The as-yet-unnamed volcano on La Palma, in Spain’s Canary Islands, is now one month old, and it has become the most-closely watched volcano in the world. The eruption, the first recorded on Spanish territory in half a century, has only produced one piece of good news these past 30 days: the fact that there have been no fatalities. But more than 80 million cubic meters of lava have destroyed the life projects of thousands of people, leaving a long trail of material losses behind. Memories have been swallowed up by the molten rock, while hundreds of businesses and jobs have been lost. This is the story of the four weeks and two days that changed La Palma forever.
The volcano’s story had been developing for years under the Earth’s surface, but it did not make itself known until September 11. That day, the island was hit by an earthquake hive, a series of tremors moving closer and closer to the surface. Just as was the case 10 years ago with the underwater eruption on the nearby island of El Hierro, this activity hinted that the Canary Islands were about to see another chapter in their volcanic history. At the time, volcanologists ruled out a minor eruption happening in the short term. “We don’t believe that a conclusion is imminent,” said María José Blanco, the head of the National Geographic Institute (IGN) in the Canary Islands, on September 15.
The earthquakes became particularly strong on the sunny morning of September 19, causing anguish and concern among the population of La Palma, which was moved up to a yellow alert for a volcanic eruption on Spain’s traffic light system. And at 3.10pm, the volcano began to erupt in the Montaña Rajada mountain, in the forest area of Cabeza de Vaca, located in the municipality of El Paso. The Canaries’ Volcano Risk Prevention Plan (Pevolca), an agency created in 2018 and made up of public administration officials, scientific organizations, state security forces and emergency and civil protection units, ordered the evacuation of 5,000 people. At 5pm, authorities increased the alert level to red, a move that affected the municipalities of Tazacorte, El Paso, Fuencaliente, Mazo and Los Llanos de Aridane, which are home to 35,000 people.
Scientists defined it as a Strombolian eruption, which is characterized by alternating phases of explosive activity and effusive activity, when there is greater outflow of lava. It was not long before the powerful lava flow from the volcano destroyed its first neighborhoods. Authorities continued with the evacuations, with a total of 5,600 people evacuated by the end of September 19. A month on, this figure has risen to more than 7,000.
The advance of the lava flow
On September 21 the lava entered Todoque, a municipality that was home to 1,300 people. It razed the town completely and prompted authorities to order the evacuation of more areas.
On September 28, the river of molten rock reached the sea and began to create a lava platform that would spread out to cover 34 hectares of the water before it stopped growing.
On October 12, a new vent in the northwest of the volcanic cone began feeding more molten rock into the different lava flows. Some lava streamed to the south, where it destroyed many hectares of agricultural land; other channels flowed to the north, forcing new areas to be evacuated.
On October 18, a new lava tongue advanced around the Montaña de La Laguna, a mountain in the municipality of the same name, from the south side and approached the Atlantic Ocean. Authorities prepared to order more home confinements, while the other lava flows continued to threaten previously evacuated sites.
“We are in the ‘meanwhile’ [stage],” said Ángel Víctor Torres, the premier of the Canary Islands, which are located off the coast of northwestern Africa. Meanwhile, the toll of the volcano continues to rise day after day. One month on, the eruption has swallowed up 762 hectares, 1,086 land plots, 56.4 kilometers of roads, 226.8 hectares of banana plantations and 1,692 buildings worth €201 million, according to a map created by EL PAÍS that shows how the lava has advanced every day based on drone and satellite images.
With 708.32 square kilometers, La Palma is the fifth-largest island in the Canaries archipelago by land mass. The lava has affected just 1% of its total surface area, but this was a space where thousands of people lived and worked. It is also large enough to fit China’s Forbidden City four times over and New York City’s Central Park. To get an idea of the scale of the damage, the reader can compare the size of the lava flow with any city or location in the world in the graphic representation below.
The volcano on La Palma is obviously not unique in the history of the Canaries, an archipelago that was formed through volcanic activity. The island is located above the African continental plate. Twenty million years ago, the plate began to move over a so-called “hotspot.” This spot injected magma and began to create the first Canary Islands: Fuerteventura and Lanzarote. La Palma and El Hierro are the youngest members of the archipelago, dating back 1.8 million and 1.2 million years, respectively. The archipelago is still located over this hotspot, meaning new islands could emerge in the future.
The question now is, after one month, how much longer will the eruption go on for? At the moment, there are no signs that it is weakening. Emissions of sulfur dioxide remain high, and there continues to be a lot of seismic activity, which indicates that lava is still trying to reach the surface. The number of earthquakes may continue to increase each day, before stopping suddenly.
Until then, La Palma remains at the mercy of nature’s whims. “The volcano usually does what it considers best,” a spokesperson from the scientific committee said with resignation. One month on, to the misfortune of the people of La Palma, the volcano shows no sign of wanting to get some rest.