Share

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

Earth's Hottest Place

Earth's Hottest Place

Getty Images

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)

  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place
  • Earth's Hottest Place

Featured Blogs

A Quiet First Day of Fall for the Tropics

By Dr. Jeff Masters
September 23, 2014

The tropics are unusually quiet for the first full day of fall, with only one tropical cyclone active--Tropical Depression Fung-Wong in the Western Pacific, which grazed the coast of China near Shanghai Tuesday morning, bringing torrential rains to the coast. In the Atlantic, none of our reliable models for predicting tropical cyclone genesis shows anything developing over the next five days.

Incredible Rainstorm in Southern France

By Christopher C. Burt
September 19, 2014

Torrential rainfall Tuesday through Thursday morning (September 16-18) in the Languedoc Region of southern France has resulted in flooding that has killed at least four people with two others still missing. The rainfall rates during the storm were phenomenal.

Live Blog: Tracking Hurricane Arthur as it Approaches North Carolina Coast

By Shaun Tanner
July 3, 2014

This is a live blog set up to provide the latest coverage on Hurricane Arthur as it threatens the North Carolina Coast. Check back often to see what the latest is with Arthur. The most recent updates are at the top.

Tropical Terminology

By Stu Ostro
June 30, 2014

Here is some basic, fundamental terminology related to tropical cyclones. Rather than a comprehensive and/or technical glossary, this represents the essence of the meaning & importance of some key, frequently used terms.

2013-14 - An Interesting Winter From A to Z

By Tom Niziol
May 15, 2014

It was a very interesting winter across a good part of the nation from the Rockies through the Plains to the Northeast. Let's break down the most significant winter storms on a month by month basis.

What the 5th IPCC Assessment Doesn't Include

By Angela Fritz
September 27, 2013

Melting permafrost has the potential to release an additional 1.5 trillion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, and could increase our global average temperature by 1.5°F in addition to our day-to-day human emissions. However, this effect is not included in the IPCC report issued Friday morning, which means the estimates of how Earth's climate will change are likely on the conservative side.