Volcanic eruption on La Palma forces evacuation of thousands of people

There are no casualties, but eight houses have burnt down

3 min

BarcelonaThe last time there was an active volcano in Spain was in 1971 on the island of La Palma. That is until this Sunday at 15.12 h, when, on the same island, the earth started to shake, there was a big explosion, a large column of smoke rose and the volcano began to shoot lava at high speed over a pine forest. The eruption at Cumbre Vieja comes after a week in which 25,000 earthquakes have been detected in the area, which began at a depth of 20 kilometres but have been progressively rising to the surface, to the point that they have raised the island about 15 centimetres. So far, around 5,000 people have had to be evacuated on an island of around 80,000 inhabitants.

The president of the Spanish government, Pedro Sanchez, has said that the inhabitants of La Palma can "be calm" because their "security is guaranteed" after "all available units" were deployed, between Guardia Civil, National Police, Firefighters and the army's Emergency Unit.

"The earth shook"

The eruption has started at the municipality of El Paso, one of the four that were on alert for volcanic risk. There are no casualties, but at least eight houses that been razed by the molten rock. "The earth shook and there was a noise that sounded like a military plane. It was spectacular," said photographer Miguel Pérez, a contributor to Efe.

According to Spain's National Geographic Institute, the lava is coming out of seven different mouths, at an altitude of 400 meters and is flowing at 1,075 ºC. According to experts, it is common for there to be several mouths in eruptions such as La Palma's, where the eruption began when the earth's crust cracked. The Volcanological Institute of the Canary Islands (Involcan) estimates that between 17 and 20 million cubic metres of magma have accumulated under the ground.

According to Involcan spokesman David Calvo, the lava is not advancing too fast - "at walking speed," he said - which will help scientists to determine what kind of material is coming out of the volcano and at what speed, so they can calculate when the eruption is likely to end. The director of the earth sciences group at CSIC Barcelona, volcanologist Joan Martí, explained to Efe that the eruption is "normal" and that, according to the data available to scientists, it could last a couple of months at the most. Martí says the eruptions are not dangerous as the lava is flowing slowly and is being channelled by the island's geography, affecting a small area.

Call for caution

Public authorities have asked the population to be extremely cautious and not to go near the eruption area to avoid unnecessary risks. They also recommend staying indoors in areas which may be affected by volcanic ash. Advice has also been issued against travelling to La Palma, although its airspace has not been closed. Therefore, it will be up to airlines to decide whether to cancel flights.

Images of the volcanic eruption on La Palma

One of the people who did fly to the island was the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, who announced that he was postponing the trip he had planned for this week to New York to travel to La Palma to follow the evolution of the events.

Seven of the 16 volcanic eruptions in the Canary islands have been on La Palma

In spite of the fact that for days there had already been great seismic activity on the island, scientific coordinator of Involcan, Nemesio Pérez, has admitted to Televisión Canaria that the eruption took them "by surprise" because it took place faster than expected. Pérez explains it is a low-intensity fissure eruption, just as all others on the Canary Island have been. Since there have been historical records (15th century), there have been 16 volcanic eruptions in the Canary Islands, seven of them on La Palma. In fact, it is on this island that two of the last three eruptions recorded in the archipelago have taken place: the San Juan volcano (1949) and the Teneguía (1971). The latter erupted for 23 days.

The volcanic eruption expels columns of smoke, ash and lava