Volcanic eruption on La Palma. Photo by Pixabay
07 Dec 2021

Better monitoring systems for volcanic activity offers more time to prepare evacuation


The volcanic activity on La Palma could be detected over a week before the eruption started, thanks to more and more advanced seismological detection technology. This technology offers better opportunity to evacuate in good time before volcanic activity becomes dangerous.  

The volcanic eruption on the Canary Island of La Palma, which started on September 19 this year, is still ongoing.

No one has died in the volcanic eruption on La Palma, however it has caused enormous material destruction and 6400 people were forced to leave their homes. 

The eruption is expected to continue well into 2022.


6 eruptions in half a millenium

The Cumbre Vieja volcano has had six eruptions in a 500 year period,  between 1500 and 2020. The most recent occurred 50 years ago, in 1971. This means that the landowners and villagers likely will gravitate to taking a calculated risk and rebuild what they have lost, given that another eruption is not likely to occur again in their lifetime. However, from a risk management perspective, human lives come before material damage, and city planners, rescue services and others involved in protecting the population, likely will want to have assurances that lives will not be lost if the volcano starts spewing lava again.   

Today, volcanic monitoring systems are getting so precise that eruptions can be predicted with a great degree of certainty. The early alert made it possible to evacuate residents in the immediate area of ​​La Palma a few days before the eruption started threatening human habitats. 

However, already four years ago, the first signs of a new eruption were recorded, according to an article  by volcanologist Marc-Antoine Longpré  on Science.org.

In 2017, a series of small earthquakes were registered in the volcano. After this, Cumbre Vieja went quiet again for two and a half years. At the end of 2020, increased activity was measured again and a number of smaller earthquakes were registered. After that, Cumbre Vieja remained silent for another six months.

Just eight days before the great eruption, the seismic activity suddenly changed radically. Several hundred small earthquakes occurred daily near the surface of the volcano. The ground around the volcano began to deform and a few days before the eruption started, it was known with relatively high certainty that it would be necessary to evacuate. 

A graph from Science.org showing the seismic activity on La Palma over the last four years.
A graph from Science.org showing the seismic activity on La Palma over the last four years.