Sunset Crater and a Seismic America

Photo by Aaron J. Wolf

Sleeping north and east of Flagstaff, Arizona, just north of I-40 is Sunset Crater, the heart of a complex of volcanos – the San Francisco volcanic field – that dot the southern section of the Colorado Plateau. The oldest of these volcanoes dates from six million years years ago, and the youngest, Sunset Crater, is a babylike 1,000 years old. To be sure, Northern Arizona is not what a Californian would think of as a geologically active region, but geologists figure that the top end of the Grand Canyon State sits atop a hot spot in the Earth’s mantle, and that it’s only a matter of time before Sunset Crater or something just to the east of it erupts.

One of those silent cultural changes that takes place once you pass the Colorado River on your way east is the disappearance of what for lack of a better phrase I’ll call “seismic consciousness.” The rest of the nation seems blissfully unaware that while California is blessed, if you will, with a level of earthquake activity unmatched elsewhere in the continental United States, the rest of the continent is not immune. Volcanoes dot Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. The nation is suffused with faults, and our route east along I-40 and old Route 66 bisected a trans-continental belt of seismic danger zones that stretches from Arizona to the Carolinas, peaking in a California-like danger zone along the Mississippi River from Memphis to St. Louis.

Yet hotel room safety cards ignore the possibility of earthquake, and even many modern public buildings – most infamously the Memphis Pyramid – were built to standards that would not hold up in an earthquake. Checking into a hotel in a moderately hazardous zone in Knoxville, Tennessee, the emergency information in the phone book was silent on what to do in case the ground started to move. And they call us Lotus Eaters.

Sunset Crater is just a highly visible reminder that the earth can shake anywhere. California has a lot we can teach the nation, provided they are ready to learn before it is too late.

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