From salt flats to coral reefs, water has shaped the planet in extraordinary ways

When news broke that streaks and slope lines on the surface of Mars might have been caused by water, it revitalized discussion about whether the Red Planet could also be sustaining some forms of life. It also inspired us to take a look some 37 million miles closer to home to spotlight some of the most extraordinary sights and sites on Earth … all made possible thanks to good old H20.

1. SALAR DE UYUNI, BOLIVIA

When Bolivia’s prehistoric Lago Minchín evaporated (sometime between 40,000 and 25,000 years ago), it left the world’s largest salt flat—more than 4,500 square miles, bigger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. The region’s called a salt flat for a reason: After rainstorms, its level surface is so reflective that it has been used to calibrate satellite target systems.

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2. THE “CRYSTAL CAVES,” ICELAND

The glittering, aquamarine walls of the caves in Iceland’s Vatnajökull National Park were created over centuries, as pressure from moving glaciers compressed the air out of the ice and snow that fell on the surface. Taphephobics, beware: These caves crack—and sometimes collapse—as the glaciers move along at their, well, glacial pace.

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3. GREAT BARRIER REEF, AUSTRALIA

The world’s largest coral reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is roughly half the size of Texas, with a coast equal in length to the U.S. West Coast from Washington state down to Mexico. The temperate saltwater reef is home to about 600 types of corals, which are colonies of very small, translucent animals. (Their spectacular colors are thanks to the algae they set up house with.)

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4. THE GRAND CANYON, ARIZONA

Over the past 6 million years, the Colorado River in northern Arizona has carved out one of the deepest gorges on Earth—the Grand Canyon, one of the seven wonders of the natural world. On average, it’s 1 mile down, and a full 10 miles wide.

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5. ICEHOTEL, ICELAND

Unlike the Crystal Caves, this site gets a little help from mankind: Every year, builders and artists create a 5,500-square-foot hotel and art installation made almost entirely of ice, using water from the nearby Torne River. (The average room temperature? A brisk 21 degrees Fahrenheit.) Between 50,000 and 60,000 visitors trek north of the Arctic Circle each year to experience the site before it melts back into the ground in the spring. 

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6. REED FLUTE CAVE, CHINA

Trace minerals in dripping water built up to form the stalactites and stalagmites inside this limestone cavern near Guilin. It officially opened as a tourist attraction in 1962, but inscriptions inside date back as far 792 AD, meaning people have been visiting it for millennia. (Quick quiz: Which is which? Answer: Stalactites hang from the ceiling, while stalagmites rise from the floor.

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7. OLD FAITHFUL, YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK

About 17 times a day, the Old Faithful geyser belches out from 3,700 to 8,400 gallons of water, at up to 204 degrees Fahrenheit. The delay between eruptions depends on how long the last one lasted, which … nah, we’ll just tell you there’s an app to help you figure out when the geyser’s expected to blow next.

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8. THE EVERGLADES, FLORIDA

When Lake Okeechobee breaches its banks, the overflow meanders south to help sustain 2 million acres of cypress swamps, mangroves and a “river of grass” that’s home to more than 350 kinds of birds (it’s also heavy on the reptiles, including 26 species of snakes and both alligators and crocodiles).

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9. THE MOSI-OA-TUNYA/VICTORIA FALLS, ZAMBIA/ZIMBABWE

Sorry, Niagara—you’re not even close to The Mosi-oa-Tunya/Victoria Falls when it comes to sheer size, because these African falls are a mile wide and a half-mile tall. At peak season, more than 132 billion gallons of water rush over the falls … every minute.

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10. LAKE BAIKAL, SIBERIA

You’ve probably never heard of the deepest lake in the world, which contains more water than all five U.S. Great Lakes combined. Lake Baikal is at its most spectacular when it freezes over and uneven pressure forces giant crystalline shards of ice called “hummocks” to thrust up from the surface—sometimes up to 50 feet in the air. Sounds like the perfect site for an evil lair in a sci-fi blockbuster!

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