Rare 'Fairy Circles' Discovered in Western Australia
Shown are fairy circles in the Western Australian outback near Newman.
Sometimes referred to as earth art or earthworks, land art is a movement that started in the 1960s in which large-scale sculptures were created from the landscape itself. To achieve their designs, artists working in this area often use multiple, overlapping disciplines of science and technology -- from architecture to crop sciences to landscape engineering. Above, a figurative earth sculpture of Sultan the Pony at Penallta Parc in Wales.
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Minneapolis Institute of Arts / Vimeo
Kansas landscape artistStan Herd
recently completed this rendition of Vincent Van Gogh's painting "Olive Trees." Commissioned by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, it covers 1.2 acres near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and is designed to be viewed by passengers in incoming airliners.
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Stan Herd Arts / YouTube
Herd has created works all over the planet, including this three-acre piece in Sao Paulo, "Young Woman of Brazil," part of a larger initiative to raise awareness on poverty issues in the country. The artist is currentlyraising funds
through Indiegogo to finish the piece.
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In 1979, artist James Turrell acquired the land around the three-mile-wide volcanic cone known as Roden Crater in Arizona. This satellite photo shows his ongoing land art project, which involves turning the inner cone of the crater into a giant naked-eye observatory.
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The Desert Breath, located in Egypt near the Red Sea coast, is made from a spiraling series of earthwork cones. The above-ground cones were created with sand from the depressed cones dug into the surface. The piece covers an area of about 25 acres.
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Created by artist Robert Smithson in 1970, Spiral Jetty is a 1,500-foot long art work that extends toward -- and occasionally into -- the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Depending on water levels, the sculpture is sometimes partially or totally submerged under the lake waters.
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Part of a planned series of artificial islands off the coast of Dubai, Palm Jumeirah is shaped to resemble a palm tree and was created by moving more than 7 million tons of rock. Designed as an exclusive enclave for the wealthy, the controversial project crosses elements of land art with blunt commercial development.
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Depending on how you define your terms, land art has potentially been around for thousands of years. The famous Nazca Lines in southern Peru are ancient geoglyphs created between 500 BC and 500 AD. Hundreds of individual figures were created by removing surface rocks and pebbles to expose the ground underneath.
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Crop circles used to be the domain of hoaxers and alien conspiracy theorists, but in recent years they've become a kind of subset of land art for legitimate artists and groups. Hundreds of creative designs pop up annually around the world, like this 2007 collaborative effort in Switzerland. Crop circles are typically created by flattening crops using wooden boards and lengths of rope extended from a designated anchor point. GET MORE:Dream This Up: Structures Meld Art And Design
Certain kinds of land art aren't meant to last. ArtistSonja Hinrichsen
community-based Snow Drawings series involves recruiting local volunteers to transform freshly fallen snow into temporary artworks by way of snowshoes and some very long, very specific strolls through the snow.
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The chance discovery of ‘fairy circles’ in Western Australia’s Pilbara region is providing new insight into one of nature’s enduring puzzles.
The circles, which are regularly spaced patches of bare soil that form in uniform hexagonal patterns throughout arid grasslands, had until recently only been confirmed in Namibia in south-western Africa.
But in 2014, fairy circle expert Dr. Stephan Getzin from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research was alerted to the presence of similar rings in vegetation 15 kilometers to the east to south-east of Newman in the Pilbara by Australian environmental scientist and study co-author, Dr. Bronwyn Bell.
Many theories have been raised over the years about how the mysterious patterns form in arid areas, but the latest research has indicated plants were organizing themselves according to the scarce water availability.
Dr. Todd Erickson, from the Restoration Seed Bank Initiative at the University of Western Australia, said the strange pattern was very visible when flying into the small mining town.
When viewed from above, groups of fairy circles form repeating hexagonal shapes, with six bare patches about four meters in diameter spaced about 10 meters away from each other around a central focal point to form the points of the hexagon.
“You don’t see them from the ground,” said Dr. Erickson, another study author who has been working in the Pilbara for the last eight years.
“You can be standing inside a fairy circle and not see the next one 10 meters away; to find them, you need to spot them from the air.
“People have known about [the circles] for years but no-one with the skills of Stephan have actually gone out there and actually mapped them from the landscape scale.”
Analysis of aerial photographs and spatial patterns of vegetation by the team, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed Australian and African fairy circles are almost identical, despite being more than 10,000 kilometers apart.
Shown are fairy circles in the Western Australian outback near Newman.Kevin Sanders/dpa/Corbis
There are a number of hypotheses about how these enigmatic patterns in arid areas may have formed.
One hypothesis is that ants or insects nibbled away at the plants' roots.
Another hypothesis suggests the circles are caused by underground bubbles of carbon monoxide rising to the surface.
But researchers said the latest study indicated the fairy circles in the Pilbara were formed by plants organizing themselves in response to scarce water resources.
An analysis of the temperature and permeability of the soil indicated that water flowed across the hard-baked patches of soil to where spinifex grasses grew at the edge.
"Our soil analysis revealed that there are strong infiltration contrasts between vegetation areas and bare soil gaps [with hard soil crusts]," Dr. Getzin said.
The vegetation kept the surface cooler and soil looser at the edge of the circle, so water could permeate further and more plants could colonize the area.
Spatial mapping of the area by Dr. Getzin and his team ruled out insect activity.
Unlike Namibia, where a number of species of insects are found in fairy circles, the majority of fairy circles in the Pilbara did not have any ant nests or termite mounds. Any nests and mounds they did find were randomly distributed.
"That rules out ant or insect activity as the driving pattern, because the ant hills and termite mounds are irregular while fairy circles are extremely regular," Dr. Erickson said.
Dr Getzin said the results supported current thinking in dryland ecological research.
"Ecologists are increasingly realizing that distinct vegetation patterns are a population-level consequence of competition for scarce water," he said.
Dr. Getzin said it was exciting to discover a new and mysterious natural phenomena, like fairy circles.
"Today, scientists mostly find very small animals such as a new insect or amphibian species in the rainforest, cryptic deep-sea animals, or new galaxies in outer space," he said.
"Discoveries like the Australian fairy circles are extremely rare, which makes the current study tremendously exciting."
Dr. Getzin added the area around Newman seemed to be an ideal place for such finds.
"Just 35 kilometres north of Newman a previously unknown meteorite crater (the Hickman crater) was identified using Google Earth in 2007," he said.
"This illustrates the great potential of the remote Australian outback for new discoveries."
Article first appeared on ABC Science Online.