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These are the Rainbow Mountains of China.

No Photoshop. No filters.

They are located within the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park that covers 200 square miles.

I’ve totally been here.

So how did they form?

Despite looking like one of those avant-garde, waste-of-materials, out-door art installations that desecrates nature more than celebrating it, this is a natural occurring phenomena whose beauty is unparalleled in the world.

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Ok class, time for a bit of geology. The Rainbow Mountains are cretaceous sandstones and siltstones that were deposited in China before the Himalayan Mountains were formed. The sand and silt was deposited with iron and trace minerals that provided it with the key ingredient to form the colors we see today.

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What was once a layered horizontal and flat stratigraphy was disrupted by the Indian Plate colliding into the Eurasian Plate approximately 55 million years ago. Much like when two cars get in a wreck and the bumpers fold and break, a similar process folded what was once flat sandstones into the Rainbow Mountains we see today. This process uplifted mountains and exposed sedimentary rocks that were otherwise hidden well below the surface of the earth. Weathering and erosion removed the overlying layers of continental siliciclastic rocks and exposed underlying formations with different mineralogy and chemistry. This causes the striking variation in colors seen across the Rainbow Mountains.

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Precipitated groundwater moves through the sandstone grains and deposits trace minerals in between the grains. This precipitate can build up to a point where there is no longer an pore space between the individual grains, cementing them in place. This process is what imparts the trace minerals mentioned below and allows for the otherworldly coloring of sandstones around the world.

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The primary color is a deep red sandstone, not unlike the Fountain Formation that outcrops in the Flatirons, Red Rocks Park, and the Garden of the Gods all in Colorado. The red coloring is due to an iron oxide coating and cementation, also known as hematite (Fe2O3), between the sandstone grains. This is the exact same process that takes place when a piece of metal is left out in the rain and forms a red layer of rust around the outside.

Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado. You cannot witness a concert in a better venue.

Weathering, mixed with water and oxygen oxidizes elemental iron into iron oxide, which is notable for its dark red coloring. The Rainbow Mountains are largely characterized by this iron oxide staining of its sandstone Danxia formation.

Most of the time, iron oxides impart a dark red pigment, however, there are instances where oxides form different colors. For example, oxidized limonite or goethite will produce brown or yellow staining of sandstones and magnetite can form black staining of sandstones. If there is iron sulfide present, you will get a metallic yellow color imparted by the sulfur. Meanwhile, green coloring is often due to chlorite or iron silicate clays. These are just some examples of how sandstones can be altered in coloring during diagenesis.

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And if you go there around midnight… you can be clever and sing this drunkenly at the top of your lungs until the Chinese politely ask you to leave. Just like they do most Saturday nights at Egg Rolls Plus.