Blowing Your Top in the Canary Islands

By William J. Furney

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez decided to postpone his trip to the UN General Assembly in New York and head to the Canary Islands, the seven-isle archipelago off the northwestern coast of Africa, on Sunday when a volcano on one of them started to erupt after rumbling all week.

“I’m currently heading to the Canary islands, in the face of seismic evolution, to know firsthand the situation on La Palma…,” he tweeted, shortly after a ridge on the island’s volcano, Cumbre Vieja, fractured, sending a literal firewall of lava into the sky (image above, from TVE).

More than 4,500 earthquakes were recorded in the area surrounding the volcano in the past week, and evacuations of people living on the slopes of the 1,949-meter-high mountain had been taking place in the last several days. No one was injured in Sunday’s eruption, the island’s president, Mariano Hernandez Zapata, told local TV, and flights in the remote region were not affected, said Spanish airport operator Aena.

The volcano last erupted in 1971, and like all the islands in this Atlantic Ocean archipelago, they are formed as a result of volcanic activity. From my current base in Gran Canaria, which has a big volcano in the middle of it, I’ve ascended the volcano on neighbouring Tenerife, Mt Teide, and in recent weeks have witnessed solidified lava flows across the islands of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote.

It’s expected the volcanic activity on La Palma (population almost 85,000) will continue for some weeks, according to local seismologists, and it’s a stark, sudden and violent reminder of how fragile and volatile our planet is. As a correspondent in Indonesia for the Spanish news agency EFE, I know firsthand how unsettling — and tragic — the effects of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes can be, while reporting from one of the most seismically active regions of the world, the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire.

And it’s likely that when Prime Minister Sanchez does make it to New York for the gathering of world leaders that last year was virtual, due to covid, there might be political earthquakes too — not least in his own, volcanic and breakaway Catalonia region.