"I'm more worried about earthquakes than El Hierro volcano"

Volcanologist Nemesio Pérez is the man in charge of trying to anticipate possible Canary Islands eruption

Nemesio Pérez has become one of the most visible scientists in recent days of those traveling around the island of El Hierro listening to the subterranean chambers for any clear indication that there will be a volcanic eruption.

The 50-year-old from Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife is the scientific coordinator of the Canaries Institute of Volcanology (Involcan). He travels to different towns explaining to people what an eruption is and what can occur. A large man, who doesn't look like the kind of guy who was once on his university's water polo team, Pérez doesn't hold back any details nor does he exaggerate. Sometimes he reproaches others for their lack of information.

Pérez spent nine years abroad studying Volcanology - first in Louisiana, in the United States, and then Tokyo - before returning to the Canaries in 1997 to set up a network of seismic alert warning systems across the archipelago.

More information
Evacuation of El Hierro begins as fears of volcanic eruption grow

"Spain has a seismic alert system comparable to that of a third-world country," he says. "Predicting volcanic activity has three components: tremors, gas emissions and deformations. But in Spain, attention is only paid to the first stage."

Three years ago, Pérez began traveling to all the 88 municipalities across the Canaries explaining the risks of living on volcanic islands.

"Residents are less vulnerable when they are better informed. Unfortunately, we have been to some communities and not even a town councilor shows up. People prefer to stay home and watch Belén Esteban," he says with a bitter laugh, referring to the popular and controversial television gossip show panelist.

Pérez admits that he doesn't like to mince words. "That is the reason why the perception of the risks of volcanoes is very poor."

Describing volcanoes as "windows to the Earth's underground," he doesn't believe that there is one Canary islander who doesn't fear them.

"People who live in the Canaries, Hawaii or the Philippines should consider themselves lucky. When a volcano is dormant, they have a beautiful countryside, geothermic energy and thermal baths. When an eruption occurs, people from all over the world come to see the artificial fireworks. But until that happens, we have to experience earthquakes and manage the anguish."

When it comes to activity, Pérez maintains that he is worried about the tremors rather than the actual eruptions.

"Usually in the Canaries, they have not been that explosive, just trickles of lava. There are victims when there are earthquakes, which is why I am more concerned about the earthquakes rather than the eventual eruption."

And homes and other buildings in El Hierro don't appear, at first glance, to be the safest structures in the world.

An eventual eruption "wouldn't be rare," says Pérez, but the uncertainty stems from the fact that in El Hierro there isn't just one major volcano but hundreds of vents around the island. Consequently, no one can be sure where the lava will flow if there is an eruption in the end.

This leads to another worrying aspect of the situation on the island for Pérez. He also has concerns about the curious attraction of the lava flows.

"We can't put a Civil Guard officer at every vent. A typical lava eruption in the Canaries is not dangerous and they don't trail much, but they do emit carbon dioxide. This is invisible to the eye, and if anyone gets too near they could inhale toxic fumes," he explains.

The last eruption to take place in the Canaries was in La Palma in 1971 when the Teneguía volcano came to life. At that time, the volcanologist explains, La Palma residents experienced some 90 different tremors.

In El Hierro, residents have felt tremors intermittently for the past two months, but in the last 10 days they have gotten stronger. The proliferation of ground rumbles has caused concern among the small island's 10,000 residents.

"People shouldn't be paying attention to the rumor mill, but instead paying attention to the official information, even though it can also be wrong," Pérez says, explaining that scientists can sometimes make miscalculations about an imminent eruption.

"They say that the probability is low because it is around 10 percent. But who would fly on an airplane if there was a 10-percent probability that they would crash?"

Namesio Fernández warns that lava, although slow-moving and viscous, emits carbon dioxide.
Namesio Fernández warns that lava, although slow-moving and viscous, emits carbon dioxide.RAFA AVERO
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS