A river of bright red lava from the volcano on the Spanish island of La Palma eventually tumbled off a cliff and into the Atlantic Ocean, unleashing huge plumes of steam and possibly poisonous gases that forced local residents outside the evacuation zone to stay indoors on Wednesday.
The immediate area had been evacuated for several days as authorities waited for the lava that began to erupt on September 19 to cross 6½ kilometers (four miles) to the edge of the island. Descending from the volcanic ridge of Cumbre Vieja, lava flows engulfed at least 656 buildings, mostly houses and farm buildings, in its unstoppable march towards the sea.
The meeting of molten rock and sea water finally took place at 11 p.m. on Tuesday. At dawn, a widening promontory of newborn earth could be seen forming under plumes of steam rising high in the area.
Even though the initial air quality reading showed no danger in the area, experts had warned that the arrival of lava in the ocean would likely produce small explosions and release toxic gases that could damage the lungs. . Authorities established a three-and-a-half kilometer (about two miles) security perimeter and asked residents of the wider area to stay indoors with windows closed to avoid breathing gas.
No fatalities or serious injuries were reported in the island’s first eruption in 50 years, thanks to the rapid evacuation of more than 6,000 people after the ground opened up after weeks of tremors.
The flattening of the land as it approached the coast had slowed the lava flow, causing it to widen and further damage villages and farms. The local economy is largely based on agriculture, especially the cultivation of the Canary Islands plantain.
Just before spilling over a cliff into the sea at a local point known as Los Guirres, lava rolled over the coastal road, cutting off the last road in the area that connects the island to several villages.
“We hope that the channel to the sea that has opened will prevent the lava flow, which has widened to reach 600 meters (2,000 feet) at one point, from continuing to grow, as this has caused enormous damage, “ngel Víctor Torres, president of the regional government of the Canary Islands, told Cope radio.
Torres said his government is working to accommodate those who have lost their homes. Authorities plan to buy more than 100 currently unoccupied homes. Torres cited a village, Todoque, home to 1,400 people, which was wiped out.
La Palma, home to around 85,000 people, is part of the volcanic Canary Islands, an archipelago off northwest Africa. The island is approximately 35 kilometers (22 miles) long and 20 kilometers (12 miles) wide at its widest point.
Clean-up crews swept up the ash in the island’s capital, Santa Cruz, while other small earthquakes that rumbled beneath the volcano for weeks were recorded by geologists.
Favorable weather conditions allowed the first flight in five days to land at La Palma airport, a major tourist destination with its neighboring Canary Islands, despite a huge ash cloud which, according to the Spanish National Geographical Institute, has reaches up to seven kilometers (nearly 4½ miles) high.
Laura Garcés, director of the Spanish air navigation authority ENAIRE, said she did not foresee major problems for other airports in the archipelago due to the ash.
As the tongue of red lava basked off the coast, the volcano’s two open vents continued to spew more magma from below.
Experts say it’s impossible to determine how long the rash will last. Previous eruptions in the archipelago have lasted for weeks, if not months.
“We don’t know when this will be over,” volcanic scientist Stavros Meletlidis of the Spanish National Geographic Institute told state broadcaster TVE. “Volcanoes are no friend of statistics.”
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