Experts monitoring a volcano eruption on the Spanish island of La Palma in the Atlantic Ocean now believe the rivers of lava flowing from the Cumbre Vieja ridge may not reach the sea after all. These towering lava flows, some up to 12 meters high, have been slowing down since they began to descend the mountainside on Sunday.
Satellite images show that rivers of molten rock have already engulfed around 154 hectares of land and destroyed 320 homes. The advancing lava also forced the evacuation of 6,000 people at this popular tourist destination in Spain’s Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa.
Firefighters sent from Gran Canaria on Tuesday attempted to redirect lava away from homes in the Todoque neighborhood in the town of Los Llanos, flattening the earth along its path with heavy machinery. The hope was that the lava would take the easy path and head for a ravine without engulfing the buildings. “We had to at least try,” said a firefighter as the lava wall got closer and closer Wednesday morning.
But by the afternoon, molten rock had already entered several parts of the neighborhood, where residents had an hour to return home on Tuesday to collect essential items. Island authorities have extended this deadline to 9 p.m. Wednesday.
A cloud of sulfur dioxide is expected to reach mainland Spain Wednesday afternoon and gradually cover the entire Iberian Peninsula Thursday and Friday, according to the Copernicus program of the European Space Agency.
Pablo Casado, leader of the main opposition party, the Popular Party (PP), has called on the government to approve a declaration of disaster for the region. “What we are seeing is not a wonderful spectacle, it is a disaster,” he said on Wednesday.
The behavior of the volcano so far, as well as the history of the region, suggests that for the next few weeks there will continue to be an effusive rather than an explosive eruption – that is, when the magma s ‘flows from the vent and oozes the mountain side as lava, without sending rocks, ash or gas high into the air. But experts noted that it is difficult to predict how the lava will act in the next few hours, because when the surface in contact with the air cools and solidifies, the flow is deflected in different directions.
“It’s possible that [the lava] will reach the sea if there are enough emissions, but the lava flows have been cooling for two days now, ”said Raúl Pérez, geologist, seismologist and researcher at the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain (IGME), and member of the Cabeza de Vaca eruption monitoring team in La Palma. “He may or may not reach it. We are talking about a fluid with very complex mechanics.
A scientific committee monitoring the eruption measured the progress of the lava flow, which is now advancing 200 meters every hour. If it comes into contact with seawater, it should release a large amount of gas and potentially trigger explosions. This temporary pollution would change the temperature and acidity of the water, reduce the oxygen concentration and increase the levels of CO2 and other metals.
As of mid-morning Wednesday, the lava front was 2.5 kilometers from the coast in a straight line, according to satellite images captured by Copernicus. The area covered by the lava flow had increased by 50% in 12 hours.
The Regional Prime Minister of the Canary Islands, Ángel Víctor Torres, said on Wednesday that no further evacuations had taken place in recent hours and that the evacuees were being accommodated in military installations, hotels and apartments. For them, a return to normal life will not be possible once the eruption is over, as many conditions will have to be met regarding the safety of buildings and surrounding land.
A peak of energy this Tuesday
Volcanologists reported that on Tuesday evening, the volcano’s energy peaked which was reflected in the seismic signals, and the magma was spat out with greater force, reaching heights of 400 meters. By 8 p.m., the ground in the area of the eruption had lifted nearly 30 centimeters. Also around the same time, the main cone vent of the volcano opened and partially collapsed.
By Wednesday morning, however, the tremor signals had become considerably weaker. At this point, lava was flowing from four vents on the volcano: three in the area of origin and one that later opened in Tacande.
english version by Susana Urra.