Toxic gas fears as Canary Islands volcano lava nears sea
Meeting of the lava, whose temperature exceeds 1,000C, with a body of water could cause explosions and produce clouds of toxic gas.
Smoke rises from cooling lava near El Secadero, Todoque, in Los Llanos de Aridanes, on the Canary Island of La Palma [Desiree Martin/AFP]
21 Sep 2021
A vast river of molten lava from a Canary Islands volcano continued to destroy everything in its path as it edged towards the sea, where its arrival was expected to generate clouds of toxic gases.
A new fissure emerged on the slopes of the Cumbre Vieja volcano overnight, belching out more lava and forcing hundreds more people to flee their homes on Tuesday.
“The lava flow is moving inexorably towards the sea and absolutely nothing can be done about it,” said Angel Victor Torres, regional head of the Canary Islands.
“We are completely powerless in the face of this advancing lava flow which is moving at 200 metres per hour and has already swept away everything in its path … and will continue to do so on its way to the sea.”
The meeting of the lava, whose temperature exceeds 1,000C (more than 1,800F), with a body of water could cause explosions and produce clouds of toxic gas.
“The clouds created by the interaction of seawater and lava are acidic” and “can be dangerous if you are too close”, volcanology expert Patrick Allard from the Paris Globe Institute of Physics told the AFP news agency.
Torres asked locals to remember the island’s last eruption in 1971, when one person died after inhaling the gas emitted as lava met the water.
The volcano straddles a southern ridge in La Palma, one of seven islands that make up the Atlantic archipelago which lies off the coast of Morocco.
The eruption has forced 6,000 people from their homes and destroyed a large number of properties and land spanning a huge area since it erupted on Sunday afternoon.
Copernicus, the EU’s Earth observation satellite, tweeted, “166 destroyed buildings and 103 hectares (255 acres) covered by the lava flows.”
Although it is currently located about two kilometres (1.25 miles) from the shore, experts have said its speed can be “very variable”.
Lava flows from an eruption of a volcano at the island of La Palma in the Canaries, Spain, Sunday, September 19, 2021 [Jonathan Rodriguez/AP Photo]
‘We’ve lost everything’
Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque, reporting from La Palma on Tuesday, said the air around the volcano is filled with ash made up of tiny, jagged pieces of rock. “When you inhale them it can just choke you, and the authorities here are really trying to secure the area,” he said.
“We’ve met people who are sleeping rough, sleeping in their cars, watching what’s unfolding and unfortunately watching their homes being destroyed,” Haque reported.
“This hasn’t happened in two generations and it has really caught people here by surprise. It was expected, but many people didn’t expect that it was going to happen in their lifetime.”
Overnight, long lines of cars could be seen waiting to leave the area as police sirens wailed, the fiery glow of the erupting volcano lighting up the dark skies.
“You have practically your whole life there … then one day the volcano decides to erupt and puts an end to it all,” evacuee Israel Castro Hernandez told AFPTV on Monday after his home was destroyed by the wall of lava.
“We keep looking over there and we just can’t believe it. We keep thinking that our house is underneath that volcano,” said his wife, Yurena Torres Abreu.
The pair were among 500 people who were evacuated overnight after the new fissure emerged following an earthquake with a magnitude of 4.1 at 9:32pm (20:32 GMT), the Involcan volcanology institute said.
“So many friends have lost everything. They left their homes as we did with just the clothes on their back and little else. They’ve left their entire life there,” said Yurena’s sister, Elizabeth Torres Abreu, who also lost her house.
Volcanology expert Stavros Meletlidis from Spain’s National Geographic Institute told Spain’s RNE radio it was not clear when the lava would reach the sea.
“It can accelerate very quickly, especially when the topography changes … or it can stop on a plain for several hours,” he said.