Built by a giant as a bridge from Ireland to Scotland, according to Irish legend, the dramatic basalt pillars of the Giant's Causeway have inspired the imagination for thousands of years. How did they really form?
Thousands of columns jut out into the sea off the Antrim coast in Northern Ireland. They look like stepping stones and at one time, they stretched out across the sea to neighboring Scotland - at least according to the Irish legend of Fionn mac Cumhaill.
Fionn, who is often described as a benevolent giant in Irish mythology, is said to have built the causeway to get across the sea to Scotland, so he could challenge a rival giant called Benandonner to a fight.
He soon realized his mistake. Benandonner was much larger. And when the Scottish giant made his way across sea using the "Giant's Causeway," Fionn turned to his wife Una for help. She disguised her husband as a baby. When Benandonner saw the size of the infant, he thought it best not to wait around to meet his likely massive father.
The scientific explanation of the formation of the Giant's Causeway might appear less magical but it really is no less wondrous. It's made up of over 40,000 interlocking basalt polygonal pillars formed around 60 million years ago due to intense volcanic activity.
Molten basalt pushed up through chalk beds to form a lava plateau. The lava contracted and cooled at different rates, leaving behind the column-like structures that seem to fit perfectly together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.
The causeway was once part of a vast lava plain called the Thulean Plateau, which was broken up during the opening of the North Atlantic Ocean. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On wet and windy days - of which there are many on the island of Ireland - when the waves crash against the basalt columns and the gray clouds hang low in the sky, it's particularly easy to see why this place has inspired tales of magic.
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