Lava from a volcanic eruption in La Palma, one of Spain’s Canary Islands, spread on Wednesday, destroying hundreds of homes, forcing the evacuation of thousands and triggering toxic explosion warnings.
The La Palma eruption – the first major in 50 years – began on Sunday, and some experts have warned that lava could continue to spit for weeks.
Around 320 homes on the island off northwest Africa had been engulfed in fire and lava on Wednesday morning, some 6,000 residents were evacuated and a few hundred more homes remain in danger, according to local authorities. Despite the widespread destruction, there have been no reports of deaths or injuries so far.
“We have always lived here fearing an eruption,” said Antonio Rodríguez Acosta, a retired schoolteacher who lives near the village of Todoque and was evacuated on Sunday.
His home has been spared the lava flow so far, he said, but he lost a small vineyard nearby.
“It’s a complete disaster,” he said. “It’s one thing to know it might happen someday, and quite another to suddenly have to go through it.”
Firefighters and other rescuers rushed Wednesday to dig a ravine to divert lava from Todoque.
Arnau Folch, a volcanologist at the Spanish National Research Council, said: “The main uncertainty is how long this will last. “
But Mr Folch noted that a 1971 eruption lasted for about three weeks.
“It looks like what is happening now will be quite similar to what happened 50 years ago,” he said.
A major danger, Mr Folch said, comes from the powerful explosions that could be set off if the lava flow reaches the ocean. As the water expands explosively in jets of steam, it can fragment the lava into unusually fine-grained ash. Another concern is the possible release of toxic gases from reactions between lava and seawater.
La Palma is one of the smaller and less populated Canary Islands, which also includes Lanzarote and Tenerife, well-established tourist destinations.
Since the archipelago sits on a volcanic hotspot, the islands are closely watched by scientists, who have set up several stations to analyze earthquakes.
La Palma has been under particularly close scrutiny since 2017, when seismic activity intensified there – a telltale sign that an eruption may be occurring. This month, scientists issued warnings after recording thousands of small earthquakes. The tremors and images of the eruption were also recorded by the European Union’s observation satellite program, Copernicus.
The geology of the Canary Islands allows lava and gases to escape from cracks, which can lead to eruptions of varying intensity and in various locations. Sunday’s eruption was followed by the opening of another vent two days later, which in turn caused more earthquakes.
Since Tuesday, the flow of lava towards the ocean has been slowed by flatter terrain, but local authorities have declared a two nautical mile exclusion zone in the waters around the island in case activity volcanic would trigger underwater explosions that could threaten navigation.
Scientists say it’s too early to establish whether more eruptions could occur and how much lava could be released.
Héctor Lamolda Ordóñez, an engineer in earth sciences who teaches at the Complutense University of Madrid, said the eruption is still in its first phase, during which new vents may appear while others become blocked . Ultimately, “the activity is likely to be concentrated in a few vents,” he said.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, residents of some evacuated hamlets and villages near the national park where the Cumbre Vieja volcano is located were allowed to return home under close surveillance by emergency services to collect their personal belongings.
But others have been urged to keep their distance.
“The area is far from safe,” island official Mariano Hernández Zapata told local media.
Tourists, at least initially, received a more mixed message.
Spain’s Tourism Minister Reyes Maroto was forced to revisit comments made in a radio interview suggesting that the eruption could be “an attraction” for visitors who could “appreciate what nature has brought to La Palma “. After a backlash, Ms Maroto said the priority was to help the thousands of affected islanders.
Veronika Siewers, who runs a scuba diving club at the southern end of La Palma, said she has already had a slew of canceled reservations.
“I get calls every hour from people asking if they can still come, and honestly I don’t know what to say to them,” she said.