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Breathtaking Rainbow Rocks in China

Michele Berger
Published: July 12, 2013

Sunan Color Mound, part of the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park, November 4, 2012. (Flickr/loraineltai)

Remember the sand bottles you made as a kid? Maybe red layers the bottom, then white, then yellow, then back to red again. The sand makes a beautiful pattern, one that remains pristine until you shake or hit the holder. Now, picture that sand art enlarged to the size of mountain range, and you’ll have some idea of what China’s Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park looks like.

The rocks may appear fake — and photos of them at their most vibrant are often called phony or Photoshopped — but they’re real, red sedimentary sandstone influenced by upward movement from within the Earth, weather and erosion over tens of million of years.

Essentially the colors result from deposits of different minerals, says John Encarnacion, Ph.D., a Saint Louis University geologist. “The deep reds are caused primarily by the mineral hematite, which is basically rust. These rocks are rich in iron and the iron was oxidized when the rock formed. The yellow colors are probably due to less iron and more sand and clay.” The bluish-greenish-gray, Encarnacion surmises, comes from either organic plant matter or a mineral called glauconite found in marine environments. 

The layering, similar to what you might see at Death Valley’s Zabriskie Point, results from what Encarnacion describes as events of mud or sand coming in. And the 45-degree tilting of the rock? “That’s probably related to the collision of India with Asia,” he says. “That collision”—which recent research estimates happened 35 million years ago—“crumbled a lot of rocks throughout China.” 

But the rocks themselves actually formed much earlier, at least 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs were still around. It took the formations about 20 million years to end up how they look today.

Of course, even now, Zhangye’s landforms are changing, mainly due to tectonic activity in the region and erosion. “What’s the rate of erosion?” Encarnacion asks. Certainly not fast enough to raise any alarm bells, he says. “It will last for generations. It’s kind of like the Grand Canyon.”

Zhangye Danxia isn’t the country’s only Danxia. The rainbow formation, shown in the stunning slideshow above, is in Gansu Province, in the northwest part of China, near Mongolia. UNESCO designated the other, located in southeast China, a World Heritage site.

MORE: Beautiful Photos of Death Valley

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Badwater Basin in California's Death Valley is pictured in November 2006. At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. Two to four thousand years ago, the basin was the site of a 30-foot lake that later evaporated, leaving a 1- to 5-foot layer of salt in its wake. (GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

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