To experience a storm sky sunrise with lightning and heavy rain in the Grand Canyon at Point Imperial is among the great spectacles of nature. This already magnificent panorama impresses even more when the summer monsoon wave. rolls across the Grand Canyon with lines of thunderstorms and clouds forming within the canyon. In the cool and humid morning air, you can truly feel the breath of eternity.
Standing at the 2.683 meter (8.803 feet) uplift of the North Rim of Arizona’s Grand Canyon, the view sweeps across Nankoweap Canyon and the confluence of the Colorado River with the Little Colorado River. The tan-colored spiky summit of 2.549 meter (8.362 feet) Mount Hayden is composed of hard cliff-forming Coconino Sandstone from the Permian period of the dinosaurs. This sandstone is the third youngest of the Grand Canyon strata and was deposited as sand dunes 265 million years ago. Below the Coconino Sandstone is the reddish, slope-forming Hermit Formation, also of Permian age, which in turn is overlain by the Late Carboniferous to Permian Supai Group.
Looking down into the distant canyon, where the Colorado River flows hidden from the view, a window opens up into the deep past of our planet. These dark rocks are Precambrian in age and up to 2000 million years old. But how was the Grand Canyon formed?
The rocks layers become successively older from the rim of the canyon all the way down to the Colorado River. At the bottom of the canyon, the rocks date back to the early days of the earth, but geologically speaking, the Grand Canyon itself is very young. The Colorado River required a mere five million years to create this marvel of geology. Thus, the Grand Canyon is even younger than the history of the hominids from which humans evolved. In order for the Colorado River to create a 1.800 meter (5.905 feet) deep canyon during this time period, it had to incise into the rock while the entire region of the Colorado Plateau including Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico had to rise by the same amount to form a plateau. 1.800 meters (5.905 feet) in five million years is equivalent to 0.36 millimeters per year (0.014 inch per year). When we look at the canyon in amazement and wonder how the earth is able to create such a structure, the true answer is that it does so very slowly with tremendous amounts of time! That a river is able to cut into a landscape will not surprise us. But how could the entire Colorado Plateau rise to more than 2.700 m (8.860 feet) above sea level within just five million years?
The answer to that question has global dimensions. While the American continent collides with the Pacific Ocean plate, the heavier oceanic plate submerges under the continent along the west coast of North America. This produces the active volcanoes on the west coast of the United States and Canada. During this collision, the Mid-Pacific Rise, a volcanic ridge rising up to 2.000 m (6.600 feet) above the sea-floor, also shifted beneath the continent. At the time this huge bulge in the subsiding ocean crust moved under the four corners region it uplifted the Colorado Plateau. Simultaneously, the land to the west of it, the Basin-and-Range region in eastern California and Nevada subsided, with Death Valley even sinking below sea level. Along this suture, simultaneously with the Colorado Plateau uplift, a new ocean basin opened up forming the Gulf of California. If this rifting motion continues in the future, the Gulf of California will enter the Basin-and-Range region while the Colorado Plateau continues to be uplifted. The Colorado River actually remained at its elevation while the land was steadily uplifted, resulting in the Grand Canyon.
My euphoria about the successful sunset photo shooting of the monsoon storm the night before at Cape Royal. was immense. I had been waiting for three weeks for these thunderstorms of the North American monsoon to sweep away the monotonous blue skies over the Grand Canyon. Since the thunderstorms arrived, it had repeatedly rained torrentially. Staying at the canyon rim was quite risky, as some lightning bolts struck in my immediate vicinity. Several times, I had to interrupt my photographic efforts leaving the canyon rim. It was unbelievable that exactly during sunset the rain stopped at Cape Royal for half an hour. The sun illuminated the thunderclouds with their showers from below and I was treated with this spectacular panorama. In a frenzy of joy about this experience, I returned to my car in the dark when again the rain set in surrounding me by lightning.
I had gotten soaking wet, with only my camera equipment hanging well packed and dry on my shoulder. Arriving at the car, I celebrated the success of this shooting with cold bean soup and a whiskey. The pouring rain was drumming on my car roof and the lightning lit up the trees of the forest bizarrely. The thunder was so loud that the windows vibrated. Spending that night in the tent would not have been fun. The storm stayed with me all night and the lightning bolts were flashing every minute while the rain was torrentially falling from the sky. Sleeping was quite impossible and so I made myself comfortable in my sleeping bag and enjoyed this spectacle of the forces of nature.
My plan to drive to the Grand Canyon rim at Point Imperial for sunrise did not seem too reasonable given this weather. As magnificent as a monsoon wave is, the planned photo is thwarted when caught in the midst of the pouring rain. Once again, I checked the weather forecast and the precipitation radar images to find that the monsoon wave would give way to blue skies already by noon. So there was not another chance for the planned photo at Point Imperial. At four in the morning, the alarm clock rang as usual, although sleeping was impossible anyway. Thunder after thunder was still roaring. I changed from the sleeping bag to the driver’s seat and headed for Point Imperial. Driving this narrow and partly one-lane pass road in this weather condition was an adventure in itself. The rain was falling so heavily from the sky that the wipers could hardly keep up. The narrow road resembled more an off-road dirt trail and had partially turned into a muddy creek. I repeatedly had to drive around larger stones that were lying in the way and get out several times to clear away branches that were blocking the road. Thus, I became soaking wet again and finally arrived at Point Imperial after what felt like an eternity. Actually, it should have dawned long ago, but it remained pitch dark, except for the brief moments in which the lightning twitched, and the rain continued to pelt down on the landscape.
About ten minutes prior to sunrise, I noticed that it suddenly became brighter and that it was raining only normally. Thereafter, the sky in front of me colored in dark hues of red. I jumped out of the car, grabbed the photo equipment and tripod and hastily hurried along the trail to Point Imperial. After just a short time, I stood breathless and speechless at the same time at the edge of the canyon. It had stopped raining and the panorama of the Grand Canyon was partially veiled by clouds, while the sun colored the horizon red. As already on the previous evening, my emotions boiled over. Again, I was at the right place at the right time and was allowed to witness this spectacle. Mechanically I operated my camera sitting on the tripod to record this 180° panorama. It is exactly these moments that compensate for everything one suffers through during such a tour. Tears of joy and deep emotions rolled down my face and mixed with my already wet clothes. Again, I cheered my euphoria out into the cold damp morning and breathed in eternity.