Debunked naturally occurring phenomena
July 31, 2022 10:20 AM   Subscribe

Is there a term for this? I am specifically NOT seeking hoaxes. I'd like to read more about natural anomalies that look super weird (done by aliens, etc) but have been explained by science. Things like the sailing stones in Death Valley and the face on Mars. Physical sciences more so than life sciences (I'm satisfied on cryptids for now).

In lieu of a search term or pre existing list of these things, maybe you can name some more?
posted by phunniemee to Science & Nature (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
The canals on Mars come to mind.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:41 AM on July 31, 2022

The Al Naslaa rock in Saudi Arabia looks like it was split cleanly down the middle by human (or alien!) forces, but it is a natural formation.

The Baigong Pipes in China appear to be ancient rusted metal pipes embedded in stone by an extinct advanced civilization (or aliens!). They are a natural formation.

Fields of "singing stones" have been found in various places in the world, usually with a story of their otherworldy origins attached. However, they are volcanic, not supernatural, in origin.
posted by erst at 10:46 AM on July 31, 2022 [3 favorites]

"Gravity Hills" are locations that appear to defy the laws of physics, where objects will roll uphill. Many have ghost stories around them, usually along the lines of a ghost pushing your car out of danger. They are optical illusions.

The Marfa Lights in Texas have been attributed to UFOs, ghosts, or will-o-the-wisps, but science says they are reflections of campfires and car headlights. Atmospheric Ghost Light locations can be found worldwide.
posted by erst at 10:53 AM on July 31, 2022 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure if this fits exactly, but maybe spontaneous human combustion.

(Side note: While looking for a link I ran across a surprising question that was Googled enough times that it was on a bulleted list of related Google questions: "Can you feel pain during cremation?")
posted by Glinn at 11:12 AM on July 31, 2022 [2 favorites]

Can't come up with a good term either, but for a good review and explanation of a bunch of them try Maybe he has a good umbrella term.
posted by charlesminus at 11:46 AM on July 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

No term but another example: rows of trees deep in the forest, "untouched by man," that grow in completely straight lines. It's because a tree fell a long time ago, started rotting, and provided nice fertilized soil for other trees to grow. It's called a nurse log. But it really does look like someone was planting straight lines of trees hundreds and hundreds of years ago.
posted by spisspisspis at 12:08 PM on July 31, 2022 [5 favorites]

I would say ball lightning is currently in the process of making a transition from 4+ generations of derision from scientists and professional observers (noted storm chaser Pecos Hank recently said that people who claim it exists are fools or charlatans, for example) at the idea it's even possible, to cautiously open minded exploration and theoretical consideration.

The comments below the linked video are fascinating whether or not a person is inclined to believe ball lightning exists, in my opinion.
posted by jamjam at 12:52 PM on July 31, 2022 [4 favorites]

Rogue waves were long considered a sailor's yarn. However, their existence has documented by satellite imagery and buoy telemetry.
posted by SPrintF at 1:27 PM on July 31, 2022 [2 favorites]

Herodotus probably has a couple of these. This may veer too close to cryptids but his much-maligned story of "giant gold-digging ants" may have been a misunderstanding referring instead to burrowing marmots. His Histories had so many wild, unconfirmed stories that many proceeded into myth, and since have been found to have reasonable explanations.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 1:57 PM on July 31, 2022

Fairy rings have been established to be an odd but natural growth pattern of fungi, and nothing to do with fairies.
posted by vincebowdren at 2:59 PM on July 31, 2022 [3 favorites]

Maybe too close to cryptid territory, but the Flying Dutchman is almost certainly a mirage phenomenon.

I personally like the green flash but am not aware of any particular mythology around it.
posted by backseatpilot at 4:01 PM on July 31, 2022 [2 favorites]

northern lights (aurora borealis) and southern lights (aurora australis): form when solar particles collide with Earth’s upper atmosphere. Larger solar storms cause a greater influx of particles, which can cause auroras to reach lower latitudes and appear to a greater number of observers. The colors of the aurora are determined by which gases are excited by the solar plasma.
Science of will-o'-the-wisp phenomena
Bioluminescence (foxfire, glowing waves/shorelines)
Superseded theories in science: This list catalogs well-accepted theories in science and pre-scientific natural philosophy and natural history which have since been superseded by scientific theories.

posted by Iris Gambol at 4:29 PM on July 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

Out of place artifacts might have some of what you want.

Also, "Geofacts," or "geological artifacts"

And patterned ground is a fun one too, especially the pebble rings!

Fossils in general have always had lots of folklore built up around them. Deposits of fossilized shark teeth in Malta were commonly thought to be the petrified tongues of land animals. Before plate tectonics became known, people didn't really know how seashells or shark teeth could end up 13,000 feet up in the Andes, or 25,000 feet up in the Himalayas. So, ironically, many naturalists who worked centuries ago thought that marine-type fossils were actually inorganic precipitations, i.e. weird minerals. While in the modern day, people are inclined to think that inorganic croncretions like the Klerksdorp spheres are signs of life.

The Lake Bonneville flood boulder deposits are also quite interesting. It was a riddle: here is a field of erratic boulders resting in the Snake River Canyon. They are all somewhat rounded and worn, they did not weather in situ, and here's the really weird part, they are all roughly the same size. It turns out the thing that put them there was the outburst flood that drained glacial Lake Bonneville during the retreat of the North American glaciers: a flood that lasted a few days or weeks and, at its peak, had a discharge nearly equal to the summed discharge of every river in the world. It ripped those boulders out of the bedrock, tumbled away their sharp edges, and neatly deposited them downstream. The larger boulders came to rest farther upstream, the smaller ones were carried farther downstream, and these boulders were sorted as they came to ground.

Another meteorological phenomenon that come to mind is Saint Elmo's Fire.
posted by cubeb at 4:32 PM on July 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

Maybe the Norber Erratics as a sample of such things? A group of glacial erratic boulders are improbably balanced on white limestone pedestals.
posted by hilaryjade at 5:38 PM on July 31, 2022

"Fortean phenomena" is what I would look for. It covers a lot of stuff but weird climate and geological stuff is how it all got started back in the 20th Century.

Charles Fort was a man who obsessively collected newspaper stories about strange things like rains of frogs and fish or what have you. Here's a story about red rain in Kerala.

There's a specialist magazine called The Fortean Times I read regularly. It's hard to find now and the website sucks so but there are numerous sites about his works and the continued study of weird phenomena.

The thing to keep in mind about Forteans is that they collect everything and explain very little so they report black rain and fairy rings and UFO abductions equally. You'll have to sort the wheat from the chaff.
posted by fiercekitten at 7:25 PM on July 31, 2022

Modern science explains folk science. Folk Science (2006 Scientific American column by's Michael Shermer); The Feasibility of Folk Science (2010)
posted by Iris Gambol at 7:46 PM on July 31, 2022

Seconding the Fortean Times recommendation -- if it's hard to find in the US, you can subscribe, and they ship worldwide!
posted by Orkney Vole at 4:03 AM on August 1, 2022

When I was a kid, we were not allowed to go swimming for an hour after eating for fear of cramps.

Malaria was so named because it was thought to be caused by bad air. I'm sure there were many incorrect theories about disease before the discovery of germs.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:07 AM on August 1, 2022

This may or may not qualify but: Pufferfish Mating Ritual. According to Wikipedia, "The geometric circles had first been noticed by divers in 1995, but it was not discovered that they were created by white-spotted pufferfish until 2013 when the species was discovered in the Ryukyu Islands."
posted by carpyful at 12:05 PM on August 9, 2022

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