Volcanic eruptions proving to be double-edged sword in Canary Islands
Lockdowns ordered earlier this week in coastal areas have been lifted, but air travel remains impacted by the persistent ash cloud. However, as the lava oozes into the Atlantic Ocean, one expert said there is a benefit.
Roughly 3,000 people were ordered to stay inside in La Palma, Spain, as lava from the Cumbre Vieja volcano poured into the sea on Nov. 22, releasing toxic gases.
More than two months after eruptions first began, the Cumbre Vieja volcano on La Palma, one of Spain's Canary Islands, continues to create new issues for residents. Since mid-September, residents have had to deal with a slew of hazards including ever-expanding flows of molten lava, homes buried by ash fallout and earthquakes, just to name a few.
Additional risks developed early this week after a third lava flow crashed into the ocean and set off a chemical reaction.
As the hot, molten lava met the relatively cool ocean on Monday, thick clouds of potentially toxic gases were lofted into the atmosphere and forced authorities to order a lockdown for residents of three coastal towns, according to Reuters. Residents of Tazacorte, San Borondon and portions of El Cardon were ordered to remain indoors with doors and windows shut for safety.
Even residents on the opposite side of the island from the most recent lava flow were told to take precautions early this week. In Santa Cruz, the capital city of La Palma, officials recommended that residents wear masks due to high concentrations of particulate matter and sulfur dioxide in the air, Reuters reported.
This was the first time since the Cumbre Vieja volcano began to erupt on Sept. 19 that such a recommendation was made for the capital city, home to 15,000 residents.
Although coastal lockdowns were lifted on Wednesday after the toxic gas began to disperse, masking recommendations remained in place, according to Reuters.
Thus far, the eruption has covered about 2,654 acres (1,074 hectares) of land and led to the destruction of more than 2,600 buildings on the western side of the island, according to Copernicus Emergency Management Service, which provides mapping products based on satellite imagery.
In addition to the destruction of buildings, La Palma's banana crop has also suffered significant losses. The island's banana industry has lost an estimated $100 million USD in revenue since September, according to NPR.
Of the lava's 2,654 acres (1,074 hectares) extent, about 106 acres (43 hectares) is actually newly-formed land that was created as a result of lava flowing into the Atlantic Ocean, according to Reuters.
While thousands of buildings have been swallowed by the lava, leaving thousands without a place to live, and some banana crops that are crucial to the island's economy have been destroyed, experts say volcanic activity is actually vital for the survival of the island itself.
"If this didn't happen, the islands would be completely eroded by the sea. We wouldn't have a place to live. So, while it is destructive and traumatic, it is a constructive process. The island is expanding and growing," Carmen Solana told NPR. Solana is a volcanologist at the University of Portsmouth and grew up in the Canary Islands.
Experts say prolonged eruptions are not unusual for the region, which was formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago. Solana says the kind of prolonged eruptions like the one underway on La Palma can typically last between one and three months.
The lengthy eruption continues to disrupt operations at the La Palma Airport, located on the eastern coast of the island. The airport was shut down last weekend after ash buried the runway, leaving some passengers stranded on the island and forcing others to take a ferry to nearby islands.
The airport resumed operations on Thursday after the ash was cleaned, but officials cautioned the continued presence of the ash cloud in the atmosphere could still disrupt operations of individual airlines.
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