Locals on Spanish island take cover as lava releases toxic gases

Magma from La Palma volcano pours off sea cliffs into Atlantic, creating clouds of vapour

Lava from a volcano that devastated the Spanish island of La Palma has reached the sea nine days after it started to flow down the mountain. Authorities fear that the lava may trigger explosions and the release of toxic gases. Video: Reuters

Local people on the Spanish island of La Palma have been told to take precautions as lava from a volcanic eruption has released toxic gases after making contact with the sea.

The volcano, on the southwest of the island which is in the Canary archipelago, erupted on September 19th, spewing magma down its flanks. On Tuesday night, the lava started pouring off sea cliffs into the Atlantic Ocean, creating clouds of vapour which scientists have warned could be extremely dangerous.

Arturo Hardisson, a professor of toxicology at the University of La Laguna in Tenerife, told local media that the gases being given off "do not have a particular smell, so they are hard to detect and they can burn the lungs".

People in the nearby town of Tazacorte, with a population of 4,600, were told to stay inside. On land people were kept away from the area and at sea a 3.5km perimeter was imposed.


Within hours of reaching the ocean, the lava starting accumulating on the sea bed off the coast, forming a massive pyramid and changing the colour of the water nearby. Scientists have said the magma is likely to have a negative impact on the flora and fauna on the coast for several months, but that the environment will recover.

The eruption has already caused substantial damage. Several hundred homes have been consumed by the magma and around 6,000 people have been evacuated since the eruption began. Around 22km of roads have been destroyed and much of the island’s banana crop, which is key for the local economy, has been covered or cut off.

"Although it appears that the lava flow is being channelled, the eruption is far from stabilised," said Rubén González, technical director of the Canary Islands Volcanic Emergency Plan.

Given the volcanic history of the island, experts expect the eruption to last anything from three weeks to three months. This is the first volcanic activity of its kind in Spain since 1971, when Teneguía, also on La Palma, erupted for 24 days.

On Tuesday, prime minister Pedro Sánchez declared La Palma a disaster zone, a move that is aimed at easing the release of emergency funds. He announced that €10.5 million will be used to acquire new properties for those who have been left homeless.

The Idealista property website has estimated that the eruption has caused about €206 million in damage to buildings on the island. Around 100 professionals are giving psychological support to people who have lost their homes and others who have been evacuated.

However, flights to and from the island have resumed after several days of being suspended, due to a change in wind direction that cleared volcanic ash from flight paths.

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain