Cause of “Fairy Circles” May Finally Have Been Discovered

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Have you ever seen circles like this? Any idea what they could be? These patches of dirt in the ground can range up to 50 feet in diameter, so they’re no small patch of unwatered grass. And they are surrounded by plants. They can be seen for miles in the grassslands of Namibia. They have been given the name ‘fairy circles.’ But as much as we all love a good bedtime story with fairies, ‘fairy circles’ don’t exactly give us a scientific answer as to what these circles actually may be. Before recent discoveries, these fairy circles had only been seen in Namibia. But now, they are suddenly popping up in Australia.

We have seen fairy circles in Namibia since the 1920s. Just recently, in 2014, scientists actually discovered them in the dry region of Pilbara, located in Western Australia. Google Earth actually now shows them. Fairy circles have been a mystery for years and years. A variety of hypothesis as to what the fairy circles are have circulated. One such guess was that the fairy circles were created by termites, while another guessed that they were actually caused by carbon monoxide that is trapped under the ground. A third hypothesis was that they were actually caused by the surrounding plants poisoning the ground. The local legend is that the circles are caused by the breath of a mythical dragon.

But recently, scientists have come up with an verifiable estimate of what the circles could actually be. Dr. Stephan Getzin of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany as well as a handful of other researchers and colleagues, took soil samples from the circles in Australia and analyzed their components. 

Here is their hypothesis:

“When a bare, plant-less patch of soil dries out, the sun bakes it into a hard, impenetrable crust. Once the crust is formed, any rain that does fall on it either runs out to the edges or just evaporates. At the edges, however, the plants prevent the soil from baking as much, so the water drains into the dirt.” It’s basically a cycle. And over time, the circles can grow in size or shrink, depending on how the conditions around it may change. The process in Namibia may or may not be different, seeing as Namibia contains a completely different type of soil than Australia. But, Getzin says that regardless of soil type, the circles are definitely directly related to water.

"The details of this mechanism are different to that in Australia," he explained. “But it produces the same vegetation pattern because both systems of gaps are triggered by the same instability."

Getzin also believes that there are more fairy circles that have yet to be discovered in other parts of the world. If he is correct about the cause, there is a possibility that fairy circles may appear in other locations in the future, depending upon climate changes and weather patterns. These fairy circles are just another reminder that there are still so many things in our world that have yet to be discovered and that there really are new things to be learned each day. 

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Autumn Mcleod

Senior Writer

Autumn came to us really wanting to break away from the politics that came with working for major news sites. She leads our positive story writers in creating the best, engaging stories out there. She is an enthusiast of all things from the roaring twenties.