The stunning ‘firefall’ effect on Yosemite’s El Capitan is set to make an appearance this month, with photographers from around the world gathering in expectation.
Due to a trick of the light, the orange liquid is water pouring over the side of the 2,000-ft-high Horsetail Falls.
For only a few days around the third week of February the elements are perfect for the last of the day’s sun rays to strike the waterfall, creating a magical orange glow.
Under clear skies and with the right amount of water, the so-called ‘firefall’ has the appearance of a flowing cascade of burning lava.
But a lack of rain in California this season may prevent the appearance of the Yosemite National Park’s rare ‘firefall’ that draws photographers from over the world.
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Sunlight hits the Horsetail Fall, turning it into a “Firefall”, at Yosemite National Park, California, U.S., February 17, 2019
Horsetail Fall is nearly dry, with no precipitation in the weather forecast this season (right) compared to last year
A dry winter has left water levels in the park low, meaning the appearance of the orange ‘firefall’ effect is in doubt this season – possibly due to climate change.
Dryer-than-usual conditions means photographers and Instagrammers alike may have to wait at least another year to get a perfect shot of the unusual natural effect.
January and February have been storm-free with light snow falls, meaning water that would normally flow down the mountainside each year is sparse.
Instead, the sun that usually illuminates a cascade of water will transform the edge of El Capitan into a colourful cliffside.
Patrick Gonzalez, an environmental scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, says the future of the firefall is uncertain, likely due to climate change.
Hotter temperatures due to climate change could increase evaporation and leave the park dry, he says.
‘Projections under continued climate change also show a mixed picture, with two-thirds of climate models projecting increased precipitation and the rest projecting decreases,’ Gonzalez told the Guardian.
The US National Park Service website says ‘Horsetail Fall has little to no water’ this year and has placed restrictions on access to the popular tourist site.
Due to the popularity of the event and the lack of water, restrictions are in effect for any chance of sighting the firefall this year from February 13 to 27.
Yosemite National Park in California spans over 1,864 miles (3,000km) and attracts 3.5million visitors a year
Overcrowded riverbanks (left) create a safety hazard and damage sensitive riverbank vegetation, allowing further erosion during the rest of the year. Right: A section of riverbank collapsed under stress from spectators during February 2017
Thanks in part to social media, visitors to the sight have increased dramatically over the last decade.
WHAT IS THE YOSEMITE ‘FIREFALL’?
The Horsetail Fall, in Yosemite National Park, the US, is a seasonal waterfall that flows in the winter and spring.
If the weather conditions are right, the setting sun illuminates the water flowing down the rocky face, making it look like fierce orange lava.
Because the so-called ‘firefall’ needs a warm enough temperature to melt snow at the top as well as the sun to set at the right angle and clear skies, the effect is not visible every year.
The firefall also needs evenings with a clear sky, as even a slight haziness of cloudiness can diminish the effect.
Of the millions that visit the park each year, tourists choose to travel to Yosemite around the third week of February to capture the firefall.
Last year, more than 2,200 people crammed into the woods to watch the falls on a single day, and the tourist attraction has been described as a victim of its own success.
Photographers with their tripods spilled onto riverbanks in an attempt to get a good viewing spot, increasing erosion and trampling vegetation, leaving rubbish in their wake.
The park service has close two of the three main viewing area this year, meaning visitors will have to park their cars and walk 1.5 miles to the single viewing spot, near El Capitan Picnic Area.
Engineer Aaron Meyer, who first viewed the firefall in 2011, built a computer program that calculates the days where the lava-like flow would be at its fullest, viewable on his blog.
Describing his first view of the effect, he told the Guardian: ‘The clouds opened up just before sunset and it looked like someone had taken a match to the waterfall, you watched it go light up from top to bottom.
‘Everyone erupted in cheers; it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.’
Under clear skies and with the right amount of water, the so-called ‘firefall’ has the appearance of a flowing cascade of burning lava
Sunlight hits the Horsetail Fall last year. Even a slight haziness in the sky can preventing the evening sunlight from hitting the water
Another photographer, Paul Reiffer from the UK, said that last year the site was full of what seemed like thousands of people jammed into small viewing areas.
“It felt like an outside concert, with everyone and their picnic blanket trying to claim their spot.
‘It’s crowded to the point where you are locking tripods with each other.’