The La Palma volcanic eruption came as a surprise to many on Sunday the 19th of September mainly due to scientists’ insistence that a volcanic eruption was “not imminent”. However, it was no surprise also as the Spanish Canaries Island of La Palma had experienced over 22,000 tremors before the onset of the volcanic eruption. These tremors were mostly unfelt and were an ‘earthquake swarm‘. Just over a week later now, and the island is covered in a blanket of ash with entire villages being swept away and buried in lava. Tremors can still be felt. La Palma is one of eight volcanic Spanish Canary Islands.
Where Scientist Got It Wrong
According to Geologists and other scientists monitoring the Cumbre Vieja volcanic mountain ranges, an eruption was not imminent despite the tens of thousands of tremors before the eruption. The volcano had been inactive for over 50 years with no eruption and this might have misled the scientists into thinking that it had gone overtly inactive. La Palma’s last volcanic eruption was in 1971 and lasted for over 21 days.
La Palma, one of the smallest Canary Islands in Spain, is known for its fertile volcanic soil which the island’s farmers depend on for their livelihoods. Sunday’s eruption, however, saw farmers rushing to save their crops before the lava, which is molten rock that turns black when exposed to air, reached their farms. The eruption has also released sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, a chemical that is harmful to human health. The sulfur dioxide has reached choking levels in parts of the island as the eruption cordon has been further widened.
Extreme Pressure, Lava, and Black Ash
A volcano is in many ways similar to a pressure cooker and when it reaches maximum pressure, the lava is spewed out in a violent rumble of molten rock that is over 1000 degrees Celsius. Some of the lava falls back into the volcano, creating more pressure that is spewed out again, in a cycle of lava and pressure. Magma (extremely hot liquid and semi-liquid rocks under the earth’s surface) may also block the spewing out of lava, creating more pressure.
When magma erupts or flows onto the surface of the earth, it is referred to as Lava. As this happens, a huge plume of volcanic ash is released into the air that later falls to the earth as black ash or soot that can reach levels where it can be likened to snow. As it stands, most of the island is covered in this black ash, which is harmful to humans. The authorities in La Palma have, therefore, been advising residents to wear personal protective eyeglasses and masks to avoid inhaling the volcanic ash or the ash entering their eyes.
Lava Heading to Sea
When the lava reaches the sea, it will produce harmful gases that could irritate the lungs, eyes, and skin as they are toxic and acidic. As such, La Palma is bracing for a possible evacuation of the affected residents even as over 6,000 residents and 400 tourists have already been evacuated. Those whose homes were affected were given just an hour to evacuate on the onset of the eruption, many of whom have now lost their homes. The La Palma volcano eruption poses the danger of a huge environmental disaster.
La Palma is not known as a ‘touristy’ island, much unlike the other Spanish Canary Islands. However, the volcanic eruption has attracted tourists who have reveled in the ‘joy’ of watching a volcano erupt. Nonetheless, residents feel that it is unfortunate that tourists are enjoying the demise of their homes and the loss of their livelihoods. The eruption is set to last for anywhere between twenty-four and eighty-four days. Residents have been advised to stay indoors.
What has been Lost so Far
Over 593 acres of land spanning 15.7km have been affected by the lava flow. Fourteen kilometers of roads have already been destroyed, with over 390 buildings either fully destroyed or damaged. Two churches were also destroyed.
The cloud of ash resulting from the eruption has gone as high as 4.5 km, leading to the grounding of flights to and from the island. According to the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, there could be “very long days ahead”. The Prime Minister was slated to attend the UN General Assembly but canceled and instead traveled to La Palma to assess the situation.