John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Popocatépetl is a fire-and-smoke-belching monster that just happens to be remarkably easy on the eyes.
Living next to an active volcano must suck in plenty of ways: bed-shaking rumbling at night, ash in the morning's scrambled eggs and, always, the threat of an immediate and messy evacuation.
But for people who marvel at the awesome power of nature, there's nothing keener for the eyes than a quaking, smoke-belching giant looming right over the city skyline. Just look at the titanic blowhole of hell-vapors that is Popocatépetl, the second-highest volcano in North America that squats about 50 miles southeast of Mexico City.
Popocatépetl's crater used to harbor a warm lake of crystal-turquoise water, but repeated eruptions in the past couple of decades cleared that out. Now it's seemingly bottomless central tube (which you can peer down on Google Maps) is an almost daily conduit for ashes, which coat the ground in nearby towns and flurry like dark snow as far away as Mexico City.
For the past two weeks the volcano has been fuming and booming more than usual, prompting government work crews to prep for cleaning ash from reservoirs and distributing thousands of surgical masks. Popocatépetl has actually calmed down since Monday, when the National Center for Disaster Prevention warned about the "possibility of a medium- to high-level explosion on the volcano." But should it start acting up again, up to 3,000 Mexicans might have to beat an exodus away from the fire-belcher.
If they're anything like me, though, they'll want to get back as soon as possible to catch the next marvelous sunset over Popocatépetl. While from above the 17,900-foot volcano might look like a desolate set piece from The Lord of the Rings...
...in the right light from the ground, the charred peak becomes a real stunner. Take a gander at these shots from past years. "Popo," as the locals affectionately call it, assumes a resplendent glory in the mornings and a zen calmness in the later hours:
What's it doing right now? You can find that out by checking this or that webcam (for the second link, you might have to select Popo on the drop-down menu at top left). With luck, it won't be looking and sounding like this outburst from 2011: