These bizarre circles have baffled scientists for years. Now we may know what they are.

See these weird circles? Do you know what they are?

Image from Thorsten Becker/Wikimedia Commons.


They're big, circular patches of bare ground surrounded by plants. When I say big, I mean big — they can get up to 50 feet in diameter and can be seen for miles along desert grasslands.

They're called fairy circles.

A fairy circle in Namibia. Image from Thorsten Becker/Wikimedia Commons.

"Ohhhh it's fairies! Case closed!" you might be saying.

But, no, I'm sorry. As much as we all love Tinker Bell, fairies just aren't an accepted scientific hypothesis, no matter how much we'd like them to be.

Fairy circles only appear in certain, special places like Namibia. But recently, they've been spotted in Australia.

Image from Kevin Sanders/UFZ.

Scientists have known about Namibia's fairy circles since about the 1920s. But as of 2014, we know they appear in the dry, remote Pilbara region of Western Australia, too.

(If you want to have a bit of fun, they're visible on Google Earth in Namibia and in Western Australia.)

Fairy circles have baffled scientists for a long time.

Image from Stephan Getzin/Wikimedia Commons.

Some people thought they might have been created by termites, or carbon monoxide from deep within the Earth, or plants poisoning the ground. Tour guides in Africa have apparently been telling people it's because of a mythical dragon's incredibly awful breath.

But one idea seems pretty promising: It has to do with water, or a lack thereof.

Dr. Stephan Getzin of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany and other colleagues analyzed the soil in the Australian circles.

Here's what they think happens:

When a bare, plant-less patch of soil dries out, the sun bakes it into a hard, impenetrable crust. Once the crust is formed, any rain that does fall on it either runs out to the edges or just evaporates. At the edges, however, the plants prevent the soil from baking as much, so the water drains into the dirt.


Image from Stephan Getzin/UFZ.

It's a kind of natural balancing act. Over time, these circles naturally grow and shrink as conditions change.

Getzin did caution that the process in Namibia may be different, however, because Namibia has a different, sandier kind of soil, but that fairy circles in both areas depend on water to form.

"The details of this mechanism are different to that in Australia," Getzin explains in a press release. "But it produces the same vegetation pattern because both systems of gaps are triggered by the same instability."

Getzin believes more undiscovered fairy circles may lie in other remote parts of the world.

If he is right and these fairy circles really are tied to water shortages and cycles, it's possible that these magical circles will spring up in other dry, desert areas as climate change alters weather patterns.

It's just a cool reminder about how much there is still left to discover in the world around us and how much we can learn about what the Earth is telling us about its needs if we just know how to understand the signs.

Heroes
via James Anderson

Two years ago, a tweet featuring the invoice for a fixed boiler went viral because the customer, a 91-year-old woman with leukemia, received the services for free.

"No charge for this lady under any circumstances," the invoice read. "We will be available 24 hours to help her and keep her as comfortable as possible."

The repair was done by James Anderson, 52, a father-of-five from Burnley, England. "James is an absolute star, it was overwhelming to see that it cost nothing," the woman's daughter told CNN.

Keep Reading Show less
Heroes

I live in a family with various food intolerances. Thankfully, none of them are super serious, but we are familiar with the challenges of finding alternatives to certain foods, constantly checking labels, and asking restaurants about their ingredients.

In our family, if someone accidentally eats something they shouldn't, it's mainly a bit of inconvenient discomfort. For those with truly life-threatening food allergies, the stakes are much higher.

I can't imagine the ongoing stress of deadly allergy, especially for parents trying to keep their little ones safe.

Keep Reading Show less
LUSH

Handmade cosmetics company Lush is putting its money where its mouth is and taking a bold step for climate change action.

On September 20 in the U.S. and September 27 in Canada, Lush will shut the doors of its 250 shops, e-commerce sites, manufacturing facilities, and headquarters for a day, in solidarity with the Global Climate Strike taking place around the world. Lush is encouraging its 5000+ employees "to join this critical movement and take a stand until global leaders are forced to face the climate crisis and enact change."

Keep Reading Show less
Planet
Photo by Annie Bolin on Unsplash

Recent tragic mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton have sparked a lot of conversation and action on the state level over the issue of gun control. But none may be as encouraging as the most recent one, in which 145 CEOs signed a letter urging the U.S. Senate to take action at their level.

Keep Reading Show less
popular