The Spanish Civil Guard evacuated around 5,000 people from their homes last night after a volcanic eruption took place on the Canary Island of La Palma at 3.12pm local time on Montaña Rajada, in the forest area of Cabeza de Vaca in El Paso.
The emergency level was raised to red at 5pm local time, affecting the municipalities of Tazacorte, El Paso, Fuencaliente, Mazo and Los Llanos de Aridane, which are home to a total of around 40,000 people.
The authorities had estimated that as many as 10,000 people might have to be evacuated from their homes, and recommended to residents that they close all windows and exterior doors, close window blinds and turn off their supplies of water, gas and electricity before making their way to the established meeting points.
On Monday morning, the Civil Guard confirmed via a tweet that there were seven roads cut off in both directions due to the eruption. These are the LP301 and LP212 in El Paso, the LP214, LP211 and LP213 in Los llanos de Aridane, the LP105 in San Andrés and the LP2 in Tajuya.
There have been no reported victims or injuries so far, but by Monday morning the local authorities were estimating that lava flows had destroyed around a hundred homes in El Paso.
Thousands Evacuated as Canary Island Volcano Erupts. The eruption was the first in 50 years on La Palma, a resort island in the Canary archipelago popular with visitors from northern Europe. pic.twitter.com/v6e638MDzT— Cleavon MD 💉 (@Cleavon_MD) September 20, 2021
An exclusion zone of two kilometers was established around the area in order to minimize the impact of airborne particles and gases. The eruption created two fissures that are 200 meters apart, with lava reportedly flowing from eight different points.
“It is not likely that anyone else will need to be evacuated,” announced the regional premier of the Canary Islands, Ángel Víctor Torres, speaking at a news conference at around 10.30pm local time (one hour behind mainland Spain) last night. “The lava is moving toward the coast and the damage will be material.”
[20:40 h UTC+1]— Roger (@efadi_LP) September 19, 2021
Some asked me where the eruption of the vulcanoe on #LaPalma is. It is in the region of the red dot and the lava rivers are flowind into the orange arrow direction. pic.twitter.com/O3ZvqTq5fL
Torres explained that some “17 to 20 million cubic meters of lava” was being released in the eruption. “Everything points to there not being new eruption points,” he continued. “There may be some other fissures but the safety of citizens is guaranteed.”
Tsunami ruled out… But…
At the moment, a tsunami is RULED OUT. The area that is feared to be causing the tsunami is at the southwestern side of the island (green circled area). We are far from it right now!
As of this moment, with the type of eruption that is ongoing, the megatsunami is RULED OUT.
However, please still be vigilant. If there will be a bigger forceful eruption, that flank may give way. The surface continues to deform, with a current uplift of around 19 cm. Therefore, the scenario of new eruptive fissures opening might be not that unlikely at all.
Surface inflation means that more magma is being stored underground that (can erupt) erupts at the surface – the existing paths are not large enough. The volcano might choose to either enlarge them or create new ones… Maybe in the south?
Eruption could last several weeks to a few months
A small earthquake in the Las Manchas neighborhood in El Paso preceded a huge explosion yesterday afternoon, which was followed by an enormous plume of smoke and the expulsion of airborne fragments known as pyroclasts. The volcano erupted in an uninhabited area of the mountain, and caused a number of small forest fires. The authorities requested that no one approach the area.
The eruption in La Palma could last “several weeks or a few months,” according to the director of the Canaries’ Volcanology Institute, Nemesio Pérez. Speaking this morning on the Cadena SER radio network, he explained that the duration would depend on the amount of magma that had accumulated in the volcano’s “reservoir.”
He added that the emissions of sulfur dioxide from the volcano will need to be studied in order to help determine how long the episode will continue. “The first day we calculated between 6,000 and 9,000 tons, and a falling trend will be indicative of a diminishing eruption,” he explained. “Once 48 hours have passed with no emissions, we can conclude that it has ended.”
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who yesterday canceled a trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly so that he could travel to La Palma and oversee operations there, will today visit one of the shelters for people who were evacuated from their homes due to the eruption. The center is located in El Fuerte and is being run by the Red Cross. He will be accompanied by the interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska. Sánchez yesterday gave a guarantee that the inhabitants of the affected areas would be safe, and stated that assistance would be expedited for those who have suffered material losses and damage.
The air navigation manager in Spain, Enaire, recommended that no flights land on the island. Airlines have the final say as to whether they fly to La Palma, given that air traffic was not officially closed.
The Canary Islands’ regional premier, Ángel Víctor Torres, said on Monday morning that the volcano had already emitted more than 20,000 tons of sulfur dioxide. The wind conditions, however, meant that this was not forcing the closure of the airport on the island for now.
The mayor of El Paso, Rodríguez Fernández, told EL PAÍS last night that the lava had damaged some houses, but that in principle it “will not be problematic.” He also said that around 350 people were headed last night to the local soccer pitch where they would be staying until the situation was under control. “The area is totally evacuated, it is safe for people but not for infrastructure,” he told the Cadena SER radio network on Monday morning. “The ash is an added danger, but it is difficult to control.” The local education board decided to cancel classes for Monday in El Paso, Los Llanos de Aridane and Tazacorte, according to Canarias Radio.
The eruption followed a series of constant small tremors, known as an earthquake swarm, which began on September 11 in Cumbre Vieja national park in the south of the island. The fast process, which has been releasing large amounts of energy, sparked the eruption in an area that had not been active since 1971.
Facts about the La Palma eruption of September 19, 2021
1. Some numbers
Sulfur dioxide emissions
First estimated amount of sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions occurring in the plume reached to a 6000-9000 tonnes/day provided by the AEMET.
Lava flow discharge rate
New measurements were also made to provide new parameters of the lava flow discharge rate. The average lava flow discharge rate at the current eruption site is about 0,7 kilometers per hour.
According to MIROVA Detection System a very high thermal anomaly (2828 MW) was detected in satellite images yesterday, but it decreased to 1509 MW today.
2. Why was an eruption expected?
A series of small tremors began to take place on September 11 in southwestern La Palma, under a mountain range known as Cumbre Vieja, leading scientists to believe there could be magma pushing under the surface of the earth.
This seismic activity gradually migrated to the surface: at first the earthquakes were recorded at a depth of 20 kilometers, but in the last two days they were felt only 100 meters underground.
In another sign that magma was forcing its way up, the area had experienced surface displacement, with an accumulated vertical uplift of 15 centimeters on Sunday.
3. Why did it happen now?
The last eruption in La Palma took place almost exactly 50 years ago, in October 1971, when Teneguía volcano spewed lava for around three weeks. That was the last recorded volcanic eruption on land in Spain.
The next time there was any significant seismic activity was in 2017, which marked the beginning of a series of tremors (known as earthquake swarms) over the next years.
But this past week’s activity has been much more intense, and together with the sudden uplift of the ground, it heralded an upcoming eruption.
4. How many earthquakes took place before the eruption?
According to the National Geographic Institute (IGN), the latest earthquake swarm may have contained nearly 7,000 low-intensity tremors.
The current activity is high-intensity and has already released more energy in a few days than what the 2011 underwater eruption of El Hierro released in two months, said IGN director for the Canaries María José Blanco.
5. Why did it happen in that area?
The island of La Palma is very young in geological terms, just around two million years old, although it began forming underwater four million years ago. But there are two clearly differentiated areas on the island: the north is older and more solid, while the south is younger and still forming.
The magma continues to expand the island’s land surface on its southern side. All the volcanic eruptions of recent centuries have taken place in the south: San Juan in 1949 and Teneguía in 1971.
6. Why isn’t there just one volcano?
Eruptions in the Canary Islands tend to take the form of fissures: the earth cracks open and lava, gases and other matter start to come out from several points along it.
David Calvo, from the Canary Islands Volcanology Institute (Involcan), explained that these fissure eruptions are known as “racimadas” in Spanish. “We’ve counted eight for now, but there could be more in the coming hours while others may die down,” he said.
It would be normal to see more points, generally running along a line; as the eruption enters a mature phase, some of these fissures should lose energy and get blocked, and at that point all the lava would come out of a single opening. That is what happened with Teneguía in 1971, and more recently during the underwater eruption of El Hierro.
7. How did scientists know the eruption would take place at that spot?
The scientific community has had measuring stations in the area for years, run by IGN, the Geology and Mining Institute (IGME), local universities and Involcan. That is why it was perfectly possible to measure the earthquake swarms and the ground uplift that preceded the eruption.
In recent days a team of scientists had been brought in with additional equipment to analyze the event.
The European Union’s earth observation satellite program Copernicus also helped determine the surface deformation, and the central government of Spain sent support aircraft to the Canaries to monitor the volcanic activity.
8. How long will the eruption last?
It is hard to say for certain. Historical precedent and volcanic activity in the area suggest it could last several weeks, perhaps even months.
The submarine eruption of Tagoro, off the island of El Hierro, lasted five months, and the 1971 eruption of Teneguía was active for over three weeks.
But it is still too early to know how this latest eruption will develop, how much energy will be released through its various vents, or how many cubic meters of lava are pushing to get out. [El Pais1, VolcanoDiscovery, El Pais 2]