A volcano on the Spanish island of La Palma in the Atlantic Ocean erupted on Sunday after a week of seismic activity, prompting authorities to evacuate thousands as lava flows destroyed isolated homes and threatened to reach the coast. New eruptions continued overnight.
The Canary Islands Institute of Volcanology reported the initial eruption shortly after 3 p.m. near the southern end of the island, which last erupted in 1971. Huge red plumes topped with black and white smoke erupted gushed along the volcanic ridge of Cumbre Vieja, which scientists had closely followed the buildup of molten lava below the surface and on days of small earthquakes.
Víctor Torres, President of the Canary Islands, said that by 11 p.m. some 5,000 people had been evacuated from their homes. Most, he said, had found family or friends to welcome them. The others were in shelters.
La Palma, with a population of 85,000, is one of eight volcanic islands in the Spanish Canary Islands archipelago, off the west coast of Africa. At their closest point, the islands are 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Morocco.
A magnitude 4.2 earthquake was recorded before the eruption, which took place in an area known as Cabeza de Vaca on the western slope as the ridge descends towards the coast. As the eruptions continued, at least two open mouths spewed bright red magma into the air which then flowed in tight streams down the slope of the mountain.
Shortly after the initial explosion rocked the area, a black lava flow with a scorching tip immediately slid towards homes in the village of El Paso. Mayor Sergio Rodríguez said 300 people in immediate danger have been evacuated, roads have been closed and authorities have urged onlookers not to approach the area.
The lava ultimately destroyed at least eight homes, according to local authorities, causing at least one chalet with a tower to collapse. Authorities have warned that the lava flows could also threaten the municipalities of El Paraíso, Alcalá and surrounding areas.
Carlota Martín was on her family’s farm plot in Todoque, just downstream from the eruption site, when she heard a huge explosion.
“When we saw the smoke column we thought it couldn’t be real, but it kept growing and we knew we had to get out of there,” she told The Associated Press. “You go, but you also look back because you want to see what’s going to happen. No one knows how the lava flows will come down, but our land and many houses in the area could be a hindrance. “
Mariano Hernández, president of the island of La Palma, said there were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries, but the lava flows made him concerned “about the populated areas of the coast”.
“People should not come near the eruption site where the lava is flowing,” Hernández said. “We have serious problems with the evacuation as the roads are crowded with people trying to get close enough to see it.”
Itahiza Dominguez, head of seismology at the Spanish National Institute of Geology, told Canary Islands TV that although it is too early to say how long this eruption will last, “previous eruptions on the Canary Islands have lasted for weeks or even months “.
The last eruption on La Palma 50 years ago lasted just over three weeks. The last eruption on all of the Canary Islands occurred underwater off the coast of El Hierro Island in 2011. It lasted for five months.
The volcanologist Vicente Soler of the Spanish Superior Council said that “the material seems to be very fluid, the lava flows will reach the sea sooner or later”. The scientific committee of the Volcano Risk Prevention Plan said part of the island’s southwest coast was at risk of landslides and rockfall.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has canceled his trip to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly in order to be able to travel from mainland Spain to the Canary Islands.
“The people of La Palma must be assured that we have all the necessary resources and emergency personnel,” Sánchez said after meeting with local officials on the island.
Joseph Wilson reported from Barcelona. Renata Brito contributed to this report from Barcelona.