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CANARY ISLANDS

Ocean volcano gives Canary island the shakes

A 4.6 magnitude earthquake shook El Hierro island Wednesday in Spain's Canaries, which have been rattled by a wave of smaller tremors in recent days, Spain's National Geographic Institute said.

Ocean volcano gives Canary island the shakes
File photo: Mataparda/Wikimedia Commons

The earthquake struck at 4.07pm and its epicentre was in the Atlantic Ocean just west of the island, the institute said in a statement. It was measured at a depth of 16 kilometres.

The earthquake was the strongest of the roughly 100 tremblors which were recorded on the island, which has about 10,000 inhabitants, on Wednesday.

The mountainous island has since March 18th been rattled by hundreds of earthquakes caused by an underwater volcano but only a handful have been strong enough for local residents to notice.

In October 2011 an underwater volcano erupted off the coast of El Hierro, two days after an earthquake measuring 4.3 on the Richter scale rocked the island.

El Hierro, which means "Iron" in Spanish, suffered thousands of earthquakes throughout much of 2011, prompting officials to briefly close a tunnel linking the island's two main towns — Frontera and Valverde — and evacuate dozens of people over fears of landslides.

The Canary Islands are located off the northwestern coast of Africa. El Hierro, which has an area of just 267 square kilometres is the westernmost of the seven islands of volcanic origin that make up the archipelago.

The last major volcanic eruption off the Canary Islands happened off Teneguia, La Palma, in 1971.

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CANARY ISLANDS

Toxic gas fears as Canary Islands volcano lava nears sea

A vast river of molten lava from a Canary Islands volcano was edging towards the sea on Tuesday, destroying everything in its path and provoking fears it will generate clouds of toxic gases when it hits the water.

Toxic gas fears as Canary Islands volcano lava nears sea
Toxic gas fears as Canary Islands volcano lava nears sea. Photo: DESIREE MARTIN / AFP

A new fissure emerged on the slopes of the Cumbre Vieja volcano overnight, belching out more lava and forcing hundreds more people to flee their homes.

“The lava flow is moving inexorably towards the sea and absolutely nothing can be done about it,” said Ángel Víctor Torres, regional head of the Canary Islands.

“We are completely powerless in the face of this advancing lava flow which is moving at 200 metres (655 feet) per hour and has already swept away everything in its path… and will continue to do so on its way to the sea.”

Located on La Palma island, the volcano has forced 6,100 people from their homes and destroyed a large number of properties and land spanning a huge area since it erupted on Sunday afternoon, say island officials.

So far, it had destroyed 185 buildings, of which 63 were homes, regional authorities added.

READ ALSO: Canary islanders flee as volcano vents its fury

Toxic cloud

The volcano straddles a southern ridge in La Palma, one of seven islands that make up the Atlantic archipelago which lies off the coast of Morocco.

When the molten lava reaches the sea, experts warn it will send clouds of toxic gas into the air and will also affect the marine environment. The authorities have set up a no-go zone to head off curious onlookers.

“The clouds created by the interaction of seawater and lava are acidic” and “can be dangerous if you are too close,” volcanology expert Patrick Allard from the Paris Globe Institute of Physics told AFP.

By Tuesday afternoon, the lava had slowed to around 200 metres per hour although it was not clear exactly when the white-hot mass of molten rock, which has a temperature of nearly 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,830 degrees Fahrenheit), would reach the sea.

Although it is currently located about two kilometres (1.2 miles) from the shore, experts say its speed can be “very variable”.

“It is very, very important not to forget that the emergency is ongoing, that the volcano is still active and we must avoid getting close to both the lava and the volcano itself,” said Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

Smoke rises from cooling lava after the Cumbre Vieja volcano erupted on the Canary Island of La Palma on Sunday. Photo: JOSE MARIA MONTESDEOCA / AFP

‘We’ve lost everything’

Overnight, long lines of cars could be seen waiting to leave the area as police sirens wailed, the fiery glow of the erupting volcano lighting up the dark skies.

“You have practically your whole life there… then one day the volcano decides to erupt and puts an end to it all,” evacuee Israel Castro Hernández told AFPTV late Monday after his home was destroyed by the wall of lava.

“We keep looking over there and we just can’t believe it: we keep thinking that our house is underneath that volcano,” said his wife, Yurena Torres Abreu.

The pair were among 500 people evacuated overnight after the new fissure emerged following an earthquake with a magnitude of 4.1 at 9:32 pm, the Involcan volcanology institute said.

“So many friends have lost everything,” said Yurena’s sister, Elizabeth Torres Abreu, who also lost her house.

“They left their homes as we did with just the clothes on their back and little else. They’ve left their entire life there.”

Although the eruption has not caused any casualties, the damage to land and property has been enormous, with Torres estimating the figures to be well over €400 million. 

Volcanologist Stavros Meletlidis from Spain’s National Geographic Institute told Spain’s RNE radio it was not clear when the lava would reach the sea.

“It can accelerate very quickly, especially when the topography changes… or it can stop on a plain for several hours,” he said.

Although the Cumbre Vieja is shooting up vast plumes of thick black smoke several hundred metres into the sky and between 8,000 and 10,500 tonnes of sulphur dioxide per day, the airspace over La Palma has remained open.

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