Out in the hot desert grasslands, there are mysterious circles that have been causing wonder in the scientific world for decades. These circles can be spread out miles long in the desert grasslands and have been known to be as large as 50 feet in diameter. They are large circular portions of bare ground that are encircled by plants, known as fairy circles, found mostly in Namibia, Africa and have recently been seen in Australia.
The fairy circles in Namibia have been studied by scientists since the 1920s, and it was only in 2014 that the fairy circles in Western Australia were first discovered. Since the 1920s scientists have been confused on what exactly causes these odd circles to form. There have been various theories: carbon monoxide being released from the bottom of the ground, plants have released a poison that has affected that portion of the ground, termites have destroyed everything in that patch, or according to African tour guides, a dragon’s stinky breath has caused them to form. But a group of scientists believe that they have finally figured out the reasoning behind these circles.
A group of researchers including Dr. Stephan Getzin of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany worked together to study the dirt of the Australian fairy circles. They feel that these circles are caused by a lack of water. They believe that when a bare piece of soil dries out and is exposed to the sun, the sun will harden the ground into a thick crust. When rain falls onto this crust, it does not enter the soil, but instead rolls off to the edges or evaporates into the air. Towards the edges of this crust, the water will be absorbed because the plants that surround it do not allow the dirt to get as hard from the sun. Over time as conditions change, the fairy circles get smaller or bigger.
Since these studies were done on the Australian fairy circles, Getzin shared that this process may vary a bit for those circles located in Namibia because the soil there is sandier in texture, but both locations need water for the fairy circles to form. "The details of this mechanism are different to that in Australia. But it produces the same vegetation pattern because both systems of gaps are triggered by the same instability," stated Getzin. The team also believes that there are more fairy circles in other parts of the world that have not yet been discovered. If their research is all correct and fairy circles are linked to shortages of water, then they should be found in other desert areas. Perhaps there will be more discoveries of fairy circles in areas closer to us, and we will be able to witness these unique phenomena for ourselves. In the meantime, for those of us who are not scientists or world explorers, we have the ability to use Google Earth to view them, just type in Namibia or Western Australia to get your fairy circle fill.
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