How not to handle a volcanic eruption

El Hierro residents and scientists have criticized the management of a disaster of possible epic proportions as improvised and poorly coordinated

Unlike earthquakes, volcanoes provide warnings ahead of major eruptions. Since July 19, residents of the Canary island of El Hierro have been preparing for a possible eruption of a volcano a few kilometers out to sea. Scientists headed to the area, the regional government of the Canary Islands put in place preparations for a possible sea and air evacuation, and the Spanish military moved in.

This is all well and good, except, as residents have pointed out, perhaps a more detailed assessment of what was actually happening on the seabed was required first. The measures taken to protect El Hierro's population have been criticized by them as more disruptive than the volcano itself. Many are now wondering whether the authorities had any real idea of what was going on with the volcano, and whether there was, or is, any danger to human life.

More information
Government warns of risk of further eruption in El Hierro

Symptomatic of this view that the matter has been badly handled was the initial decision to evacuate the small coastal community of La Restinga. On October 11, the volcanic warning level went from yellow to red as the tremors caused by the eruption sent small amounts of rock falling from the hillsides that tower over the town. The crisis committee ordered the temporary evacuation of the town's 600 residents. Five days later, Paulino Rivero, the head of the regional government of the Canary Islands, announced that if the situation showed no signs of worsening, residents would be allowed back.

In the meantime, a vast greenish stain produced by sulfur thrown up from the volcano had become visible on the surface of the ocean. The scientists were warning that the eruption was just 150 meters below the surface, and that there was a danger of material being thrown into the air.

But Rivero seemingly contradicted this analysis, saying that underwater microphones had been placed in the area and that should another evacuation be necessary, there would be several hours' margin within which to carry it out.

The next day, residents' hopes of a return to their homes were dashed. Juan Manuel Santana, head of the regional government's emergency services, said that there would be no return until the air was monitored and declared safe. This further puzzled residents, who could see, like everybody else, that the volcano had calmed down, and was no longer even roiling the surface of the water. What's more, the first measurements of the air showed that there was no contamination. The next day no decision was forthcoming about whether La Restringa's inhabitants could go home. "If they didn't want us to go back, then they should have made that clear from the outset, but this approach is driving us all crazy," a resident said at the time.

To date, a decision has not been made about allowing residents back permanently, although they have been allowed into their homes to gather personal belongings.

The decision to close and then reopen a section of the island's main road which passes through a tunnel known as Los Roquillos, has also been criticized. On September 27, the local authorities closed the tunnel saying that there was a risk of falling rock from tremors produced by the volcano that were equivalent to a scale four earthquake. Again, the closure of the tunnel, which cut off road communication on the island, was criticized by local people.

Nine days later, the tunnel was reopened after the road leading into it had been fenced off. But only emergency vehicles and heavy trucks were allowed through. There was still a risk of seismic activity, said the regional government, although it had allowed a winding route over the top of the island to remain open to heavy vehicles. This further enraged local residents, who say they were not told why one route was safe and another not. The road was opened without waiting for a report from the Geology and Mining Institute in Madrid on the stability of the roadside. In the opinion of local resident José Santana, who was evacuated to another part of the island, the "authorities want to know more than the experts, and that is simply impossible."

Aware perhaps that they were likely to be blamed if anything went wrong, scientists monitoring the situation have decided to take a more cautious approach since the middle of October. They initially said that the chance of a major undersea eruption was less than 15 percent. Since then they have refused to make any such assessment.

"I am not going to talk about probabilities," said Carmen López of the National Geographic Institute (ING) on the day La Restinga was evacuated.

María José Blanco, the head of the ING said at the time that, "Volcanoes do not behave consistently. There are a lot of theories about how they work, and one is no more valid than another."

The risk of volcanic activity in the Canary Islands is constant, and authorities there have contingency plans to deal with eruptions. PEVOLCA, the plan drawn up for emergencies of this type, tasks the ING with managing the science. The ING is part of the Ministry of Public Works, and among its duties is the monitoring of seismic activity in Spain.

INVOLCAN, the Canary Islands Institute of Volcanology, set up by the local government of the island of Tenerife has so far been largely an observer of events.

"Nobody is being excluded," said Blanco when this was pointed out. Nevertheless, local scientists and academics not related to the ING say that they have been excluded from the decision-making process and that they have not been consulted. For the moment, they seem to be avoiding controversy.

"Now is not the time for arguments," one researcher said, while asking to remain anonymous. Another, also asking not to be named, commented that, "when this is over, the knives will come out, but right now is not the right time."

Juan Carlos Carracedo, however, a geologist who works at Spain's CSIC National Research Council, and who has written extensively on the volcanoes of the Canary Islands over the course of his 45-year-career, is not afraid to speak out.

"The situation is not being handled with any rigor," he says, criticizing the management of the eruption, adding that, "a small group has taken charge to the exclusion of others."

Carracedo accuses the Canary Islands authorities of "exaggerating" the scale of the problem and of "overreacting" by evacuating La Restinga; "A volcano provides warnings, it is not like a shark," he says.

The lack of organization and coordination between the different scientific and administrative bodies involved is perhaps best illustrated by the initial failure to send a survey vessel to the affected area that could provide detailed information about the seismic activity going on under the Atlantic, says Carracedo. The Ramón Margalef, a brand new survey vessel belonging to the Spanish Oceanography Institute (IEO) finally arrived in the Canary Islands on October 22. "If we had had it there from the beginning, we would have been able to film the early stages of the eruption - something that has so far not been captured on film. That is an opportunity we have lost for ever," he says.

The IEO says that it reacted to the request for its new survey vessel as quickly as possible, pointing out that it was still being tested. "It normally takes two years to organize an oceanographic operation. The ship could not have been made ready a second earlier. It required considerable preparation," says a spokesman.

Joan Martí of the CSIC, who has been involved in overseeing the eruption in the Canaries, plays down the role of the vessel. "The ship could be an additional help, but it is not essential." He also says that INVOLCAN's services were not required.

Alberto Brito, a professor of Zoology and Biological Oceanography at La Laguna university in the Canary Islands, disagrees. He says there has been a clear lack of planning. "There should be a vessel permanently on standby in the Canaries. This is the most important area in Spain for volcanic activity. But it is too late now. The only hope is that lessons will be learned from this for next time."

Doubtless some of the criticism of the handling of the eruption can be put down to professional jealousy by those excluded from the first major volcanic activity in Spain in 40 years. That said, the delay in sending a survey vessel, the evacuation of La Restinga, and the closure and opening of the main road on El Hierro suggest a high degree of improvisation, which inevitably raises the question of what would have happened if the volcanic eruption, instead of taking place off an island with just 10,000 inhabitants like El Hierro, had happened off Tenerife or Gran Canaria.

An image of the effects that the recent volcanic activity has had on the Canary Island of El Hierro.
An image of the effects that the recent volcanic activity has had on the Canary Island of El Hierro.EFE

Differing risk criteria causes confusion

The anomalous seismic activity off the coast of El Hierro last July has highlighted the differing criteria for evaluating risks by the National Geographic Institute (ING) and the Science Council (CSIC). The uncertainties in evaluating risk in the short- and medium-term that have conditioned the actions of PEVOLCA, the body set up to deal with threats from volcanoes, are evident. In the first stage of the process, between August and September, the probability of a volcanic eruption was estimated by the ING at between 10 percent and 15 percent, that is to say, low, an estimate shared by the CSIC. Despite this, decisions were taken more appropriate to an emergency: evacuating a community and closing roads. The current phase, with no major eruption having taken place, is now seeing efforts to allow people to return to their homes and the said road reopened.

It could be argued that these kind of natural phenomena are impossible to predict and that it is not possible to reach more accurate conclusions on the part of the scientific community. But this would not be true. It is possible to predict what volcanoes will do within a reasonable enough margin to be able to warn the population and to avoid loss of life or injury. The problem in the case of El Hierro is that the information required to establish more accurate criteria and to reduce the uncertainty, and thus manage the situation better, is not available. In these kinds of situation, decisions are taken that are either an over- or under-reaction.

The causes of the deficiencies in evaluating a risk prognosis can be found in the initial response, when the ING, the body responsible for measuring Spain's seismic activity, but not its volcanic activity, its physical oceanography or its marine geology, was tasked with overseeing volcanic activity following the experiences of the seismic activity in Tenerife in 2004, which passed off without incident. Handling a volcanic eruption properly requires prior investigation, before the first indications appear, into the geological, geophysical, and oceanographic conditions of the affected area. In situ observation of the volcano is also required. The crisis in El Hierro was handled without any of this information. The decision to send a vessel belonging to the Spanish Oceanographic Institute, along with a report on the stability of the roads on the island, came too late.

The lack of cooperation between the different bodies tasked with measuring earth and ocean sciences, along with the failure to make the best use of the scientific and human resources available is another factor that needs to be taken into account when explaining what went wrong here. It is also hard to understand why the expertise and experience of other European nations such as Italy or Iceland was not called upon, or indeed that of other countries such as Japan, whose scientists have frequently worked on research projects on volcanic activity in Spain in the past.

It is surprising that Cristina Garmendia, the minister for science and innovation, is only now saying that a serious study of "seismology in the Canary Islands" is to be undertaken. Such a report will take at least three years to be prepared. It might serve in helping to understand or manage eruptions in the future, but it will be of no use in the case El Hierro. This type of research, among others, are what we need here and now, and should have been carried out long ago, and at the behest of the institution responsible for monitoring volcanic activity.

In 2006 and 2007 respectively, the Senate and the regional parliament of the Canary Islands unanimously approved the setting up of a research center to monitor volcanic activity in the Canary Islands, stressing the urgent need for such an institution, which would require input from a wide range of scientific bodies in this country. The regional government even set aside money for the creation of the center, but it seems that individual interests have won out over the collective interests of the population of the Canary Islands. It is simply unacceptable that a CSIC representative on El Hierro answer, in response to questions on the situation, answer with: "Ask the volcano."

Spain has made huge progress in recent decades in scientific research, and has undertaken many important projects, despite its relative disadvantages in terms of resources and opportunities compared to other countries. The results suggest that we have enormous potential. It is also worth highlighting the results of work to prevent natural risks, which can cause huge economic damage. It is in no way acceptable that the country's main scientific bodies are still largely unable in situations like that in El Hierro to work together. Decisions have been made that in this case affected relatively few people, but which in the future may well have greater repercussions in the case of larger communities in the Canary Islands.

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