Spain’s Canary Islands, a popular tourist destination in the Atlantic Ocean off Africa’s coast, has been rocked by an eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano. The eruption began on Saturday night and it is still not clear how long it will last, but at least two lava flows have already emerged from fissures near the summit of the volcano. Officials are warning tourists to stay away from areas where there is activity or risk of collapse.
One of the flows is heading into the centre of a deep gully that has been cut into the volcanic cone by previous eruptions over the last 6,000 years. The flow covers an area measuring roughly 800 x 200 metres and it is advancing at an estimated rate of 30 to 40 centimetres per hour. A second flow has also formed and it is heading to the south-west at an estimated rate of 40 centimetres per hour.
There are also reports that one or two minor collapses have taken place on the western side of the volcanic cone near its summit. This has led to fears that a massive landslide may be imminent, but scientists who visited the site yesterday say that the situation is still under control.
An eruption of this type occurs roughly once every 45 years and it could last from a few days to several months. Cumbre Vieja is one of Spain’s most active volcanoes, although its eruptions are usually relatively small compared with those on other continents. In 1949, for example, a small eruption sent lava flowing into the sea at several points on the northern slopes of the volcano. In 1971, much larger flows emerged from vents amid heavy seismic activity which lasted for 20 days.
Previous eruptions in 1949 and 1971 led to fears that Cumbre Vieja might collapse and trigger a so-called “mega-tsunami” that would devastate the nearby islands of La Palma, Tenerife and Gran Canaria. The tsunami threat has now largely disappeared because most of the coastline around Cumbre Vieja’s base is protected by large offshore breakwaters known as moles.
Although few people live on the western side of the volcano, there are several small coastal settlements between the town of Santa Cruz de la Palma and the fishing port of Los Cristianos. The Spanish authorities have warned these communities to be on their guard against mudslides triggered by heavy rain during the eruption. There are also warnings for motorists travelling along routes near areas where there is activity or risk of collapse.
The good news is that the eruption will bring lots of new visitors to La Palma, which attracted 1.7 million tourists in 2013 and was named as one of the world’s best places to live by National Geographic last year. A volcanologist at the University of Liverpool, Sue Loughlin, told BBC News that the latest eruption “will have a positive impact on La Palma” because it will boost jobs in local tourism businesses.
The Cumbre Vieja volcano forms part of the island’s “Roque Nublo-Punta Galera” volcanic range and it towers 1,400 metres above sea level. The entire volcanic range last erupted in 1971-73.