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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Course No. 1712
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Learn the science behind erosion, plate tectonics, volcanic eruptions, and other spectacular geological processes.
  • numbers Visit geological sites around the world that feature some of the exciting geological phenomenon you'll learn about.
  • numbers From deserts to river deltas to fjords, travel the globe to visit our planet's most fantastic geological features.
  • numbers 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
 |  Average 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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The World's Greatest Geological Wonders: 36 Spectacular Sites is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 303.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr. Wysession’s 36 lecture series is fantastic. His breadth of knowledge is most impressive. He made the information not only educational but also entertaining. My only disappointment was the use of the metric system. I’m sorry to say I never got the hang of it so some of the drama of heights, widths and lengths was lost on me. On occasion he did use miles, feet etc. but not often enough. Regardless the series is well worth viewing. I especially loved his tie in lecture #36.
Date published: 2020-11-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonders Endeed It was a pleasure to travel the world to see wonders! Although I had visited some of the places, I did not know the geological history of these places. I can highly recommend this course to whoever is interested in geological history.
Date published: 2020-11-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Like many other reviewers, I’m old enough for Medicare and young enough to still be curious about almost everything around me. Social distancing during Covid has given me the opportunity to take some classes I either didn’t have time for in college or that needed updating. This was my first Great Courses experience. I chose this course because I have had the good fortune to travel to many of the places featured, but didn’t bother to study about the geology before I got there. Let me reiterate Prof. Wysessions caveat – this is not a basic geology course, it simply focuses on some of the most beautiful, powerful, inspiring, frightening, and mysterious places on earth. As a tourist you can get to many, probably most, of them, but not all. The concept is forthright: Here is a place that will take your breath away, and this is how it was made. And there is a bonus. If you can’t get to this one, here are four more fantastic places made the same way. The lecturer knows his stuff, and he loves it. His explanations are clear and he uses props to demonstrate concepts when useful. He often brings in literature, ecology, biology, and history. I found all these remarks relevant and interesting. There are plenty of visuals, maps and diagrams in addition to photographs of the sites. I would definitely recommend video. There is only one caveat: It may lengthen your “bucket list.”
Date published: 2020-09-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beautiful and Fascinating I couldn’t have imagined all the places the instructor for this course would’ve taken me. It’s truly a trip around the world several times to the most exotic and unusual places I’ve ever seen. Professor Wysession is a great guide for this wild trip to mother nature’s most beautiful and fascinating places. He loves all the places he covers, knows and explains them so well, and shows you how and why you’d fall in love with them too. As in the title, he covers thirty six locations in depth, one in each episode of this big course. But then he adds a lot of gravy to the meat by always pouring in to the mix another four related places at the end of every episode. So the total number of places the viewer travels to in this grand ride is closer to 170 or so, with a further “grand finale” that goes through ten more. He reminds us, and then proves to us, that this planet is a wonder, beautiful and bizarre all wrapped up in a bundle called Earth. See this in video format only, of course, in order to benefit from the eye popping part of the experience. Such a great ride around the world.
Date published: 2020-09-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from An adventure Good presentation kept me interested, pleasant lecturer only a little political correctness. Good use of illustrations and images.
Date published: 2020-09-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from What an amazing planet! Top scores for this fascinating course. Prof. Wysession has put together thirty-six of the most entertaining and fact-filled lectures that I have ever sat through. His excellent choices of photography, animations and bench demonstrations provide clear explanations of plate tectonics, volcanism, glaciation, erosion and the many physical and chemical processes that create features on the planet’s surface. His speaking style is perfect for this subject material. My wife and I have enjoyed about a dozen of the Great Courses ---number theory, differential equations, European painting, Irish history, thermodynamics, organic chemistry, etc. This was the most enjoyable of the lot. Concerning Prof. Wysession’s collection of neckties, I will not comment. HWF, Mesa AZ
Date published: 2020-08-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Really loved this course. Roggerio’s commentary wasn’t stuffy at all. Just a joy to learn insider information about art I’ve always loved. There’s mystery behind most art so that’s what makes art history interesting. Thanks so much ❤️
Date published: 2020-08-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating I purchased this course just a few weeks ago and have found it to be a wonderful surprise. This is a subject that I normally do not have a lot of interest in, but I saw the ratings and decided to take something outside of my normal areas of interest. I am so glad I did. I found Mr Wysession to be a terrific instructor, well prepared and with infectious enthusiasm. The visuals are outstanding. I've taken a lot of courses via the "Great Courses", and this certainly ranks up there with the very best.
Date published: 2020-08-22
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