22 million in crosshairs as Alert level on volcano in Mexico roaring to life near Capital


Mexico has raised its alert level on the Popocatepetl volcano Sunday following an increase in tremors and explosions of ash that shuttered airports in nearby Mexico City and Puebla.

A panel of experts recommended raising the alert level to “yellow phase three” from “yellow phase two” on the volcano, located 70 km (44 miles) southeast of Mexico City, the country’s head of civil protection, Laura Velazquez, said in a press conference.

The increase leaves a “stoplight” one level away from red. Officials were ordered to make checks on evacuation routes and emergency shelters in case of need, Velazquez said.

The state capital of Puebla was covered by ash for the first time in around a decade and its airport was closed on Sunday, Milenio TV reported.

“We are in a phase of alert, not alarm,” Puebla’s governor Sergio Salomon said in a video message posted on Twitter. He said evacuations weren’t required but that residents close to the volcano should be prepared.

The 17,797-foot (5,426-meter) volcano, known affectionately as “El Popo,” has been spewing toxic fumes, ash and lumps of incandescent rock persistently for almost 30 years, since it awakened from a long slumber in 1994.

According to PBS, The volcano is 45 miles (72 kilometers) southeast of Mexico City, but looms much closer to the eastern fringes of the metropolitan area of 22 million people. The city also faces threats from earthquakes and sinking soil, but the volcano is the most visible potential danger — and the most closely watched. A severe eruption could cut off air traffic, or smother the city in clouds of choking ash.

Ringed around its summit are six cameras, a thermal imaging device and 12 seismological monitoring stations that operate 24 hours a day, all reporting back to an equipment-filled command center in Mexico City.

A total of 13 scientists from a multidisciplinary team take turns staffing the command center around the clock. Being able to warn of an impending ash cloud is key, because people can take precautions. Unlike earthquakes, warning times can be longer for the volcano, and in general the peak is more predictable.

On a recent day, researcher Paulino Alonso made the rounds, checking the readings at the command center run by Mexico’s National Disaster Prevention Center, known by its initials as Cenapred. It is a complex task that involves seismographs that measure the volcano’s internal trembling, which could indicate hot rock and gas moving up the vents in the peak.

I’ve always loved driving around my home state to see its natural wonders. Whether it’s wading in the Blanco River looking for dinosaur tracks or entering the coolness of one of Texas’s nine thousand caves (as long as it doesn’t involve crawling), there are endless sights to see. As COVID-19 restrictions loosen, this summer is a perfect time to hit the road and hike through canyons, swim in spring-fed pools, and explore . . . volcanoes?

In case you didn’t know, Texas’s fascinatingly diverse geology was formed in no small part by periods of violent volcanism that occurred between about 27 million and 80 million years ago. There are roughly two hundred igneous sites around the state that include a mix of intrusive and extrusive structures, such as calderas, or the collapsed remains of volcanoes that erupted at one point. There is even an extinct volcano in Austin, near where I live, that I never knew existed.  

It was the TV series 9-1-1: Lone Star (a pandemic guilty pleasure if ever there was one) that tipped me off to the state’s volcanic past. The now internet-famous episode centered on the eruption of Pilot Knob, a long-extinct (but very real) volcano on the outskirts of Austin, about five miles from my house. The scenes of firefighters saving residents from encroaching lava, flying volcanic rocks, and a hot tub that had turned into a boiling geothermal pool were more cringey than terrifying, but still, the show piqued my curiosity. I was not alone: according to Google Trends, searches for “Austin volcano” peaked in the days after the show aired and viewers expressed mock anxiety on Twitter. The episode left me wondering: What’s the story of volcanoes in Texas?

Where to See Volcanoes in Texas

Before hitting the road, pick up a good field guide, such as Roadside Geology of Texas, by Darwin Spearing. A Texas geological highway map is available at the Bureau of Economic Geology, which has an excellent online store. Far Flung Outdoor Center in Terlingua offers jeep tours of the Big Bend region and will customize itineraries for those especially interested in volcanoes. The following list was created with the generous help of the Bureau of Economic Geology and geologists Linda Ruiz McCall, Pat Dickerson, and Tristan Childress.

Chisos Volcanic Complex
Location: Big Bend National Park
Volcanism: Lava domes, ash flows, and calderas make for some of the best geology in the state. The western caldera wall rises steeply from the valley floor, and through the Window, an erosional notch in the wall, the grand lava dome of Casa Grande dominates the landscape (see photo).
Highlight: Viewed to the east as sundown approaches, the reddish hue of the rhyolites and ignimbrites adds to the impression of a rugged volcano.
Viewpoint: Ross Maxwell Drive en route to Santa Elena Canyon.

Cornudas Vents
Location: Texas–New Mexico border, near Dell City
Volcanism: Between 31 and 35 million years old, this striking cluster of “intrusive alkaline igneous bodies” (formed underground and exposed by erosion over time) rises out of the Chihuahuan Desert.
Highlight: From Dell City, you can also see El Capitan to the east (it’s magnificent at sunrise).
Viewpoint: The best physical access point to the mountains is from the New Mexico side, but they can be viewed on U.S. 62, driving west toward El Paso.

Davis Mountains
Location: Fort Davis
Volcanism: The 35-million-year-old Davis Mountains are formed by magma from two volcanic centers—the Paisano Volcano, west of Alpine, and the Buckhorn Caldera, northwest of Fort Davis.
Highlight: Limpia Canyon and Wild Rose Pass provide excellent exposures of the varied and extensive flows and pyroclastic strata.
Viewpoint: The 75-mile scenic drive on Texas highways 118 and 161 through the mountains. Also the hiking trail from Davis Mountains State Park to the Fort Davis National Historic Site. Cliffs of tuff form the backdrop to the old fort.

Mitre Peak
Location: Eleven miles west of Fort Davis
Volcanism: This freestanding intrusive mountain contains 35-million-year-old rhyolite lava from the Davis Mountains complex and has been sculpted over time by erosion.
Highlight: Its distinctive shape resembles a bishop’s mitre (headgear), from which it takes its name.
Viewpoint: Clayton’s Overlook at Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center.

Paisano Pass
Location: U.S. 90 between Alpine and Marfa
Volcanism: As you drive over the collapsed crater of the Paisano Volcano, which erupted about 35 million years ago, you can see light-colored syenite, which resembles granite. Rhyolite lava (“paisanite”) from an earlier eruption is exposed in nearby highway roadcuts.
Highlight: Be sure to check out the information display at the rest area on U.S. 90, erected by the Big Bend Snapshot of History Project, which includes a QR code to access photos and videos about the area’s geology.

Paisano Volcano, Davis Mountains
The Paisano Volcano, west of Alpine.
Courtesy of the Bureau of Economic Geology
Pilot Knob
Location: Southeast Austin, not far from Austin Bergstrom International Airport.
Volcanism: Pilot Knob was part of the Balcones group of volcanoes that once stretched from Waco to Uvalde (many are underground).
Viewpoint: Intersection of Dee Gabriel Collins Road and McKinney Falls Parkway.

Quitman Mountains Caldera Complex
Location: Hudspeth County
Volcanism: This series of calderas dates back to the Eocene (35 million years ago) and includes intrusive as well as volcanic rocks. Distinctive folds of sedimentary strata loom high above the desert.
Highlight: Craggy volcanic peaks interrupt the long linear folds of lighter-colored Cretaceous sedimentary rocks.
Viewpoint: Driving west from Van Horn on Interstate 10, the distinctive sedimentary folds and rocks of this volcanic mountain range rise up dramatically. This stretch of highway also takes you past the Eagle Mountain caldera.

Three Dike Hill
Location: Southernmost Big Bend Ranch State Park
Volcanism: At this 27-million-year-old site, dark basalt dikes cut up through varicolored softer tuff layers to feed lava flows at the top of the hill. You’ll also get a clear view of a feeder dike that delivered basalt to the upper lava flow.
Highlight: In his book El Camino del Rio: The River Road, the late naturalist, author, and Big Bend Ranch tour guide David Alloway described this site as looking like “fingers of dark rock rising vertically through buff volcanic ash.”
Viewpoint: Travel west from Lajitas on the River Road (FM 170), until you see highway signs for Arenosa Campground. Continue west from the campground for 3.6 miles more; the pullout and parking area for Three Dike Hill are on the northeast side of FM 170.

Tuff Canyon
Location: Big Bend National Park
Volcanism: Here you can see basalt lava rocks and pyroclastic debris (or fiery pieces, including the namesake “tuff” or hardened volcanic ash) that were expelled from the Chisos volcanoes 29–30 million years ago.
Highlight: Marvel at the volcanic glass that’s melted into rock draperies.
Viewpoint: There’s a pullout and parking lot with several accessible viewpoints. Choose from short, family-friendly hikes and longer walks to the canyon floor.

Uvalde Volcanoes
Location: U.S. 90 between Knippa and Brackettville
Volcanism: Volcanic eruptions were plentiful in the Texas Hill Country during the Cretaceous period, at around the same time as Pilot Knob. A number of lava bodies can still be seen in the Uvalde area. They include two prominent volcanic domes at Knippa; Mount Inge, a volcanic plug near historic Fort Inge, and a roadcut three miles west of Sabinal, where you can see dark volcanic breccia rocks weathered by white caliche.
Highlight: Mount Inge is a broad, dark dome (elevation 140 feet) that presides over the state historical park.
Viewpoint: Fort Inge Historical Park, a mile south of Uvalde.

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