La Palma volcano: Countdown begins to declare end of eruption

The pause in activity has given the Canary Island cause for hope, but authorities warn they will wait until Christmas Day before confirming whether crisis is over

The Cumbre Vieja volcano on La Palma.Video: REUTERS / INVOLCAN
Javier Rodríguez Guillermo Vega
Los Llanos de Aridane (La Palma) / Las Palmas de Gran Canaria -

Silence has overtaken La Palma almost overnight. After living with a rumbling volcano for 88 days, the approximately 80,000 residents of this Spanish island are increasingly hopeful that the sudden end in volcanic activity detected on Tuesday will be permanent, despite warnings that it’s too soon to say for sure.

The eruption cannot be truly declared over until Christmas Day, said the team of experts monitoring the event, the Volcano Risk Prevention Plan (Pevolca). But optimism is spreading among people who have now endured the longest volcanic eruption on record in 375 years in La Palma, which is part of the Canary Islands archipelago off the northwestern coast of Africa.

Even if the lull in activity becomes permanent, the future remains bleak for many residents. There are still 6,500 people unable to return to their homes, or what is left of them. The lava has damaged 1,646 buildings – 1,318 of which were residential – as well as 73 kilometers of roads and 12,211 square meters of land, including 369 hectares of cropland on an island where tourism and agriculture drive the economy.

At La Tanqueta, a small bar outside the center of Los Llanos de Aridane, a municipality hit hard by the volcano, locals who work at the banana plantations raised glasses of locally-made rum on Tuesday night to celebrate the sudden stop in volcanic activity. “Is it over now? For real?” asked Ramón, a regular at the bar. “I won’t believe it until the referee signals the end of the game, because Mister Volcano always does whatever he likes.”

The word "good luck" written on an ash-covered car in Tajuya, on La Palma, on Wednesday.
The word "good luck" written on an ash-covered car in Tajuya, on La Palma, on Wednesday. JORGE GUERRERO (AFP)

María José Blanco, the head of the National Geographic Institute (IGN) in the Canaries, said on Wednesday that both direct observation and measuring station records suggest the volcano inside Cumbre Vieja natural park is going through “a very low phase” and that it seems to be “winding down.” However, she said that a 10-day period must elapse before the end can be confirmed. This means that emergency measures affecting mobility cannot yet be lifted.

But the fact remains that the volcano is no longer emitting lava or gases. And hardly any earthquakes are being felt. Blanco said there is no evidence of lava flow at the western base of the main cone. Even so, drone images show temperatures in excess of 400ºC in existing lava channels and “it will take time before they lose that heat.”

On the west side of the island, the sound of digging machinery has replaced the endless drone of the volcano. It is the sound of reconstruction, and it is an urgent one: according to the island authority, the Cabildo, 2,329 people have lost properties, around 500 are living in hotels and lack a home to go back to, and there are entire neighborhoods where people are living in motorhomes and under plastic tents after losing their homes. Many of them fear that once the volcanic eruption ends and media attention is lost, their plight will be forgotten by society and ignored by government agencies.

“So now what?” summed up Chemi, a taxi driver in Los Llanos de Aridane. “We’ve been dealing with this for nearly 90 days, in a state of alarm, and now it feels like a part of us is gone.” Many other residents said they had a similar feeling, as though there was a strange emptiness inside them. After three months of earth-shaking sounds, the people of La Palma are trying to get used to the silence again.

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