La Palma volcano is a magnet for vulcanologists keen to study the eruption


“It was literally mind-blowing to see this dynamism in action,” said the geologist. “We are learning so much about how volcanoes work. “

Yet trying to compare notes with previous eruptions involves delving into centuries-old documents, some dating from a time when photography did not exist.

A scientist from IGME-CSIC (Spanish National Research Council) collects samples of volcanic ash.Credit:PA

When magma began to accumulate deep beneath La Palma’s Cumbre Vieja Range, scientists were measuring the surge to the earth’s surface, concentrations of earthquakes known as seismic swarms and others. signs of an impending rash. They were unable to predict the exact time of the eruption, but their assessments prompted authorities to begin the first evacuations just hours before it took place on September 19.

Although a man died in November falling from a roof while cleaning volcanic ash, there were no deaths directly linked to the eruption.

Much of this is due to new technologies in volcanology: everything from drones that allow scientists to peek into a volcanic cauldron to supercomputers that run prediction algorithms.

The European Union’s Copernicus satellite program produced high-resolution imagery and mapping of the island to track earthquake-induced deformations, leading to near real-time monitoring of lava flows and the build-up of ashes. Its experts were also able to observe how large plumes of sulfur dioxide, a poisonous gas, traveled long distances across North Africa, the European continent and even as far as the Caribbean.

Drones have improved scientists' ability to monitor lava flows.

Drones have improved scientists’ ability to monitor lava flows. Credit:PA

At sea, Spanish research vessels are studying the impact of the eruption on the marine ecosystem as fingers of lava extend beyond the coast.

The next big step forward for volcanology is expected when robotic rovers like those sent to the moon or to Mars can be used in volcanoes, said Troll, who believes the knowledge from these rovers could guide the reconstruction of the island dependent on tourism.

“We must learn how to protect the population as well as the growing industry to build a sustainable society,” he said.

Despite its limited resources, Involcan has produced daily reports that help La Palma civil protection authorities decide whether to evacuate or issue lockouts when gas concentrations become too toxic. This means analyzing terabytes of data, both from automatic detectors in strategic locations and from samples collected during field visits.

Vulcanologists' warnings gave authorities in the Canary Islands time to evacuate residents hours before the volcano erupted.

Vulcanologists’ warnings gave authorities in the Canary Islands time to evacuate residents hours before the volcano erupted. Credit:PA

Most of the work of scientists has focused on predicting the impact of the volcano’s damage on a community that has already lost thousands of homes, farms, roads, irrigation canals and banana crops. But the question of when the rash will end haunts them.

Hernández said it would take at least two weeks of steadily decreasing soil deformation, sulfur dioxide emissions and seismic activity to establish whether the volcano’s activity is declining.

Esteban Gazel, a geochemist at Cornell University in New York, said the Canary Islands are closely linked with activity going down to the heart of the earth, making predictions even more difficult.

“It’s like treating a patient,” he says. “You can watch how (the rash) is progressing, but telling exactly when it will die is extremely difficult.”

In La Palma, Gazel collected the smallest particles that winds carry long distances as part of NASA-funded research that could be essential in minimizing risk if a catastrophic eruption degrades air quality and influenced climate models. He is also leading a parallel research program looking at the volumes of gas that make an eruption more or less explosive.

Originally from Costa Rica, where he studied traces of past eruptions, Gazel also conducted research on the active volcano Kilauea in Hawaii. But the eruption of La Palma brought a new dimension to his work, he said, due to the different rock compositions and the easy access to the volcanic exclusion zone.


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