The power of nature can be magnificent, even inspiring - no traveler who has gazed out over a mountain vista or watched the sunrise in the desert can deny that our planet can be so beautiful that it takes your breath away.
However, at the same time, nature can be absolutely havoc-wreaking! Those same pristine white slopes that stir the hearts of skiers and mountaineers can quickly change into a nightmare when the heavy snow is disturbed, and speeds downwards in an avalanche. And that sea of golden sand? Wait until it is kicked up by strong winds, turning into a threatening dust cloud that blocks out the sun and turns everything to an orange hellscape.
But somehow, even the most intimidating moments in nature can have their own beauty - one that reminds us to feel a little awe, and even fear in the face of the power that this planet has.
Events like avalanches and sandstorms remind humans that no matter what we build, we are still only a tiny species on the face of the Earth. Avalanches and sandstorms are humbling, stunning, and just a little bit scary… so we’ve rounded up some of the most impressive photos of these massive natural events for you to gaze on without any of the danger of actually being near one!
25 Mount Everest (2015)
Everest is possibly the world’s most famous mountain, and while the hardiest climbers dream of reaching its snow-capped peak, it can be a scary place when those snows start to come down. Avalanches aren’t too rare here, understandably, but some are definitely bigger than others.
In 2015, an earthquake in Nepal set off a deadly avalanche here, injuring dozens of climbers and taking the lives of at least 17 people. This goes a little beyond intimidating, and into downright haunting, especially when looking at the images of all that snow racing down the mountainside and into the camps below.
24 Arizona (2018)
Earlier this year, in June, Arizona was confronted by a wall of dust thanks to a seasonal dust storm that engulfed parts of the state.
The storm kicked up around Phoenix, with winds over 80km/h, ripping roofs off of the buildings.
The bright orange dust was captured by local photographers (like this incredible shot by Greg McCowan), spreading across the sky and reminding some of the alien craft from the movie Independence Day. As confronting as it might be to see it coming toward you on the highway, there’s no denying that the way that the dust looks against the colors of the desert sky is absolutely beautiful.
23 French Alps (2018)
In the French Alps, controlled avalanches are often triggered in order to shift snow after storms and prevent serious damage, but at the start of this year, heavier than usual snowfall meant that this wasn’t quite enough. As these dramatic photos show;
The resulting avalanche completely buried the roads in 5-7 meters of snow (16-22 feet), which cut off the town of Bonneval and the hundreds of people living there.
Even after snowplows worked to clear a path, cars could be seen driving between towering walls of packed snow, which looks like an icy blue maze between the towns.
22 Indian Ocean (2013)
Is that a tsunami? You would be forgiven for thinking so, but this is actually a giant wave of sand, not water.
Taken by tugboat worker Brett Martin 25 nautical miles from the coast, this is a shot of a sandstorm that was whipped up over Onslow, Australia, thanks to a cyclone that hit in 2013.
The dust storm also kicked up the waves, creating two meter swells out of a previously calm and glassy sea. Other images show the massive wave of dust towering over the ships, which were forced to simply try and wait it out in visibility under 100 meters.
21 Patagonia (2016)
The Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile boasts stunning views for travelers, with incredible lakes, mountains and glaciers. However, in 2016, a couple of tourists got more than they bargained for on their trip here as they captured a massive avalanche and uploaded it to YouTube.
As they filmed, an avalanche spread out almost directly in front of them, kicking up a massive snow cloud that rolled almost directly over their heads...
...blocking out the bright blue sky. The images and video show how even an avalanche that appears to start very far away can quickly move… and ends almost at their feet!
20 Sydney (2009)
This incredible photo (credit to James D Morgan) wouldn’t look out of place in a dystopian future Earth movie… or even another planet. However, it was taken in 2009, in Sydney Harbor, when a massive dust storm wiped out the usually blue skies with red and orange hues.
The storm blanketed much of New South Wales as well as the city of Sydney, and left Australians living in a strange red world for a day.
It has become known as one of the worst of this kind of red dust storm to hit the city in recent years.
19 Italy (2017)
‘Intimidating’ just doesn’t seem to be enough to describe this avalanche, that completely swallowed a four storey hotel in Italy, the Hotel Rigopiano. In 2017, seismic activity and heavy snowfall made a lethal combination for guests of the hotel, which was swept completely off its foundations, taking the lives of multiple people.
The photos from the disaster show just how powerful an avalanche can be - rather than pristine clouds of white snow.
They show the wreckage of what had been a large luxury hotel only days before - a stark reminder of the sheer power of mother nature.
18 Kashgar (2016)
In 2016, the city of Kashgar in far Western China was hit by a huge sandstorm that reached to 330 ft high and completely covered the city for several hours - blocking out the sun and leaving residents struggling to breathe.
This incredible photo shows just how strange a sandstorm can make a city look, with a single person struggling against the wind in a scene that is almost entirely orange - and so sandy that it is almost impossible to make out the writing on a sign just behind them.
It looks more like someone is taking a stroll on Mars, than actually walking on our Earth.
17 Spanish Pyrenees (2013)
If all these images of avalanches have got you worried about ever hitting the slopes again, we’ve got just the thing to reassure you - this amazing shot of a freerider who survived a surprise avalanche thanks to his airbag!
Aymar Navarro was filming in the Spanish Pyrenees on a clear day when he felt the snow start to move, and knew he had to think fast ‘I started to roll over again and again. (…) My first thought was that I needed to trigger this airbag. I curled up a little to try to absorb the impacts; an impossible task because you don’t know where you are or which way is up or down’.
Thankfully, the airbag saved him, and you can see his joy in this amazing image.
One of the most striking things about many of these incredible shots of sandstorms is that the landscape is utterly devoid of life - no cars on the roads or people on the sidewalk (except for a few brave photographers, of course).
Obviously, everyone is hiding inside and waiting for the storms to pass, except for Caleb Holder, who took this shot of a sandstorm in Lubbock, Texas, as it rolls forward and completely blacks out the sky as it moves. This definitely looks like it could be an apocalyptic moment, although the residents of Lubbock would have been back to their normal lives as soon as the storm passed!
15 British Columbia (2018)
One of the most stunning things about avalanches, even controlled ones, is the way that the snow creates a billowing cloud - looking as though the mountainside is going up in smoke.
Earlier this year, BC Transport posted videos of a controlled avalanche showing the scale of this cloud, as the snow thunders down the hillside, and the resulting cloud billows up over the hills to block the sky.
Even though this kind of avalanche is intentional, it can still be difficult to manage, meaning that something of this size led to the highways being closed… just in case.
14 Dubai (2018)
Usually, people stay inside when sandstorms hit - and with good reason. The dust can be damaging to skin and eyes, not to mention to your lungs if you happen to breathe it in.
Add to that the sheer force of the winds and possibility of projectiles, and it’s easy to see why most sandstorm images are desolate… unlike this incredible shot of a man in Dubai walking his camels across a road as the landscape is completely engulfed in yellow sand.
Of course, camels are designed for this kind of thing… but humans are definitely not!
13 Banff (2017)
Even when avalanches are intentionally triggered, things can go a little bit awry… as they did in 2017, when a controlled avalanche ended up shutting down the Icefields Parkway in Alberta.
No one was hurt, but amazing photos from the avalanche show the snow covering the highway - and piled well above the height of the trucks in front of it!
This photo is especially intimidating because the scale is so clear, unlike other images that are taken from further away, and don’t quite capture the sheer volume of snow that can come crashing down in an instant.
12 Burning Man
While most people would try to avoid wandering into the desert and braving dust storms, every year tens of thousands of people do just that - for Burning Man!
The massive art, music, and counter-culture event in the desert is used to regular dust storms, with attendees just wrapping up in scarves and goggles and getting on with having fun… like this lovely couple who used the storm and a sculpture to create a totally unique engagement photo that takes advantage of the strange and otherworldly effect of the sand. It may not be intimidating in itself… but it’s pretty intimidating to think of walking into a crowd of 70,000 people partying in the swirling winds.
11 K2 (2017)
The second highest peak in the world might not get quite the same level of coverage as Everest itself, but it’s just as dangerous - and also gets its fair share of dramatic avalanche activity.
In 2017, this shot was taken of an avalanche on the Abruzzi route, sweeping away one of the camps established there. The photo shows the avalanche from a very different perspective - the snow flying off the mountain above, looking almost like clouds in the bright blue sky. Of course, this is actually snow, seen from a distance as it bursts into the air.
10 Burkina Faso (2012)
This photo from 2012 was taken by Darryl Keith, showing a sandstorm approaching the Inata Gold Mine in Burkina Faso, in West Africa. Dust storms are not uncommon in this part of the world, but that fact definitely doesn’t make them any less confronting.
Dust storm shelters dot the landscape, allowing travelers a place to take cover from the swirling storm, and somewhere to take incredible photos (and then carefully hide their cameras, so that the force of the winds don’t destroy the lenses). In this image, we can see a dark wall of dust meeting the clouds above.
9 Switzerland (2015)
Avalanches can be difficult to capture in images, because the truly confronting thing about them is the sheer speed with which they travel down the mountainside - and of course, the size of the packed snow itself. However, in 2015, a controlled avalanche in the Vallee de la Sionne, near Sion, was captured by photographers waiting for just this moment.
Unlike some smaller controlled avalanches, this was a full-scale snowslide, triggered in order to help researchers in their studies. This image shows the bulk of the snow as it speeds down the mountain at upwards of 8o km/h (50 mph).
8 Arizona (2012)
Also in 2012, another dust storm hit Phoenix (a place where you should probably get used to the idea of seeing sand stretching into the sky, as these are not as rare as you might hope!). This photo is incredible for showing the sheer scale of the storm - reaching to the clouds, with apartment buildings and homes beneath absolutely dwarfed by the huge wall of sand and dust. It’s easy to see why, when these pass over, people hide indoors and wait to see what kind of destruction will be left behind in the aftermath.
7 Himalayas (2017)
This incredible photo was a lucky shot by researcher Emily Hill, who managed to capture an avalanche on Annapurna South, one of the peaks of the Himalayas. Hill was working in Nepal when she was able to grab this shot, although she saw many more avalanches that she wasn’t quite quick enough to capture ‘We frequently heard avalanches but often they were over too quick to capture on camera. Fortunately, this was one of the largest and the camera was at the ready’.
This huge snowslide was estimated to be a couple hundred meters across, a detail that adds scale to the powdered snow thundering down at high speed.
6 Shaanxi Province (2006)
While many people wouldn’t associate China with desert landscape, dust storms can be surprisingly common here, especially in years of drought. In 2006, multiple dust storms swept across the country, even blanketing Beijing in orange dust. This shot was taken before the storm reached the city, though, showing the Ming Dynasty City Wall Relic engulfed in sand.
This kind of storm is not kind to ancient monuments that it passes over, and can damage them just as it can cause havoc to more modern structures.
Flags and lanterns whip in the winds here, only just visible through the thick sand.
5 Slab Avalanche
This skier looks more like a surfer, riding along the edge of a giant white wave… but this is actually one of the most dangerous types of avalanche for skiers and snowboarders - a slab avalanche.
This is what happens when an entire sheet of snow breaks loose in one piece, and slides down the mountainside (usually triggered by human activity).
The sliding chunk of snow can quickly bury a skier - and leaves a jagged edge where it has broken free. These don’t have the same billowing smoke look as other avalanches, but they are just as frightening.
4 Khartoum (2007)
Another name for a sandstorm is a haboob - a term commonly used in areas like the Sudan, where these storms are frighteningly common. A particularly vicious haboob even grounded flights earlier this year, although the storms usually only last for a few hours. However, they still make for some stunning images, especially the largest storms, like this one captured in 2007.
Here, the way that the storm moves is easier to see, as the rolling movement of the dust cloud is visible - reaching out over the city to completely obliterate it in brown sand for a short time.
3 French Alps (2015)
Freeriding (also known as off-piste skiing) is one of the most common ways to encounter an avalanche while riding the slopes, because it involves racing through backcountry that hasn’t been groomed for the sport.
In a video posted in 2015, Ugo Gerola was freeriding in the French Alps when he narrowly avoided being swept away in an avalanche that seemed to appear out of nowhere. Thankfully, Gerola was also wearing a parachute, and was able to dodge the avalanche to fly almost directly over it, capturing some great footage of it speeding past him and down the mountain.
2 Atlantic Ocean (2000)
Another spectacular image of the desert meeting the ocean comes from the year 2000, when a massive dust storm in the Sahara blew out over the Atlantic Ocean.
The force of the winds was so strong that it picked up enough sand to blow out over 1000 miles into the waves - and these storms can even manage to reach the Caribbean before completely blowing out.
The combination of sand, cloud and water makes it look like a massive orange wave cresting on the horizon - a truly beautiful combination of colors enhanced by the yellows in the sky.
It’s hard to tell what is sand, sky or water anymore.
1 Kyrgyzstan (2017)
While many avalanche photos show the huge billows of snow that rise from an avalanche, these don’t appear until it is in full flow - and dramatic footage from a peak in Kyrgyzstan shows how an avalanche can appear to come out of absolutely nowhere.
The snow starts to build from the top of a hill on a beautiful clear day, and as startled climbers watch, it quickly turns into a massive avalanche, speeding down the mountainside and spreading out into the distinctive shape that we would all recognize… after it is already too late.