IT DOESN’T MATTER whether or not you’ve actually witnessed aurora borealis firsthand — you’ve got an idea of what it looks like: undulating cloud-waves of translucent electricity ebbing and flowing like some spiritual, atmospheric river.
Could your great-grandfather have imagined the same?
Technological innovation has given us so much utility, but perhaps one of its least considered contributions is its ability to transform our imagination, revealing to us that which we are otherwise unable to see. The photograph, the moving picture, broadcast television, the internet, data storage — this string of technology has enabled us to alter our preconceptions of what is possible in nature, and thus reality, even without us having witnessed it firsthand.
Here are nine other incredible natural phenomena you likely couldn’t have even imagined 100 years ago but, thanks to technology, you can now.
1. Fire devils
You may have seen tornadoes. Or waterspouts. But the fire devil — a brief tornado occurring when a column of wind rises during a fire storm — is something you’ve likely never imagined possible. In this video, a fire devil tears a Tasman Devil-esque trail across a patch of land before dispersing, looking like some kind of magic plucked out of Middle Earth.
Until 2011′s Frozen Planet, no one had ever seen the full formation of a brinicle, or as many have come to know it, the “Icy Finger of Death.” What’s happening here is a flow of saline water becoming frozen as it plunges further into the ocean, and as it falls, freezing, encapsulates everything around it within.
To witness something like this requires an unfathomable amount of technology — deep sea submersibles, incredibly tough, high-definition cameras, not to mention enough battery and data to wait through days of idle ocean time.
3. Surfing Pororoca
Imagine surfing a single wave over 7.5 miles for 37 minutes. That’s exactly what Picuruta Salazar did in 2003 when he set the record for the longest continual wave surfed at Pororoca — a rare, surfable tidal wave that occurs deep in the Amazon.
As the video above shows, just getting to this place is difficult, much less surfing it and showcasing it to the world. Would Duke Kahanamoku have believed this was possible without seeing it — much less the 18th century Polynesians who pioneered the sport?
4. Electromagnetic fields
Electromagnetic fields. Obviously, you have one. And perhaps even more obviously, you can’t see it. But in the video above, a team of NASA scientists have used collected data and CGI imaging to render a video that attempts to reveal the “secret world” of electromagnetic fields.
While not necessarily an actual, real-world revelation, the technology at hand gives us a glimpse at a part of the world constantly moving and flowing around us — interacting, changing — but that we never consider because we do not see.
5. Birds of Paradise
To film the elusive Bird of Paradise’s mating dance, it took three separate trips to Papua New Guinea. A cameraman spent 14 hours per day, every day, hiding and waiting for a single shot. Whether or not it paid off — you be the judge.
But as you judge — as you consider whether this conceivably arbitrary animal’s mating dance was worth the amount of trouble — consider whether or not this would have ever been possible 100 years ago. Certainly, the technology for capturing this on high-def video didn’t exist. But neither did the ability to support an individual hiding out in the jungle for so long, both mentally and physically.
Chromatophores are “pigment-containing and light-reflecting cells…largely responsible for generating skin and eye colour in cold-blooded animals and are generated in the neural crest during embryonic development.” Or, in layman’s terms: the cells that give living things their color. And while their effects are something we see every day, being able to observe their actual process of actualization has never been seen — until now.
The video above reveals the hypnotic “dance” that the muscle-controlled pigment cells of squids use to help blend into their surroundings like a chameleon. 100 years ago, we’d have had no idea how this process works. Now, we not only understand, but also can appreciate the process in and of itself through mesmerizing videos such as these.
7. True plate tectonics
The picture above isn’t actually a picture taken with a camera from space, but a graphical representation of a set of data. Nonetheless, technology has now given us the power to give a visual component to the data sets which previously only existed in spreadsheets and notebooks — and in this case, it’s not only beautiful, but even more enlightening.
By highlighting the exact spots where the Earth has experienced earthquakes, we gain a better understanding of what our planet is made of, along with the idea that to know the world as being a body of water with many large land masses does not even (pardon the pun) scratch the surface.
8. Criminal penguins
Some of the greatest natural phenomena in the world are not atmospheric abnormalities or strange occurrences over time, but simply the way animal life behaves and shows its motives and tactics for survival. The video above, which shows an Adelie penguin thieving another penguin’s children, would have never been possible 100 years ago.
To spend four months camping out in the Antarctic with so much technical equipment requires not only modern technology for capturing such a phenomena, but also a support network capable of ensuring that the journalists on site are taken care of.
9. The secret world of slow motion
Who knew what wonders awaited the human eye if only we could see the world at 2,564 frames per second? The natural processes we see every day, but miss, seemed to become revealed instantaneously with the advent of the Phantom Camera, seen above.
The way light smoothly reflects and disappears off a slowly-spinning coin. The way those coins appear momentarily weightless, thrown up from gravity’s grasp. The way water falls apart and together, as one continuous yet separate entity. And how those water droplets cling to one another until the very end, and then jump away when it’s time to depart. Witnessing the world in this way gives the inanimate world a personality.
****This post is brought to you in partnership between Matador and our friends at Intel, whose technology enables so much of the lifestyle in which we thrive. Join us in the conversation on Twitter with #IntelAlwaysOn
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Jason Wire graduated from Vanderbilt University in 2010 and spent the year after writing and teaching English in Spain. He's back in the states now, but doesn't know where. Follow him @wirejr.
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