ocean survived by eating food scraps
that had fallen from shallower waters.
White smoker More than 300 species of shrimp, clams,
White smokers gain their predatory anemones and others live around
colour from silica and a vents – many unique – with around 35 new
white mineral called species discovered each year. All rely for food on
anhydrite. Their plumes are mats of white bacteria, which use poisonous
a cooler 250°C (482°F). hydrogen sulphide from vent water as fuel to
convert carbon dioxide and water into edible
carbohydrates. Some species, such as vent
worms, have bacteria living in their bodies. These
bacteria take the place of plants on the Earth’s
surface. When the vent cools, tiny organisms can
also eat the iron and sulphur inside the chimneys.

Water enters
Seawater seeps into cracks
opened by ocean floor
spreading. The water
penetrates kilometres deep
Vent chimney into the Earth’s crust.
Some minerals form a
crust around the smoke
plumes, building into solid Superheating explained
chimneys that can reach Water gushing from volcanic These high pressures
several metres high. vents can be four times squeeze water in volcanic
hotter than 100 degrees vents, stopping it expanding
Celsius (212 degrees when heated. When liquid
Minerals dissolved Fahrenheit) – the water boils into steam,
Superheated water approximate boiling point of molecules that were close
dissolves minerals in the water in your kettle. Yet it together absorb enough heat
rock as it passes through, doesn’t turn into steam… energy to fly off in different
including sulphur which The reason for this is the directions. But these huge