World

Lava from volcano on Spain's Canary Islands reaches sea

A bright red river of lava from the volcano on Spain's La Palma island finally tumbled over a cliff and into the Atlantic Ocean, setting off huge plumes of steam and possibly toxic gases that forced local residents outside the evacuation zone to remain indoors on Wednesday.

No reported deaths or injuries from volcanic eruption, but hundreds of buildings destroyed

Spanish volcano's destructive stream of lava reaches sea

2 months ago
0:47
Officials in La Palma, Spain, fearing explosions or toxic gases, urged residents to find a safe place as sizzling lava from a nearby volcano finally made its way to sea. (Borja Suarez/Reuters) 0:47

A bright red river of lava from the volcano on Spain's La Palma island finally tumbled over a cliff and into the Atlantic Ocean, setting off huge plumes of steam and possibly toxic gases that forced local residents outside the evacuation zone to remain indoors on Wednesday.

The immediate area had been evacuated for several days as authorities waited for the lava that began erupting Sept. 19 to traverse the 6.5 kilometres to the island's edge. On the way down from the Cumbre Vieja volcanic ridge, the lava flows have engulfed at least 656 buildings, mostly homes and farm buildings, in an unstoppable march to the sea.

Lava from a volcano reaches the sea on the Canary island of La Palma, Spain, in the early hours of Wednesday. (Saul Santos/The Associated Press)

The meeting of molten lava and sea water finally came at 11 p.m. local time on Tuesday. By daybreak, a widening promontory of newborn land could be seen forming under plumes of steam rising high into the air.

Even though initial air quality readings showed no danger in the area, experts had warned that the arrival of the lava at the ocean would likely produce small explosions and release toxic gases that could damage lungs. Authorities established a security perimeter of 3.5 kilometres and asked residents in the wider area to remain indoors with windows shut to avoid breathing in any gases.

Villages cut off

No deaths or serious injuries have been reported from the island's first eruption in 50 years, thanks to the prompt evacuations of more than 6,000 people after the ground cracked open following weeks of tremors.

The flattening of the terrain as it approached the coast had slowed down the flow of the lava, causing it to widen and do more damage to villages and farms. The local economy is largely based on agriculture, above all, the cultivation of the Canary plantain.

Lava flows into the sea behind members of the coast guard, following the eruption of a volcano, in the Port of Tazacorte. (Nacho Doce/Reuters)

Just before it poured down a cliff into the sea at a local point known as Los Guirres, the lava rolled over the coastal highway, 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 stops the lava flow, which widened to reach 600 metres at one point, from continuing to grow, because that has caused tremendous damage," Angel Victor Torres, president of the Canary Islands regional government, told Cope radio.

First flight in 5 days lands

Torres said his government is working to house those who have lost their dwellings. Authorities have plans to purchase over 100 currently unoccupied homes. Torres cited one village, Todoque, home to 1,400 people, which was wiped out.

La Palma, home to about 85,000 people, is part of the volcanic Canary Islands, an archipelago off northwest Africa. The island is roughly 35 kilometres long and 20 kilometres wide at its broadest point.

Smoke and lava rise from the crater after lava flowed into the sea, as seen from El Paso on Wednesday. (Jon Nazca/Reuters)

Cleaning crews swept up ash in the island's capital, Santa Cruz, while more small earthquakes that have rumbled under the volcano for weeks were registered by geologists.

Favourable weather conditions allowed the first flight in five days to land at the airport on La Palma, an important tourist destination along with its neighbouring Canary islands, despite a huge ash cloud that Spain's National Geographic Institute said reached up to seven kilometres high.

Laura Garces, the director of Spain's air navigation authority ENAIRE, said she doesn't foresee any major problems for other airports on the archipelago because of the ash.

Lava is seen through the window of a kitchen in an El Paso home on Tuesday. (Jon Nazca/Reuters)

Too early to say how long eruption will last

While the red tongue of lava lolled off the coast, the two open vents of the volcano continued to belch up more magma.

Experts say it's too early to determine how long the eruption will last. Previous eruptions in the archipelago have lasted weeks, even months.

"We don't know when this will be over," volcano scientist Stavros Meletlidis of Spain's National Geographic Institute told state broadcaster TVE. "Volcanoes are not friends of statistics."

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