MADRID (AP) – A small Spanish island in the Atlantic Ocean is in trouble days after a volcano erupted, forcing the evacuation of thousands, and authorities warn other dangers from the explosion are to come.
Here is an overview of the volcanic eruption of La Palma and its consequences:
WHERE HAS THE VOLCANO ELECTED?
The eruption occurred Sunday afternoon on La Palma, one of the eight volcanic islands in the Spanish Canary Islands archipelago, which runs along the northwest coast of Africa. It was the second volcanic eruption in 50 years for the island, which has 85,000 inhabitants.
A magnitude 4.2 earthquake was recorded before the eruption. Huge plumes of black and white smoke erupted from the volcanic ridge of Cumbre Vieja after a week of thousands of small earthquakes. Unstoppable rivers of molten lava, some reaching 20 feet (6 meters) high, now descend to the ocean, swallowing everything in their path.
The Canary Islands are a popular volcanic hotspot with European tourists due to their year-round mild climate. Mount Teide, on the neighboring island of Tenerife, is one of the tallest volcanoes in the world and the highest mountain in Spain. In La Palma, people mainly make a living from agriculture.
WHAT CAUSED THE ERUPTION?
Scientists had closely monitored an underground magma buildup in La Palma for a week before the eruption, detecting more than 20,000 earthquakes – most of them too small to be felt. This is called an “earthquake swarm” and can indicate an impending eruption.
Three days before the eruption, the Canary Islands Institute of Volcanology reported that 11 million cubic meters (388 million cubic feet) of molten rock had been pushed into the Cumbre Vieja.
After the 4.2 magnitude quake, two cracks spat bright red magma into the air. The lava flowed in streams on the side of the mountain.
HOW MUCH WAS THE DAMAGE?
Close scientific monitoring allowed authorities to quickly evacuate people when the volcano erupted and no casualties were reported.
But the damage to property, infrastructure and farmland has been considerable. So far, the eruption has destroyed around 190 homes and forced the evacuation of 6,000 people. The molten rock has also buried banana plantations, vineyards, and avocado and papaya crops. Some irrigation networks have been lost, groundwater contaminated and roads blocked.
The rivers of lava are now heading towards the more populated coast of the island and the Atlantic Ocean, where they could cause new problems.
WHAT ARE THE DANGERS NOW?
Authorities say residents face a multitude of dangers in the days and weeks to come.
When the lava reaches the Atlantic Ocean, it could cause explosions and produce clouds of toxic gases. Scientists monitoring the lava measured it at over 1,000 degrees Celsius (over 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit). In the island’s last eruption in 1971, one person died after inhaling the gas emitted when lava hit the water.
The earthquakes on the island continued, shaking the nervous locals. A new crack opened on Monday evening after what the Canary Islands Institute of Volcanology declared to be a magnitude 3.8 earthquake, and began spitting out more lava. Scientists say more new lava vents and cracks in the earth could emerge, endangering new areas.
The volcano produced between 8,000 and 10,500 tons of sulfur dioxide per day, the Institute of Volcanology said. Sulfur dioxide is smelly and irritates the skin, eyes, nose and throat. It can also cause acid rain and air pollution.
The eruption also produced volcanic ash, which can cause respiratory problems. Authorities in La Palma told residents of the large areas where the ashes were falling to stay indoors with their doors and windows closed.
HOW LONG WILL THE ERUPTION LAST?
Scientists say lava flows on La Palma could 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 off the coast of El Hierro Island in 2011. It lasted for five months.