La Palma, an Island in Spain has become a tourist centre of sort as scientists all over the world are trooping in there to leverage on a volcanic eruption happening about an hour drive from the Spanish airport, with the safety of being able to work under the escort of military brigades an enticing factor.
The 2021 Cumbre Vieja eruption which started in September this year as a flank eruption at the Cumbre Vieja volcanic ridge comprising the southern half of the Spanish island of La Palma in the Canary Islands, is the first volcanic eruption on the island since the eruption of Teneguía in 1971.
There have been eight eruptions In La Palma and they have all occurred on the Cumbre Vieja: 1470–1492 Montaña Quemada. 1585 Tajuya near El Paso. 1646 Volcán San Martin.
Curious tech-inclined scientists, not oblivious of future applications, are applying cutting-edge technologies to scrutinize a rare volcanic eruption from the land, the sea, the air, and even space.
The researchers even with recent scientific and technological advancements can only make do with just the estimation of what transpires in the underworld where magma is formed and melts any human-made equipment. Humans have been able to drill into the planet’s crust, with the deepest of it been just over 12 kilometers (7.6 miles), a feat that Soviet scientists achieved in 1989.
“There has been a lot of progress in the last 30 or 40 years in the understanding of geological and evolutionary processes, but it’s still difficult to know for sure what happens at 40 to 80 kilometers (25 to 50 miles) of depth,” said Pedro Hernández, an expert with the Canary Islands’ volcanology institute, Involcan.
“We are probably beginning to know the stars better than what happens under our feet,” he said.
With some of the Canary Islands still growing as a result of magma accumulating underneath, either by forming lava peninsulas beyond the coastline, knowing that volcanic eruptions are a one or, at most, twice-in-a-generation event in the Canary Islands archipelago is a reality that interests savvy tech scientists.
Because the last eruption, which happened a decade ago in El Hierro was just off the coast, Volcanologists found it difficult to collect samples. With the previous land volcano erupting 1971 in La Palma, an expert in rocks with Sweden’s Uppsala University and co-author of a geology study of the archipelago, Valentin Troll who was born that year had this to say:
“It’s been mind-blowing, literally, to see this dynamism in action,” the geologist said. “We are learning so much about how volcanoes work.”
Scientists had to measure the surge on the land’s surface, concentrations of quakes known as seismic swarms and other signs of an impending eruption when magma began to accumulate deep under La Palma’s Cumbre Vieja range but they were not able to know and predict the exact time of the eruption, even though their assessments prompted authorities to begin the first evacuations just hours before it took place on Sept. 19.
There have been no casualties directly linked to the eruption except that of a man who fell off from a roof and died in the process of cleaning off ash last month.
According to Troll, a new advancement in volcanology will be when robotically operated rovers like the ones sent to the moon or Mars can be used in volcanoes, with the knowledge of these rovers helping to rebuild the tourism-dependent island.
“We need to learn how we can protect the population as well as the growing industry to build a sustainable society,” he said.
Pedro Hernández, the Canary Islands’ volcanology institute expert on how long it would take to know if volcano activity is waning said it would take at least two weeks of consistent lessening in soil deformation, sulfur dioxide emissions and seismic activity to establish that.
Esteban Gazel, a Cornell University, New York Geochemist, averred that the Canary Islands are closely connected to activity going all the way to the core of the earth, making it even more difficult to make predictions.
“It’s like treating a patient,” he said. “You can monitor how (the eruption) evolves, but saying exactly when it will die is extremely difficult.”
Curious Gazel had taken to La Palma as part of NASA funded research to collect the smallest particles that winds transport for long distances, a move that would help reduce the risks and casualty in case a catastrophic eruption degraded air quality and influenced climate patterns. He also runs a parallel research program that looks at the volumes of gases that make an eruption more or less explosive.
Gazel has also conducted research in Hawaii’s active Kilauea volcano, but according to him, the La Palma eruption has brought a new dimension to his work, due to the different compositions of the rock and the easy access to the volcanic exclusion area.
“The more eruptions that we study, the more we are going to understand how they behave,” he said.