Lava fountain and molten lava flow at Piton de la Fournaise volcano on the island of Reunion on 4 January 2010. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.
20 Sep 2021

Thousands of residents evacuated after volcanic eruptions on La Palma, Canary Islands

Around 6,000 people have been evacuated and hundreds of buildings and other structures have been destroyed by lava and fire after the eruption of a volcano on La Palma.  


The eruption in southern La Palma started at 3pm local time on Sunday September 19. Since then, molten lava has been flowing from La Cumbre Vieja volcano, located in one of the most active volcanic regions in the Canary Islands.

During the past weekend, new eruptions have occurred and the behaviour of the volcano is in a more explosive phase than before This means the lava is flowing slower than before, giving fire services and others a better chance to protect buildings and infrastructure in the lava path.

The Island of La Palmas has 80,000 people, and about 35,000 of them live near the volcano.

Air quality has been affected and especially small children and the elderly are at risk due to poor air quality.  


Toxic gases may be produced when the lava reaches the ocean

Since the beginning of the eruption, new cracks in the volcanic mountain have been discovered. However, the speed with which the lava is moving has been slowed down.

As the lava cools down, there is a risk of toxic gases forming, which has led to more evacuations nears the seaside. 

Authorities are hoping the lava will cool down completely before it reaches the ocean. If molten lava is cooled suddenly in water, there is the risk of explosions and production of substantially more toxic gases. 


Airport was closed because of ash clouds

The more intense eruptions mean that lava and ash is cascaded higher up in the air than before, which means the lava is flowing slower. It also means that the smoke and ash is deposited above the clouds, leading to other problems, especially for air traffic. 

On September 25, the authorities were forced to close the airport for two days due to the risk of the ash in the air damaging jet engines.

If the concentration of ash in the air continues, to intensify,  it could over time become a problem also for car engines and other machinery, according to some experts. Ash on the ground can also become a problem in water drainage systems when mixing with water and forming a cement-like paste 

Volcanos are unpredictable and nobody knows for sure how long an eruption will continue. When Mount Eyafjallajökull erupted on Iceland 2010, air traffic was grounded for several weeks in all of Northern Europe because of smoke and ash in the atmosphere. 

According to scientific data, the eruption on La Palmas will likely continue for more than a month, maybe even two months, however there is no guaranteed end date, or set behavioral patterns. 


Millions of cubic meters of lava moving through the landscape
Around 6,000 people were evacuated already by Tuesday after the eruption. Soldiers were sent to La Palma to assist in the evacuation efforts, according to the Ministry of Defense.

Several lava streams have formed in different directions and close to 200 buildings have been destroyed. 154 hectares of land has been covered by lava.


Molten lava. Photo: Wikpedia Commons
 A generic close up photo of molten lava flowing from a volcano. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

The hot molten lava has been moving slowly along the edge of the forest and through agricultural lands. Buildings have caught fire and at least 150 homes have so far been destroyed, as stated by the local mayor and other officials, according to Reuters.

"As far as we can judge, no more people will need to be evacuated. The lava moves towards the coast and the damage remains mostly material. According to experts, there is about 17-20 million cubic meters of lava", said Ángel Víctor Torres, regional head of government.e


Earthquakes prior to the eruption

A series of earthquakes have shaken the island during the week prior, and the alert level had been raised to the second level on a four-point scale.

During the day, activity increased significantly Several earthquakes were registered by Spain's national geographical institute. The strongest was measured at a magnitude of 3.8 on the Richter scale. 

No deaths or injuries have been reported, however the volcano is still active and is considered unpredictable. 

The last time this volcano erupted was 50 years ago, in 1971. At the time one person died during the eruption while attempting to photograph the lava.

In the video below, firefighters on La Palma can be seen watching as the molten lava approaches a village, without being able to do anything about it. Later in the video, they are seen rescuing a goat. 

Cover photo: (Above) Lava fountain and molten lava flow at Piton de la Fournaise volcano on the island of Reunion on 4 January 2010. Photo:credit Wikipedia Commons