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Volcano ERUPTS on Spanish island La Palma as rescuers scramble to evacuate 5,000 residents 

A volcano on the Spanish island of La Palma erupted Sunday after a week long build-up of seismic activity, forcing the authorities to scramble evacuations for more than 5,000 people as lava ran towards their homes.  

The explosion took place in an area known as Cabeza de Vaca on the western slope of the volcanic ridge as it descends to the coast, and comes after the island registered up to 1,000 earthquakes in the past five days alone. 

Huge red plumes topped with black-and-white smoke shot out along the volcanic ridge that scientists had been closely following due to the accumulation of molten lava below the surface. 

Mayor Sergio Rodríguez said 300 people in immediate danger had been evacuated from their homes and sent to the El Paso soccer field as one lava river slid towards the village, while rescue services carried out evacuations of those with mobility issues hours before the eruption.

The volcanic eruption alert has gone from yellow traffic light to red according to the Civil Guard, as the evacuation affects more than 5,000 people from different districts in the municipalities of El Paso, Tazacorte and Los Llanos de Aridane.

Roads were closed due to the explosion and authorities urged the curious not to approach the area. 

The explosion took place in an area known as Cabeza de Vaca on the western slope of the volcanic ridge as it descends to the coast, and comes after the island registered up to 1,000 earthquakes in the past five days alone 

Itahiza Dominguez, head of seismology of Spain's National Geology Institute, told local TV station RTVC that although it was too early to tell how long this eruption would last, prior 'eruptions on the Canary Islands lasted weeks or even months.'

Cumbre Vieja volcano erupted on Spain's Canary Islands on Sunday afternoon, spewing out lava, ash and a huge column of smoke after days of increased seismic activity

Mayor Sergio Rodríguez said 300 people in immediate danger had been evacuated from their homes and sent to the El Paso soccer field as one lava river slid towards the village, while rescue services carried out evacuations of those with mobility issues hours before the eruption

La Cumbre Vieja volcano erupted on Sunday after 5,000 earthquakes were registered in the area in the past week

Huge red plumes topped with black-and-white smoke shot out along the volcanic ridge, forcing 5,000 people to evacuate their homes

Seismologists say that the eruptions could continue for months 

The area registered hundreds of small earthquakes along the week as magma pressed the subsoil on its way out. Regional authorities started to evacuate locals with mobility issues hours before the eruption took place

Earlier this week, Spain's National Geographic Institute detected 4,222 tremors in a so-called 'earthquake swarm' in the national park around the volcano, with over 1,000 of them registering as earthquakes

The area near the southern tip of the island where the ridge is located is sparsely populated, but residents of the five nearby villages had already been told to be on alert and ready to leave their homes in case of an eruption

La Palma, with a population of 85,000, is one of eight islands in Spain's Canary Islands archipelago off Africa's western coast, which at its most southern point is just 60 miles from Morocco.

Itahiza Dominguez, head of seismology of Spain's National Geology Institute, told local TV station RTVC that although it was too early to tell how long this eruption would last, prior 'eruptions on the Canary Islands lasted weeks or even months.'

The last eruption on the Canary Islands occurred underwater off the coast of El Hierro island in 2011 which lasted five months.

The latest eruption comes just three days after the Spanish government's office for the islands said there was 'no clear evidence that suggested an eruption was imminent'.

Earlier this week, Spain's National Geographic Institute detected 4,222 tremors in a so-called 'earthquake swarm' in the national park around the volcano, with over 1,000 of them registering as earthquakes.

The Canary Island's regional government on Tuesday put the island on a yellow alert for an eruption, the second of a four-level alert system. 

The British government issued a warning to Brits expecting to go on holiday to the island on Sundayevening: 'On Sunday 19 September 2021, at approximately 15.15 local time, there was a volcanic eruption on the Spanish Canary Island of La Palma. The immediate area of Cabeza de Vaca, El Paso has been evacuated.'

'If you are in an affected area you should follow the advice of local authorities, including social media updates from Cabildo de La Palma. If you are planning to travel to the island imminently you are encouraged to contact your tour operators and airlines.'

The latest eruption comes just three days after the Spanish government's office for the islands said there was 'no clear evidence that suggested an eruption was imminent'

Two volcanologists Claudia Rodriguez and Beverley Coldwell from the Volcanological Institute of the Canary Islands (INVOLCAN) collect gas samples on La Palma a day before the eruption

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (second from left) arrived to La Palma following the eruption

The ridge covers the southern two-thirds of the small island and the yellow alert warning affects four municipalities

The volcano erupted after a week of seismic activity and sent lava flows creeping toward isolated homes on the mountainside (Carlota Manuela Martin Fuentes via AP)

Volcanologists and rescue workers were forced to speed up their evacuations of residents from the area as lava ran toward their homes

The popular tourist hotspot has a population of 85,000, but the southern area of the island close to where the volcano erupted is sparsely populated

After days of tremors and small earthquakes, authorities on La Palma had already started to evacuate residents with reduced mobility on Sunday morning shortly before ground broke open. 

The area near the southern tip of the island where the ridge is located is sparsely populated, but residents of the five nearby villages had already been told to be on alert and ready to leave their homes in case of an eruption.

A 3.8-magnitude quake was recorded before the eruption as vibrations from the seismic activity were felt on the surface.

The Scientific Committee of the Volcano Risk Prevention Plan said stronger earthquakes 'are likely to be felt and may cause damage to buildings.' 

The committee of experts also noted that a stretch of the island´s southwest coast was at risk for landslides and rock falls.

Though the area surrounding the volcano is sparsely populated, there are a number of small villages and isolated mountainside homes that were forced to evacuate (Carlota Manuela Martin Fuentes via AP)

No casualties from the eruption have yet been reported (Carlota Manuela Martin Fuentes via AP)

An earthquake swarm is a sequence of seismic events occurring in one place within a relatively short period of time

Rising sharply out of the Atlantic around 60 miles to the west of southern Morocco, the Canary Islands are home to Spain's most active and best known volcanoes, including Teide in Tenerife and Timanfaya in Lanzarote.

Cumbre Vieja erupted twice in the 20th century, first in 1949 then in 1971 when it spat lava for three weeks.

A 2001 research article claimed a change in the eruptive activity of Cumbre Vieja volcano and a fracture on the volcano that formed during the 1949 eruption may be the prelude to a giant ridge collapse.

Authors Steven N Ward and Simon Day estimated such a collapse could cause tsunamis across the entire North Atlantic and severely impact countries as far away as North America.

In 2018, a seismic swarm of 270 mini-earthquakes was recorded in the Canary Islands over a 10-day period, leading to concerns Tenerife's Mount Teide was due to erupt. 

The largest of these reached a magnitude of 3.2 on the Richter scale around 22 miles from Puerto La Luz, Port of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

No eruption occurred and scientists quelled fears, saying the tremors were part of the islands' normal seismic activity. 

Professor Mike Burton, chair in volcanology at the University of Manchester, told MailOnline at the time: 'There's plenty of tectonic seismicity in the Canary Islands due to plate motion which doesn't directly produce volcanic activity, and there are some earthquake locations to the southeast of Tenerife which are consistent with this. 

But the eruption of Cumbre Vieja after 4200 tremors and a 3.8 magnitude earthquake suggests that further tremors in the area could certainly lead to subsequent eruptions.

HOW CAN RESEARCHERS PREDICT VOLCANIC ERUPTIONS?

According to Eric Dunham, an associate professor of Stanford University's School of Earth, energy and Environmental Sciences, 'Volcanoes are complicated and there is currently no universally applicable means of predicting eruption. In all likelihood, there never will be.'

However, there are indicators of increased volcanic activity, which researchers can use to help predict volcanic eruptions. 

Researchers can track indicators such as: 

  • Volcanic infrasound: When the lava lake rises up in the crater of an open vent volcano, a sign of a potential eruption, the pitch or frequency of the sounds generated by the magma tends to increase.
  • Seismic activity: Ahead of an eruption, seismic activity in the form of small earthquakes and tremors almost always increases as magma moves through the volcano's 'plumbing system'.
  • Gas emissions: As magma nears the surface and pressure decreases, gases escape. Sulfur dioxide is one of the main components of volcanic gases, and increasing amounts of it are a sign of increasing amounts of magma near the surface of a volcano. 
  • Ground deformation: Changes to a volcano's ground surface (volcano deformation) appear as swelling, sinking, or cracking, which can be caused by magma, gas, or other fluids (usually water) moving underground or by movements in the Earth's crust due to motion along fault lines. Swelling of a volcano cans signal that magma has accumulated near the surface.  

Source: United States Geological Survey

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