The World's Greatest Geological Wonders: 36 Spectacular Sites

Course No. 1712
Professor Michael E. Wysession, Ph.D.
Washington University in St. Louis
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What Will You Learn?

  • Learn the science behind erosion, plate tectonics, volcanic eruptions, and other spectacular geological processes.
  • Visit geological sites around the world that feature some of the exciting geological phenomenon you'll learn about.
  • From deserts to river deltas to fjords, travel the globe to visit our planet's most fantastic geological features.
  • Get helpful tips on other attractions you can find when you visit the professor's list of recommended geological sites.

Course Overview

Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Mount Fuji, the Galapagos Islands. These natural wonders are on everyone’s list of must-see attractions that are both spectacular and geologically fascinating. But what of Ha Long Bay, the Columbia Glacier, Erta Ale lava lake, and the Great Blue Hole? They also belong on the list, along with more than 200 other sites, both famous and obscure, that are well worth a visit to see breathtaking vistas combined with the grandeur of geological forces in action.

Shaped by erosion, plate tectonics, volcanic eruptions, and other processes over the course of billions of years, Earth is a planet of immense variety. Impressive geological scenes are everywhere. But only a select few—whether astonishing valleys, mountains, waterfalls, or other formations—qualify as geological wonders that are not only memorable and worth a special trip, but that also tell us something profound about the way the world works.

For example, consider these lesser-known but awe-inspiring places:

  • Ha Long Bay: Thousands of limestone towers soar upward out of this bay of mystery and beauty in Vietnam. The formation is what geologists call a karst landscape, sculpted from the slow dissolution of soluble rock by rain and groundwater.
  • Columbia Glacier: One of the most intensively studied glaciers in the world, this magnificent river of ice twists its way for 50 kilometers from Alaska’s coastal range into the sea. Such glaciers advance and retreat for unknown reasons.
  • Erta Ale: In rare cases, lava from a volcano will continuously feed into the volcanic crater and bubble away like a seething caldron. Of the five active lava lakes in the world, the longest running is in a volcano called Erta Ale in Ethiopia.
  • Great Blue Hole: What could cause a nearly perfect circle of intensely deep blue water in the middle of a shallow reef? The Caribbean’s Great Blue Hole tells a surprising story of repeated glaciations and rising and falling seas.

Whether you are planning your next vacation or exploring the world from home, you owe it to your planet to know the places that make it exceptional throughout the solar system. The World’s Greatest Geological Wonders: 36 Spectacular Sites is your gateway to an unrivaled adventure. In 36 lavishly illustrated half-hour lectures that are suitable for nonscientists and geology enthusiasts alike, Professor Michael E. Wysession of Washington University in St. Louis introduces you to Earth’s most outstanding geological destinations.

During more than three decades as an award-winning teacher and geophysicist, Professor Wysession has traveled the globe, getting to know Earth’s most intriguing geological formations. In The World’s Greatest Geological Wonders, he focuses on the leading contenders in 36 categories, from deserts to river deltas to fossil quarries to fjords. After touring his top choice in detail, he presents at least four runners-up that are every bit as spectacular. By the time you complete this course, you will have experienced more than 200 different geological wonders in nearly 120 countries.

Prepare to Be Surprised

Geological wonders impress us for many reasons. They are exceptionally beautiful or mysterious. They relate to us on a practical level, cutting a natural route through a mountain range or providing a source of valuable minerals. They may have played a role in human history, such as the picturesque Greek island of Santorini, which is the remnant of a volcano that erupted in ancient times, possibly ending the Minoan civilization. Natural wonders also teach us about Earth’s interconnected systems, and they put time into perspective. A million years is nothing in the life story of a canyon, a cave, or a continental rift.

Moreover, great landscapes, like great works of art, surprise us:

  • Grand Canyon: No one is prepared for that first glimpse of the Grand Canyon, which suddenly appears as a breathtaking series of chasms in a seemingly featureless plateau. Which raises the question: Why is there a deep canyon here at all?
  • Himalayas: If you go to the top of Mount Everest, you will find marine limestone with fossils. In other words, the roof of the world is made of rocks that came from the bottom of sea! Nothing better demonstrates the power of Earth to move crustal plates.
  • Amazon basin: The Amazon is a river of superlatives. At the point where it drains into the Atlantic Ocean it contains as much water as the next seven largest rivers combined. Twenty percent of the fresh water entering the ocean comes from this mighty river basin.
  • Hawaii: The big island of Hawaii is not only the biggest volcano on Earth; it’s the biggest mountain on Earth of any kind. Measured from its base on the sea floor, it is almost twice as high as the tallest land mountain.

Fire up Your Imagination!

As part of your grand tour, Professor Wysession often gives tips on side trips and other attractions you can find when you visit one of the sites on his list. He also gives cultural background. For example, many geological wonders, such as Mount Fuji in Japan and Ayres Rock in Australia, have long been considered sacred to the people who live in their vicinity. Other locations may seem at first glance to be overwhelmed by hotels, shops, and other tourist amenities. But most of these sites are so vast that it’s not hard to escape into pure nature. And in all cases, if you know the story behind the place that you’re visiting, then just being there, even for a short time, is an experience never to be forgotten.

The World’s Greatest Geological Wonders takes you to stunning locales that spark your imagination. One of the top wonders in anyone’s book is Yellowstone National Park, located primarily in Wyoming. The geysers, bubbling hot springs, and colorful geological formations are awe-inspiring to behold. Even more awesome is the knowledge that nearly the whole park is an enormous volcanic crater, sitting atop a massive, active magma chamber that could erupt at any time. A look at a map of North America shows that the continent has been slowly drifting across a hotspot in Earth’s mantle, which has been responsible for a whole series of “Yellowstones” over the course of millions of years.

The course also probes questions such as these:

  • Why do waterfalls form? Standing at the dazzling Iguazu Falls along the border of Brazil and Argentina, you may wonder why such features are so rare, since rivers and cliffs are common. Learn that the distinctive structure of the rock beneath a river determines whether falls will form.
  • Why does nature prefer hexagons? On close inspection, Devils Tower in Wyoming is made up of hexagonal columns of volcanic rock. Probe the connection between this geological feature and the cells of a honeycomb or the tiles on a bathroom floor.
  • Are meteor craters always circular? Meteor Crater in Arizona is nearly circular, as are most of the countless craters on the moon—even those formed by meteors that strike at low angles. Investigate the amazing physics of an object impacting at escape-velocity speed.
  • Where are the still undiscovered natural wonders? All of the spectacular geological formations on the surface of Earth have been found. But underground, dramatic caves wait to be discovered. Explore an exceptional example that recently came to light in Mexico.

Professor Wysession winds up the course with a tour of geological wonders on other planets, as Earth is not alone in having impressive volcanoes, canyons, and other attractions. But Earth’s combination of plate tectonics, flowing water, a relatively dense atmosphere, and life has created formations that are unique in the solar system. Take advantage of The World’s Greatest Geological Wonders to discover what makes our planet so spectacular. There’s truly no place like home!

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36 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    Santorini—Impact of Volcanic Eruptions
    Learn Professor Wysession’s criteria for choosing more than 200 different geologic wonders in nearly 120 countries. Then explore the first on his list: the beautiful Greek island of Santorini, which is the relic of a volcanic eruption that had a profound effect on the ancient Mediterranean world. x
  • 2
    Mount Fuji—Sleeping Power
    Turn from eruptions to volcanoes themselves—in particular, Mount Fuji in Japan, a sacred site whose nearly perfect cone shape is a popular subject in Japanese art. Investigate the origin of volcanoes such as Mount Fuji and the special conditions that produce their sturdy symmetrical cones. x
  • 3
    Galapagos Rift—Wonders of Mid-Ocean Ridges
    Continue your study of phenomena associated with plate tectonics by visiting the Galapagos Islands, made famous by Charles Darwin. This magnificent archipelago is on a volcanic hotspot near a mid-ocean ridge, formed by moving tectonic plates. Natural wonders abound in the region, both above and below water. x
  • 4
    African Rift Valley—Cracks into the Earth
    Visit the African Rift Valley, a mid-ocean ridge in the making. From the Red Sea to Mount Kilimanjaro, tectonic forces are splitting Africa apart, forming a new ocean in the process. This impressive valley is also the site of many fossil discoveries relating to early humans. x
  • 5
    Erta Ale—Compact Fury of Lava Lakes
    Zoom in on a remarkable feature of the African Rift Valley: the lava lake at Erta Ale in Ethiopia. This seething cauldron of molten rock is the oldest of the world’s five active lava lakes, and it replicates on a small scale the complex process of plate tectonics. x
  • 6
    Burgess Shale—Rocks and the Keys to Life
    Chart the evolution of life revealed in the extraordinary fossils of the Burgess Shale in British Columbia. This mountainside quarry records the proliferation of new organisms—both familiar and bizarre—that followed a mass extinction half a billion years ago. x
  • 7
    The Grand Canyon—Earth’s Layers
    Read the incredible story told in the mile-deep layers of the Grand Canyon. Investigate the canyon’s formation and its connection to the opening of the Gulf of California and the birth of the San Andreas Fault. Also consider what gives the canyon its extraordinary visual effect. x
  • 8
    The Himalayas—Mountains at Earth’s Roof
    What makes the highest mountains in the world so high? Follow the events that created Mount Everest and the rest of the Himalayan range on the vast Tibetan Plateau. Learn the role of the plateau in cooling the entire planet over the last 60 million years. x
  • 9
    The Ganges Delta—Earth’s Fertile Lands
    Much of the rock eroded from the Himalayas ends up in the Ganges River delta, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. Learn how a delta forms and how the Ganges is both life-sustaining and destructive—qualities that give it a religious significance for millions of people. x
  • 10
    The Amazon Basin—Lungs of the Planet
    The Amazon River collects rainfall from a huge region, called the Amazon basin. Trace the basin’s extensive network of tributaries, which produce 20% of the fresh water that flows into the ocean. Furthermore, the basin’s lush vegetation is responsible for 20% of all oxygen in the atmosphere. x
  • 11
    Iguazu Falls—Thundering Waterfalls
    Waterfalls are among nature’s most beautiful spectacles, and the most impressive falls form under unusual geological conditions. Along the border of Brazil and Argentina, tour thundering Iguazu Falls, a display of 275 separate falls over a 1.5-mile span with individual falls up to 270 feet high. Learn their close connection to a hotspot on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. x
  • 12
    Mammoth Cave—Worlds Underground
    Water doesn’t just flow on the surface; it also flows underground, carving caves in the process. The largest cave system in the world is Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. Discover how groundwater excavated this network of passages that extends for at least 390 miles. x
  • 13
    Cave of Crystals—Exquisite Caves
    Focus on the spectacular shapes, such as stalagmites, stalactites, flowstones, and other cave features formed by minerals slowly precipitating from water. Then visit the recently discovered Cave of Crystals in Mexico, a science-fiction-like world with individual crystals up to 35 feet long. x
  • 14
    Great Blue Hole—Coastal Symmetry in Sinkholes
    Probe the mystery of the Great Blue Hole, an enormous submerged sinkhole ringed by a coral reef off the coast of Belize. Study the processes that create sinkholes, and investigate the nature of karst topography, which is produced by the erosion of limestone. x
  • 15
    Ha Long Bay—Dramatic Karst Landscapes
    The picturesque limestone islands in Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay are an example of mature karst topography. Discover how the bay’s cone-shaped towers are related to the sinkholes in Lecture 14. The key to understanding their puzzling geology is to focus not on the rock that’s there, but what’s missing. x
  • 16
    Bryce Canyon—Creative Carvings of Erosion
    Continue your study of erosional features with Utah’s Bryce Canyon, the densest display of weathered rock pinnacles, called hoodoos, anywhere in the world. Learn that Bryce Canyon isn’t really a canyon because it hasn’t been formed by a river. But then what created the hoodoos? x
  • 17
    Uluru/Ayers Rock—Sacred Nature of Rocks
    Go to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in Australia to inspect two popular attractions shaped by erosion: Ayres Rock, known locally as Uluru, and the Kata Tjuta rock domes. Trace the history of moving plates, rising and receding seas, and constant weathering that created these impressive structures. x
  • 18
    Devils Tower—Igneous Enigmas
    Famous as the landing pad for aliens in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Devils Tower in Wyoming is an otherworldly geological formation. Discover how this massive tower of igneous columns developed. Along the way, investigate why nature loves hexagons. x
  • 19
    Antarctica—A World of Ice
    Head south to a pristine, unearthly continent: Antarctica. Explore the varied geology and the complex behavior of the giant ice sheets that flow relentlessly toward the ocean. Among its attractions, Antarctica is a superb place to test techniques for exploring cold, dry environments such as Mars. x
  • 20
    Columbia Glacier—Unusual Glacier Cycles
    Witness the power of glaciers, which carry a continuous stream of ice and rock from the tops of mountain ranges down to the base—often to the sea, such as at Columbia Glacier in Alaska. Chart the rapid retreat of Columbia Glacier since 1980, which has been triggered by climate change. x
  • 21
    Fiordland National Park—Majestic Fjords
    Visit the stunning fjords of Fiordland National Park in New Zealand, focusing on the most famous of these flooded glacial valleys, Milford Sound. The drama of the landscape is matched by tumultuous tectonic forces that are slowly ripping New Zealand apart. x
  • 22
    Rock of Gibraltar—Catastrophic Floods
    The Rock of Gibraltar marks the gateway from the Mediterranean Sea into the Atlantic Ocean—a connection that has been closed on and off through recent geologic time. Explore the currents, catastrophic floods, and drastic sea-level changes that have occurred at the strait of Gibraltar and throughout the Mediterranean basin. x
  • 23
    Bay of Fundy—Inexorable Cycle of Tides
    Why are the tides in Canada’s Bay of Fundy exceptionally high? Probe the principles of tides—what causes them, why the times of high and low tide vary from day to day, and the peculiar geometry between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick that results in an extraordinary tidal range. x
  • 24
    Hawaii—Volcanic Island Beauty
    The Hawaiian Islands are part of the Hawaiian-Emperor Seamount Chain, which stretches 3,600 miles across the western Pacific Ocean. This feature is mostly straight, except for a curious sharp bend. Investigate the origin of the chain and the special qualities of its easternmost element: the big island of Hawaii. x
  • 25
    Yellowstone—Geysers and Hot Springs
    What happens when a hotspot is beneath a continent? The answer is Yellowstone National Park, a wonderland of geysers and hot springs nestled in the gigantic caldera of a supervolcano. Tour the attractions of Yellowstone, and ponder the history and future of the hotspot that fuels it. x
  • 26
    Kawah Ijen—World’s Most Acidic Lake
    Imagine a place where steam is so acidic that it burns your lungs, where flaming, liquid sulfur condenses from that steam, and a turquoise-colored lake is filled with the equivalent of battery acid. This hellish place is the crater lake of Kawah Ijen on the island of Java in Indonesia. x
  • 27
    Iceland—Where Fire Meets Ice
    Visit Iceland, a geologist’s paradise where you can walk along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Iceland is a hotspot that sits atop the plate boundary that divides North and South America from Europe and Africa. Here, volcanoes and glaciers—fire and ice—coexist. x
  • 28
    The Maldives—Geologic Paradox
    Home to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, the Maldives in the Indian Ocean show the tranquil end-stage of ocean islands built on hotspots. The volcanoes beneath this coral reef archipelago are long since dormant, and the islands themselves barely rise above sea level. x
  • 29
    The Dead Sea—Sinking and Salinity
    Begin a series of lectures on desert regions by exploring the Dead Sea. Learn why this body of water on the border between Israel and Jordan is almost nine times saltier than the ocean and has the lowest elevation of any place on Earth. x
  • 30
    Salar de Uyuni—Flattest Place on Earth
    Travel to the world’s largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. Almost the size of Connecticut, Uyuni is the flattest place on the planet. When it gets a very thin layer of water, it becomes the world’s largest mirror. Uyuni contains the world’s largest reserve of lithium—should it be mined? x
  • 31
    Namib/Kalahari Deserts—Sand Mountains
    Contrast two of the world’s most fascinating deserts, the Namib and Kalahari deserts in southern Africa. The Atlantic shoreline of the Namib Desert has been aptly named the Skeleton Coast. The Kalahari Desert includes the mighty Okavango River, which empties into the arid landscape and then disappears. x
  • 32
    Siwa Oasis—Paradise amidst Desolation
    Located in the eastern Sahara Desert, Siwa is an island of water in a giant sea of sand. Investigate how an oasis with 1,000 springs can exist in one of the driest places on Earth. One clue is that the water beneath Siwa soaked into the ground more than 20 million years ago. x
  • 33
    Auroras—Light Shows on the Edge of Space
    Investigate a stunning atmospheric phenomenon caused by events both inside Earth and in outer space. The shimmering colors of auroras result when particles from the solar wind are accelerated in Earth’s magnetic field, which is generated by Earth’s churning iron core. x
  • 34
    Arizona Meteor Crater—Visitors from Outer Space
    Meteor Crater in Arizona is the best preserved of Earth’s few remaining impact craters. Why does the moon have more than 500,000 craters at least as large? Explore what happens when extraterrestrial debris strikes Earth at escape-velocity speeds. A relatively small object can do a surprising amount of damage. x
  • 35
    A Montage of Geologic Mini-Wonders
    In an entertaining change of pace, watch a countdown of 10 geological wonders that are hard to classify, from number 10—the White Cliffs of Dover—to number 1—a geological mystery in Death Valley that would seem like a hoax if it weren’t true. x
  • 36
    Planetary Wonders—Out of This World
    Tour some of the amazing geological features beyond Earth, among them planet-circling lava flows on Venus and the solar system’s largest volcano and canyon on Mars. Close with the hydrocarbon lakes on Saturn’s moon Titan, proving that there is no end to geological wonders throughout the cosmos. x

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Your professor

Michael E. Wysession

About Your Professor

Michael E. Wysession, Ph.D.
Washington University in St. Louis
Dr. Michael E. Wysession is the Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Professor Wysession earned his Sc.B. in Geophysics from Brown University and his Ph.D. from Northwestern University. An established leader in seismology and geophysical education, Professor Wysession is noted for his development of a new way to create three-dimensional images of Earth's interior from seismic...
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Reviews

The World's Greatest Geological Wonders: 36 Spectacular Sites is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 203.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful course! My wife and I have thoroughly enjoyed the first 8 lectures and look forward to learning much more from this extraordinarily knowledgeable scholar.
Date published: 2018-06-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Content and Visuals This course features outstanding visuals – in particular, great photos and very effective use of Google Earth. The content is also terrific, and it is presented in an easily understandable way. Contrary to other reviewers, however, I found Prof. Wyesession’s lecture style a bit disappointing. Unlike most Great Courses’s professors, he does not appear at ease in front of the camera, and in my view, while obviously very knowledgeable and passionate about his subject matter, is pretty dry, speaks in a monotone, and borders on dull. As a result, I found myself taking breaks between sets of lectures, particularly in the first half of the course, to regain interest and momentum. All in all, however, I found the course to be quite good because of the outstanding content and visuals and recommend it highly. Just expect to be dazzled by the content and visuals, not the lecturer.
Date published: 2018-06-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Rocks not just for jocks Professor Wysession is a wonderful teacher and lecturer. He is obviously passionate and enthusiast about geology. It appears to me that he has a great deal of experience as a teacher. He lectures in a way that explains geological concepts that is easy to comprehend and enjoyable. The information about geological connections to history, mythology, the bible, local culture and even language development is wonderfully interesting and speaks to his enthusiasm for his topic. I listened, watched and enjoyed his other "Great Courses" video on geology. This course was a great supplement. I hope to have the opportunity to enjoy another course of his if one becomes available in the future.
Date published: 2018-05-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Wow, this is fantastic. All these geographical wonders that have been discussed are amazing. He puts in loads of information which is fascinating, and the presentation is great would recommend.
Date published: 2018-04-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting and inviting I purchased the video format and found the lectures very informative and enjoyable. Professor Wysession gives a wonderful narrative on our amazing world. I learned many new and interesting facts.
Date published: 2018-04-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very exciting truly wonderful nature presentation! I love nature. With this lecture series, now I understand earth is indeed special in the whole cosmos. Truly beautiful, amazing nature was presented by these lectures. I enjoyed whole series.
Date published: 2018-04-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wow! Wysession is a spectacular teacher! I had to wait until I retired to dive into the subject of geology. Michael Wysession did not disappoint as he took each of the courses to a level far beyond my expectations. Great methodologies of teaching. I am hungry for more so will watch these again then purchase his other lectures. Outstanding! Thank you!
Date published: 2018-04-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good lecture and lecturer This is the second lecture by Dr. Wysessions that we have watched and enjoyed. He presents the concepts in a manner that is easily understood by those of us interested in geology but without formal degrees in the subject. There were many pieces of information new and surprising to us. Wonderful to not have lost the sense of "golly gee" that we had as kids!
Date published: 2018-03-12
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