The Canary Islands are an archipelago just off the coast of Morocco, in the eastern Atlantic Ocean. Officially and culturally, they’re part of Spain, and they consist of eight large islands and many smaller ones. One of these islands, La Palma, is made up of one immense ancient volcano with more, smaller volcanoes studding its sides. One of these smaller volcanoes, Cumbre Vieja or “Old Peak,” erupted on Sunday with just a few days’ warning.
Volcanologists knew something was coming on September 11, when a swarm of micro quakes began and didn’t stop. Most of them were too small to be felt, but their epicenters were traveling upward. By the 16th, they were at the surface and measuring as high as 3.5 on the Richter scale. Then, on Sunday, a vent on the side of the mountain blew open to create a massive new fissure–and the lava flow began.
The lava, in rivers up to 20 feet high, is rolling down the western, more populated side of the island. So far, no one has been reported injured, but approximately 6,000 people have been evacuated and 190 homes have been destroyed. The earthquake swarm has continued, which prompts worries of further fissures.
The next large danger from this eruption, which has not slowed and may not for weeks to come, is when the lava reaches the sea, which is expected to happen on Wednesday. The lava may explode on contact with the cold water, which can produce clouds of toxic, caustic gas. When another earthquake on La Palma erupted in 1971, such a gas explosion caused at least one immediate fatality.
There is some concern, mostly overblown, that a collapse of the western side of the island is imminent, which a 1999 documentary theorized could cause a tsunami to swamp the east coast of the United States. There is no evidence this is happening, and the people of La Palma and the Canary Islands should be the world’s focus during this disaster.