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How Can Bodies of Water Be Different Colors?

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When I saw the Caribbean Sea in person for the first time, my eyes metaphorically popped out of my head. As a kid who grew up in South Jersey, I was used to the dirty, almost brown, kinda-sorta blue color of the coastal Atlantic Ocean. But this was different. Staring at that bright, vibrant, and seemingly crystal-clear water, I had many questions. Where did that color come from? And why can I see my feet here, but not at home? Is the Caribbean water cleaner? Is the sun stronger down south? And how come it’s green-blue near the shore, yet navy blue a mile off shore?

Having traveled quite a bit since, I’ve heard all kinds of explanations from common folks, some chalking color differences up to pollution and others to salinity. While I’m certain that many factors, including those two, play some small role, the biggest influencers are the floor, depth, and microorganisms of the body of water.  

First off, let’s tackle why water, in most cases, appears blue to begin with.

Shedding a little light

If you’ve ever taken a cruise, you know that the farther offshore you sail, the deeper and bolder the blue becomes (navy blue). That’s because there are no reflections off the sea floor in very deep water, meaning that a majority of the sun’s rays are absorbed by the water itself. Water molecules, by nature, absorb reds, greens, oranges, and yellows, but spit out blue.

“When sunlight hits the ocean, some of the light is reflected back directly but most of it penetrates the ocean surface and interacts with the water molecules that it encounters,” explains NASA’s Oceanography Division. “The red, orange, yellow, and green wavelengths of light are absorbed so that the remaining light we see is composed of the shorter wavelength blues and violets.”

Sanding Off

As the water depth decreases and the light is able to penetrate all the way to the bottom, the makeup of the floor becomes a factor in determining water color. For example, the coarse Caribbean coral is going to reflect light differently than the fine sand found in the Northeast. These differences in absorption and reflection affect visibility as well as color.

Whatever light is not reflected back from the top layer of water or the bottom of the sea floor is absorbed by something in the water. As we saw above, lots of light is consumed by the water molecules themselves, but microorganisms living in the water also “eat” their fair share. The final major players in determining color are the particles and organisms found and suspended in the water. Phytoplankton, for example, harbors chlorophyll that absorbs red and blue light and reflects green. If a high concentration exists in one area, the water will take on a green hue. The more there are, the greener the water will appear.

Those three factors—depth, floor makeup, and life (plus intangibles, like pollution, as mentioned above)—will interact to produce whatever color we happen to see. The same principles apply to other bodies of water, like lakes, craters, and rivers. It’s all about what’s in and under the water.

And, despite our focus on the oceans, it’s not all about being green, blue, or brown. Check out these uniquely colored tourist attractions found in different parts of the world as examples. If you thought the greenish-blue of the Caribbean was impressive, the red and black volcanic lakes should knock your socks off.

Laguna Colorada, Bolivia

Courtesy of Flickr user Valdiney Pimenta

Red sediments and algae pigmentation produce the unique red color of this salt lake in Bolivia, which is further contrasted by the white borax islands that are spotted throughout it. Located at more than 13,000 feet above sea level, the lagoon is part of the Andean Fauna National Reserve and is a common roosting spot for a variety of flamingo species.

Kelimutu Volcano, Indonesia

Courtesy of Flickr user NeilsPhotography

This volcano harbors three crater lakes at its summit that are strikingly different from one another in terms of color. Typically, Tiwu Ata Mbupu (Lake of Old People) appears blue, Tiwu Nuwa Muri Koo Fai (Lake of Young Men and Maidens) green, and Tiwu Ata Polo (Bewitched or Enchanted Lake) either black or red, although they all are known to change shades quite frequently and unpredictably. The latter two are separated by a crater wall, creating a stunning distinction when viewed side-by-side, especially when they are green and black, as seen in the photo. Thus far, research has revealed no official explanation for the differences and changing colors, but the general consensus is that chemical reactions are being triggered by volcanic gas activity that drives nutrient-rich water to the surface.

Lake Pukaki, New Zealand

Courtesy of Flickr user Peter Nijenhuis

Glacial erosion fills this body of water with glacier flour, or finely-ground rock particles, resulting in a frosty, cloudy-blue color (this mixture is sometimes referred to as glacial milk). Lake Pukaki has a surface area of approximately 111 square miles and was formed when glacial debris known as moraine dammed up the valley. There are glacier lakes in at least a dozen countries throughout the world that take on this “milky” appearance. While they are not abnormally colored, the Great Lakes are the largest glacial lakes in the world.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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