Rockfalls and Rain, Risk and Randomness

November 20, 2016 Posted by: George Jacobi
Left side of canyon is in shadow. A sheer reddish cliff drops from a flat-topped butte. Rockfall is causing white clouds of dust to billow up in and around the adjacent area.
Stand in one place and you can pick out hundreds of rocks that are ready to let go and fall into the Grand Canyon. Some are limestone, some are sandstone. Some are mere pebbles, some are the size of apartment buildings. Does one have YOUR name on it?

There is a thunderstorm on the southwest horizon – does it have a lightning bolt meant for you? Will it spawn a flash flood, hidden from view, destined to carry you away in a mud-brown tsunami?
 
The earth is always moving; ‘solid ground’ is a relative term. “Creep” is the geologic term for slow unnoticed earth movement. Fractures in stone, ever-widening, will eventually cause instability and collapse.

For the visitor standing close to the edge, and even more for the hiker on a trail in the inner canyon, the possibility of a particular rock letting go and falling is always there. But it’s a slim possibility. In a park of 1.2 million acres that receives more than 5 million annual visitors, the chance of your number coming up is far-fetched indeed.

Nevertheless, almost every year someone is tragically hit. You can increase your own safety with alertness. So watch and listen, particularly in monsoon season and in late winter, when most rockfalls take place, due to temperature changes destabilizing the canyon walls. Camp in a safe spot, above flash flood zones but not right below a cliff. Be cognizant that a fire-damaged slope in the rain, trees dead, can turn into a landslide and shove a car off the road. Pay attention to the weather.

Gravity (plus weather and geologic processes) causes rockfall incidents. They are random, unpredictable, and unstoppable. You can only AVOID them. The fact that chances are overwhelming that nothing will happen to you should not cause you to be unaware.
 
You might have bad luck, but you might also have good luck – that’s life. You may find the best sunset photo, or spy some rare animal, but it’ll never occur if you aren’t looking. The world is random; it’s your job to notice what happens in it. Be alive. Particularly in a natural environment like a national park, one is subject to an element of risk. Deep in the canyon, the EMTs and the ambulances are far away.

Treasure that feeling. It’s the way the world was for our ancestors until recently. We are ‘spoiled’ now by the safety and health infrastructure, able to avoid most pain and suffering. We live in the safest 50 years of world history (despite what you may hear in the news).

Some people need a certain amount of risk to feel alive. Others of us won’t drive across a bridge. Some of us need all the answers, religious and political, to be secure. Some of us need all the money. Security, though, is a matter of degrees, never an absolute, and ‘insecurity’ is just the absence of protection. Welcome to the real world.

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This blog is meant to encourage awareness and thoughtfulness about the Grand Canyon, one of our most precious resources. It is not merely a story of what happens or has happened here, not a cookbook for what you should make of it yourself, but more an example of the many-faceted inspiration the Canyon nurtures in an artist, perhaps in you. Indeed, inspiration may be the Canyon's greatest resource. These words are sincere, my own take on this world, deliberately non-academic and directed toward users of social media. In no way does it represent the policies or opinions of the National Park Service, although it is done under the auspices of that entity, but is offered in gratitude, with my respect and admiration for these soldiers of conservation. George H. Jacobi 2016  

Last updated: November 20, 2016

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