This post was published by the author at
https://peakbook.org/Þróndeimr/tour/437021/Vulkanutbrudd+på+La+Palma.html, and is reproduced and translated) here by kind permission by the author.
Volcanoes have fascinated me since I was little but it was not until the eruption on Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 that I looked at the possibilities and began to reflect on the idea of going to watch an ongoing volcanic eruption. Until now, I had considered Iceland as the most likely destination for seeing an eruption. Iceland is nearby and many of the outbreaks there last a long time, which I need to find the time and to have the opportunity to travel there. Then the volcano must be of a small size. An ashy eruption would close the airspace for flights and such eruptions are usually short and intense. That it became a trip to the charter destination of the Canary Islands came as a surprise to myself as well.
This is for several reasons. The volcanoes in the Canary Islands mostly offer fairly stable small eruptions, but they happen so rarely that I had not listed them as a probable place to see a volcanic eruption. At La Palma, for example, a volcanic eruption occurs about every 50-90 years; the eruptions have a duration of between about 20 and 90 days if you look at the previous six historical eruptions. Teide / Tenerife sees 4-6 eruptions over a thousand years, i.e. much less frequently. Lanzarote sees large eruptions in a series which last a long time, but perhaps as infrequently as 2-4 times per thousand years.
Earlier this year, such a “tourist volcano” started in Iceland. Fagradalsfjall Volcano is perhaps the perfect tourist volcano and with Iceland’s policy around this, quite extensive measures were initiated to secure the surrounding areas so that 50,000 tourists could see it up close every week. Unfortunately it had to happen in the middle of the pandemic, so I was unable to go there. And now that the country is reopening, the volcano in Iceland has gone a bit into sleep mode.
Then the volcano Cumbre Vieja on La Palma appeared, just before the reopening at the end of September. I found fantastic cheap airline tickets, so I dropped all plans and some duties I had agreed to, in order to hop on the plane to the disaster area in the Canary Islands. To make sure I would be able to reach the island, I first booked flights to Tenerife. I had planned out the journey ahead but did not book anything until I had landed on Tenerife. The reason for this was that so much was unpredictable, not only in relation to traveling to La Palma during a volcanic eruption, but also at the airports in relation to the pandemic. I had a stopover in Naples, i.e. in a ‘yellow’ country (Italy). The Canary Islands were also ‘yellow’ while Spain was ‘red’. During phase 1 of the reopening only ‘green’ and ‘yellow’ countries were exempt from quarantine upon return to Norway.
When the plane landed on Tenerife after pandemic delays through chaotic conditions in Naples, I had 40 minutes to take a taxi from the airport down to the port and get on a boat to La Palma. The boat was covered in ash from the volcanic eruption at La Palma, a clear step towards the destination! While on the ferry, I booked an overnight box room in an old building in the capital Santa Cruz de la Palma to sleep in, for NOK 200 a night, something I had not tried before and was really excellent!
The Cumbre Vieja volcano on La Palma is a strombolian volcano. Such eruptions are small and stable, reaching 1-2 on the VEI scale (which runs from 0 to 8). The current eruption is VEI 2, with typical tall lava columns and occasionally some ash. It is rare for such volcanoes to produce so much ash that it causes significant problems farther away, but they can produce sulfur dioxide (SO2) and other important volcanic gases.
On La Palma I rented a car and spent the night in the island’s largest city, Santa Cruz de La Palma. The city is located on the east side of the island, sheltered from the eruption which is on the west side of the island. From where I was it was about a 30min drive to the eruption. A marked area around the volcano was closed down. The map can be seen under the Risk Assessment at the bottom of this report.
The first trip into the area was already fascinating. I drove the rental car along some narrow, local roads east of El Paso. The roads were covered with 2-3cm of ash, very interesting to drive on! I parked the car and made my way through the woods to a ridge from where there was a view of the eruption. The risk assessment at the bottom of the report describes which assessments I took before going there. The massive sound from the eruption, as well as two small earthquakes made the experience a powerful one. This was the first trip and in a bit of a hurry I had not immersed myself too much in the up-to-date information from the geologists in the area. I turned back a lot earlier than I could have done.
At this time, the volcano had built up an approximately 70m high volcanic cone. An ash-rich cloud rose from the cone, while on the northwest side of the cone lava erupted from a side valve. The lava that flooded out there looked almost Hawaiian, not strombolian.
To get a better overview of the area and the volcano, I took a trip to Pico Bejenado, a peak of 1852m just 8km north of the eruption. Up to this time, the volcano had ben active from two location. On this day, the main crater erupted a thick and dark cloud of ash rising 6100m into the atmosphere, before falling down again. But lava erupted from the west side of the crater, shown in the pictures above. This lava flowed straight into the cities below and was on its way to the sea.
While I went up, there was a change in the volcano. I felt two new earthquakes. Both were short, around 2-3 seconds and measured 2.9 and 3.1. I had never experienced an earthquake before, so I must say I thought it was very exciting every time. Not long after, the pattern of the eruption changed. As you can see in the pictures below, the main crater went from being in a stable ash eruption to exhibiting pure lava columns, in a more explosive form than those of the side vent. It was a typical strombolian eruption pattern. During this trip the lava reached the Atlantic Ocean and a toxic cloud settled like a lid over the entire area, which you see in one picture further down. This fog disappeared later in the evening when the wind dispersed it.
After the trip up Pico Bejendado it was late at night, but I still wanted to drive to the barricades to see the spectacle up close. I, like many others, stood by the barriers about 1900m from the eruption to look at the lava columns that stood 800m up. Seeing something like this from the streets of the city while it is being destroyed is something I probably will never forget. Something significant is still missing from this report and that is the sound of the volcano. The massive and roaring sound makes it almost impossible to talk to the others near you. It can be compared to a fighter plane taking off, only that it takes off constantly!
I slept for no more than 3 hours through the night, no time to sleep any more! I Went out again and observed the volcano from an area in the northwest, near the town of La Punta. The big challenge on that day was that the wind was very strong from the northeast. The falling ash blew around the island and made it uncomfortable everywhere. Around 70% of the island had been covered by various amounts of ash during the previous days. Inhaling ash was annoying but not much worse: the ash particles from this volcano are so large that they do not go down into the lungs (important with lots of nose hair!) But they irritate the eyes quite a lot. Glasses made it hurt worse when turbulence between the glasses propelled the ash particles into the eye. In advance, I bought a cleaner in relation to such particles.
It was thus set for a day with some distance from the areas closest to the eruption, at least for the first hours while the wind was strongest. From the vantage point above La Punta, I could see the lava flowing into the ocean and the chemical process that occurs when the lava meets water and turns into corrosive clouds. An hour after I sat down on the observation post, the volcano changed its eruption pattern again to a more ash-rich eruption from the main crater.
After a few quiet hours at the observation post in the sun, the trip took me to La Palma’s highest peak, Roque de los Muchachos with its 2426m. From here, of course, the eruption was clearly visible!
Then came the darkness and I wanted to take one last night trip and watch the eruption before my journey continued the next day. The wind still blew from the east / northeast, as strong as before with 15-20 m/s. But now it had been blowing for so long that most of the ashes that could be moved had been moved. With the constant wind direction and the stability of the eruption, it was vest to approach from the east, with the wind in the back while watching the eruption. I explored the terrain and for each ridge ahead there was a short stop to re-evaluate the framework and the risk. I was able to pinpoint an area just over 700m northeast of the volcano cone. The cone had changed a bit in character lately, it seemed to have started to sag in the west edge so that the lava columns also went further out, good of me who was on the east side since I had a good margin in relation to falling materials from the volcano. In the dark here I also met two German “volcanic tourists”. They were very secretive but wanted to get very close as they said. I never saw them again, so possible I was closer than them!
The strongest earthquake I felt was while parking the rental car in the parking basement at the airport. The earthquake measured only 3.1, but it felt more violent than the previous ones in that category. The quake lasted about 3 seconds, but all the cars vibrated, as did the pillars that held the airport up.
Here I will make an attempt to convince you as a reader that I has made appropriate sensible assessments in relation to the three trips I made close to the outbreak. The map shows these three:
Trip no. 1. Distance from photo location to the eruption: 1900m
Trip no. 2. Distance from photo location to the eruption: 1500m
Trip no. 3. Distance from photo location to the eruption: 740m .
This is my first trip close to an ongoing volcanic eruption so the assessments were made accordingly. For many, it will probably seem headless to go as close as I have done, but I have written down the reviews I have made below. You get a somewhat misleading and frightening picture of the volcano in some media. I was more skeptical even when I went into the area before I saw the eruption, the terrain around, the weather and the wind and all the information from the official sources Involcan and Copernicus. Involcan had a very good information channel on Twitter with information and explanations. Copernicus added good maps and satellite images for good help. Wind and weather reports as well as satellite images and radar images, for which I like to use Windy where you can find webcams and the like. Live video was also posted on Youtube which could be checked when I myself did not see the eruption due to terrain obstacles while I was moving around. Yr also works quite well abroad and provides more accurate weather forecasts than any other service.
Trip 1: This trip was only a few hours after the lava reached the sea and high values of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide were measured in the area by the sea and up to the area I went into. I was actually going to drive back to the hotel after the trip up to Pico Bejenado , but quite suddenly the wind increased considerably from the east / northeast. It matched well with the wind message and satellite images of Windy and I could see that all the haze and fog that lay like a lid over the cities west of the eruption blew away. Driving down to El Paso, some low haze between the buildings was blown at full speed towards the sea. I drove through one scch fog and it smelled like a thousand rotten eggs. The air became clearer and I drove to the roadblock in the street in question. The roadblock is about 3km away from the eruption, but from there you can enter a new barrier that is manned closer to the eruption (1900m from the eruption). The biggest challenge with the trip was that the wind started to blow up so much that the volcanic ash started to drift with turbulence around the streets. Many other people showed up at the barricades to take pictures.
The distance to the eruption of close to 2km seemed good and that is probably why they have set the barriers here. All the ash and gas from the eruption itself and the lava flows blew in a safe direction at sea. The lava columns were up to 600-800m in height and threw the lava 200-300m out to the sides. A possible risk apart from lava, axis and gas is that the volcanic cone becomes unstable as it grows and slides down on the western edge as it is constructed on a steep slope. It can trigger landslides of hot pumice, ash and lava that can reach a few hundred meters beyond the terrain at the western edge of the eruption. The pressure from the volcano can blow the mass further out to the west, northwest and southwest depending on how the rift is constructed. The volcano was quite fierce when I was here, with lava columns that stood 600-800m up. GPS track from tour no. 1: Approach 3.
Trip 2: The trip went towards the eruption during the day. The wind direction went from west to east, so I approached from the north. There wasn’t much wind so I was tried to keep to the ridges where air quality was best. At this point I did not know exactly how much gas was coming out so I could not assess it well. Therefore I added some margin and kept my distance and stayed where there was some wind. The area had a good shower of ash from the day before, and there was warm ash on the ground, up to 15-20cm where I stopped (1500m from the eruption). I observed many different birds both high above the ridges and down in the depressions beyond (positive in relation to air quality). This mountain side has an inclination of about 10-15 degrees towards the sea in the west, so it takes a lot for high values of gases to remain in this area. I stopped and observed the eruption from 1500m. It was tempting to walk 300m to the next ridge which is the last high marked ridge before the eruption, but notification of a change in wind by the end of the day meant that I wanted to keep the margins while I still did not feel I had one hundred percent control over all risk factors. At this time, the ash cloud from the volcano rose 6100m into the atmosphere. Lava bombs and such materials were thrown up to 600-800m from the crater and up to 300m out of the crater. After the trip, I read the latest report on the gas measurements in the last few days, which gave me more leeway on trip 3.
A little more about gas: Usually SO2 (Sulfur Dioxide) is the biggest challenge in a volcanic eruption. The gas is colorless, but a small amount of it will smell strongly, with a kind of rotten egg so it is easy to detect. The gas, on the other hand, can mix with moisture and come down as acid rain (sulfuric acid), then it will be able to cause damage to the skin and eyes mainly as long as it is not inhaled in a way. InVolcan measured 7,000-11,000 tons of SO2 per day in the days before the lava reached the ocean, a modest value. By comparison, Pinatubo emitted 20 million tons of SO2 over a few days in 1991. A volcano in Iceland emitted 120 million tons of SO2 that killed tens of thousands in northern Europe in the 18th century. Kīlauea in Hawaii also erupted the day after I went on this trip: it spewed out 80,000 tons of SO2 per day for the first two days which can present health challenges if you have asthma or other respiratory challenges.
CO2 (Carbon dioxide) can also come in large quantities from volcanoes, it is both colorless and odorless and difficult to detect without measuring instruments. Fortunately, CO2 is easily transported away by wind and pressure from the volcano so it usually goes straight to the higher layers of the atmosphere. H2S (Hydrogen Sulfide) also occurs and is perhaps one of the more dangerous gases from a volcano as I have understood it. It is formed when sulfur from the magma reacts with water and is often a challenge in volcanoes that are close to lakes, have a large lake in the crater or are connected to large amounts of groundwater. Water is something La Palma is in short supply, both groundwater and lakes are absent from the island. InVolcan did not mention any hydrogen sulphide in its report on the measurements made. Otherwise, different gases are formed when the lava burns through various organic plants, houses, buildings and materials. The gases are easily carried by wind. GPS-Track from trip no. 2: Approach 2.
Trip 3: The wind that had started the day before had blown strongly throughout the day. Strong wind, 15-20m / s from northeast to southwest was blowing ash and gas to the sea. The biggest challenge was all the ash that blew around. The residents down in El Paso had to walk around with goggles. In the media, there was a lot of attention about the dangerous gases that occur and it probably scared those who read it. From InVolcan, which publishes the official information, very few dangerous gases are measured and those living on La Palma are reassured. There was talk of the formation of larger amounts of hydrogen sulphide down by the coast where the lava flowed into the sea and this formed some fog that was corrosive, but not a danger to those who lived on land even though at one point they were encouraged to stay inside one village near the harbor. Involcan had a boat standing close by at all times and never measured high values of H2S while I was on the island. In any case, this was not a real threat at the altitude I was at (600-1300 masl). There has also been increasing earthquake activity throughout the day and some hobby geologists and fans presented the idea that a new and larger crack could soon open some kilometers south of the eruption. The media bought this and some drama unfolded online. This was written off as a probability from an official standpoint with good and logical counter-arguments a few hours later.
When starting the trip I had no goal of where I could get to. I was looking for a safe area with a good overview, preferably with a canopy north or east of the eruption. There are fairly steep mountain sides above the eruption, so if you want to stay safest closest to the eruption, it is from this angle with good wind direction. The eruption was a bit weaker than the day before with lava columns 300-400m high with some fountains and lava rocks up to 500m. Coming closer, I saw that the lava columns angled slightly to the west rather than straight up as yesterday, an advantage as no lava bombs or materials are fired more than around 50-100m east. I thought this might show a weakness in the volcanic cone, sagging on the west side is logical on a fairly steep slope going downhill to the west. This was confirmed two days later when it was expected that there would be a landslide to the west which could change the volcano’s behavior to some extent.
I got into an area just east of the volcano, with some canopy and with a lot of wind in the back, so much so that I had to search a little around to find shelter. Here I was also not completely alone and some geologists were taking pictures (they had driven up with an ATV). There were also traces from 5-10 others who most likely had been here through the day after the wind turned. From here I had a good overview, some 700m from the eruption, and at least 600m clearance of any falling material. Here the ash was the deepest of what I had walked on, between 30 and 50cm. I dug down a couple of places and found that it was quite warm (50-70c) even two days after it had fallen here. GPS-Track from trip no. 3: Approach 4.
So now I have become a volcanic tourist. Fortunately, that is a healthier tourist than the charter tourist!