Rockfalls are a natural and dynamic geologic process involving the detachment and rapid downard movement of rock. Due to its steep, glacier-carved cliffs, Yosemite Valley experiences many rockfalls each year. Historical records indicate that more than 1,000 rockfalls have occurred in the park during the past 150 years. Massive piles of "talus" or rock debris at the base of Yosemite Valley's cliffs are reminders of these dramatic events. Natural processes like rockfall help to create the beautiful and changing scenery in Yosemite National Park, but they also present potential hazards.
What Causes Rockfall?
A number of geologic processes set the stage for rockfalls, including glaciation, weathering, and bedrock fractures. Tectonic stresses and erosion cause granite rock to fracture. Rockfalls later occur along these fractures. Fractures that develop parallel to the surface are called sheeting joints. Sheeting joints create large slabs of rock that ultimately fall away in a process known as exfoliation. In Yosemite Valley, Royal Arches and the face of Half Dome are examples of landforms that have resulted from this process. Over long periods, water flowing through fractures decomposes the bedrock in a process called weathering. Weathering loosens bonds that hold rocks in place.
Triggering mechanisms like water, ice, earthquakes, and vegetation growth are among the final forces that cause unstable rocks to fall. If water enters fractures in the bedrock, it can build up pressure behind unstable rocks. Water also may seep into cracks in the rock and freeze, causing those cracks to grow. This process is called "frost wedging" or "freeze-thaw" and can incrementally lever loose rocks away from cliff faces. Recent research suggests that daily temperature variations and extreme heat can also cause rock slabs to become unstable. Ground shaking during earthquakes often triggers rockfalls. Additionally, a variety of vegetation-most notably firs, pines, and canyon live oaks-grow into the sheer rock faces where their roots expand and pry apart joints in the granite. Most rockfalls in Yosemite occur in the winter and early spring, during periods of intense rainfall, snow melt, and/or subfreezing temperatures, but many large rockfalls have also occurred during periods of warm, stable weather.
For any given rockfall, there is always a large degree of uncertainty about what exactly triggered it; historical records indicate that more than half of all documented rockfalls in Yosemite were not associated with a recognizable trigger.
Predicting actual rockfall events is not yet possible, but understanding the forces that trigger rockfalls is an important step toward this goal.
How Does the Park Address Rockfall?
The National Park Service in Yosemite is responding to rockfall in a variety of ways. Park scientists, in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and academic researchers, are actively studying rockfalls through the use of new technology, such as high resolution digital photography, laser mapping of cliffs, and exposure dating of boulders. These tools offer vast improvement in resolution from previously available data, allowing geologists to accurately map rockfall zones and to study rockfall source areas. Additionally, new computer modeling technology shows promise in simulating future rockfall behavior. The park is also actively investigating methods for monitoring rockfall activity.
Additionally, park rangers have developed emergency plans for rockfall events, and may close trails and post warning signs in particularly hazardous areas.
What Should I Do in the Event of a Rockfall?
Be aware of your surroundings. Rockfall hazard zones occur throughout the park near any cliff faces. If you witness a rockfall from the Valley floor, quickly move away from the cliff toward the center of the Valley. If you are near the base of a cliff or talus slope when a rockfall occurs above, immediately seek shelter behind the largest nearby boulder. After rocks have stopped falling, move quickly away from the cliff toward the center of the Valley. Be aware that rockfalls are inherently unpredictable and may happen at any time. Pay attention to warning signs, stay off of closed trails, and, if unsure, keep away from the cliffs.
Inform park staff if you witness a rockfall. If you witness or hear a rockfall of any size, please report it by calling 209/379-1420 or reporting it at one of the park Visitor Centers. This information is useful for assessing rockfall hazards and adds to the growing knowledge base of rockfall activity in the park.
Understand this dynamic natural process. Remember that Yosemite is a wild place. Rockfall is the most powerful geologic agent acting today in Yosemite. The dramatic cliffs of Yosemite are constantly being shaped by this potent natural force.
Yosemite Rockfall Year in Review: 2017
There many large and consequential rockfalls in Yosemite in 2017, with a record 85 events (including rockfalls, rockslides, and debris flows) documented. The cumulative volume of these events was about 36,800 cubic meters. Although this is not the largest annual volume recorded, greater volumes in previous years were typically dominated by one very large event (for example, the 46,700 cubic meter rockfall from Ahwiyah Point in 2009), whereas the cumulative volume for 2017 resulted from several large and medium-sized rockfalls.
The largest event in 2017 almost escaped notice. On the stormy morning of January 12, road crews encountered downed trees and a damaged manhole on the road between Pohono Bridge and the Big Oak Flat Road junction. They also noticed a suspiciously fresh-looking boulder in the Merced River. Subsequent investigation revealed that the boulder was part of a very large rockslide that originated far above the road in an area known (appropriately) as “The Rockslides.” The total volume of this slide was about 20,000 cubic meters (almost 60,000 tons), most of which was scattered throughout the forested slopes above the road. If not for the single boulder that hit the road, this rockslide might have escaped notice for some time.
Much greater road damage occurred on June 12, when about 650 cubic meters (nearly 2,000 tons) of rock fell from “Parkline Slab,” a sloping cliff just east of the park boundary near El Portal. About one-third of the rock debris landed on the El Portal Road, burying a 60 meter (200 foot)-long section of road under tons of rock; fortunately, there were no cars directly under this area, despite the rockfall occurring around noon during the busy summer season. The road was closed for five days as crews cleared debris and repaired the roadbed. Much loose debris remains on the slope above the road, and could continue to slide during intense rainstorms.
The year’s most consequential rockfalls occurred from the southeast face of El Capitan in September. The first of these occurred at 1:52 pm on September 27, when 290 cubic meters (860 tons) of rock fell from the cliff near the path of Horsetail Fall. Two rock climbers were walking along the base of the cliff directly under the area, and, sadly, one of them was killed and the other seriously injured. YOSAR quickly extracted both climbers, as several more rockfalls totaling 163 cubic meters (440 tons) pummeled the base of the cliff over the next few hours. At 3:21 pm the following day (September 28), a much larger rockfall occurred from the same location. This rockfall, totaling 10,324 cubic meters (27,875 tons), buried trees at the base of the cliff and generated a huge dust cloud that fanned out across the valley. A small rock fragment hit a vehicle traveling on Northside Drive, puncturing the sunroof and injuring the driver. Northside Drive was closed for 24 hours as geologists assessed the potential for additional activity. Several smaller rockfalls occurred from this same area in October and November.
Other substantial rockfalls in 2017 occurred at Little Windy Point on the El Portal Road, Ahwiyah Point, Glacier Point, El Capitan, Middle Cathedral Rock, and Hetch Hetchy.
It is very likely that there were additional rockfalls and rockslides in 2017, but these events either were not witnessed or went unreported. If you witness a rockfall of any size, encounter fresh rock debris, or hear cracking or popping sounds emanating from the cliffs, please contact park geologist Greg Stock at 209/379-1420 or e-mail us, or contact park dispatch by dialing 911 within the park. Documented rockfalls are added to the park database, enabling long-term evaluation of rockfall activity to improve public safety.
Get the details concerning the Ahwiyah Point rockfall on March 28, 2009, near Half Dome. This rockfall was the largest in Yosemite National Park since an even larger one occurred from Middle Brother in 1987.