More dangers ahead for La Palma after volcano eruption

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A small Spanish island in the Atlantic Ocean is struggling days after a volcano erupted, forcing thousands of people to evacuate, and officials are warning that more dangers lie ahead.

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Here’s a look at the volcanic eruption on La Palma and its consequences:

Where did the volcano erupt?


The eruption occurred on Sunday afternoon in La Palma, one of the eight volcanic islands in Spain’s Canary Islands, which straddle Africa’s northwest coast. It was the second volcanic eruption in 50 years for the island, which has a population of 85,000.

An earthquake of magnitude 4.2 was recorded before the explosion. Huge plumes of black and white smoke erupted from the Cumbre Vieja volcanic ridge after a week of thousands of small earthquakes. Unstoppable rivers of molten lava, some 6 meters (20 ft) high, now flow down to the sea, engulfing everything in their path.

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The Canary Islands are a volcanic hot spot that is popular with European tourists due to their mild year-round climate. Mount Teide, on the island near Tenerife, is one of the tallest volcanoes in the world and the highest mountain in Spain. Most of the people in La Palma make a living from agriculture.

What was the cause of the explosion?

A week before the eruption, scientists were closely monitoring the build-up of magma underground at La Palma, which detected more than 20,000 earthquakes – far too small to be felt. This is known as an “earthquake swarm” and may indicate an impending eruption.

Three days before the eruption, the Canary Islands Volcanoes Institute reported that 11 million cubic meters (388 million cubic feet) of molten rock had been pushed into Cumbre Vieja.

After a 4.2-magnitude earthquake, two cracks blew bright red magma into the air. Lava flowed in streams down the slope of the mountain.

How much damage has been done?

Close scientific monitoring meant that officials were able to evacuate people quickly when the volcano erupted and no casualties were reported.

But there has been considerable damage to property, infrastructure and agricultural land. So far, the explosion has destroyed about 190 homes and forced the evacuation of 6,000 people. The molten rock has also penetrated banana groves, vineyards, and avocado and papaya crops. Some irrigation networks have been lost, groundwater has been contaminated and roads have been blocked.

Rivers of lava are now moving toward the island’s more populated coast and the Atlantic Ocean, where they can cause new problems.

What are the dangers now?

Officials say residents will face many dangers in the coming days and weeks.

When lava reaches the Atlantic Ocean, it can explode and produce clouds of toxic gas. Scientists monitoring the lava measured it at over 1,000 °C (over 1,800 °F). In the island’s last eruption in 1971, one person was killed by inhaling the gas released from the lava hitting the waters.

Earthquakes continue to hit the island, causing panic among residents. A new fissure opened late Monday after spewing more lava, what the Canary Islands Volcano Institute said was a 3.8-magnitude quake. Scientists say that more new lava could erupt in the Earth and cracks could emerge, threatening new areas.

The Volcanoes Institute said the volcano is producing 8,000 to 10,500 tons of sulfur dioxide a day. Sulfur dioxide is smelly and irritates the skin, eyes, nose and throat. It can also cause acid rain and air pollution.

The eruption has also produced volcanic ash, which can cause respiratory problems. La Palma officials told people in wide areas that ashes were falling for them to stay indoors as their doors and windows were closed.

How long will the explosion last?

Scientists say that lava flowing on La Palma can last for weeks or even months. The last eruption on the island, in 1971, lasted just over three weeks.

The last eruption on all of the Canary Islands occurred underwater in 2011 off the coast of El Hierro Island. This went on for five months.


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