Volcanoes are part of the Canaries’ DNA. They define their distinctive landscapes, explain why most beaches have black sand and even add a unique flavour to local wines.
There are 33 volcanoes across the archipelago’s islands: 6 in Fuerteventura, 10 in Gran Canaria, 11 in Tenerife, 1 in La Gomera, 10 in La Palma, 5 in Lanzarote, and 1 in El Hierro.
The biggest of all is Spain’s highest peak – Teide – which reaches majestically into the sky on the island of Tenerife, 3,718 metres above sea level.
Up until now, most Canarios have gone about their business without worrying for a second about the possibility of one of nature’s most incredible but destructive spectacles affecting them during their lifetimes.
The current volcanic eruptions on La Palma – known locally as La Isla Bonita (the Beautiful Island) – have certainly changed that.
But how great is the risk of more volcanic eruptions taking place on this Atlantic archipelago? And are there other parts of Spain with active volcanoes?
The last volcanic eruption that took place in Spain was also on the northwestern island of La Palma – the Teneguía, which erupted 50 years ago.
There was a more recent eruption in Spain in October 2011, but it occurred underwater off the coast of El Hierro, south of La Palma.
The last eruption on Tenerife was the Chinyero volcano in 1909.
It’s part of the same volcanic family in the centre of the island as El Teide so this is considered by some to be the last eruption of the Canary’s biggest volcano, even though the lava did come bursting out of the new Chinyero volcano to the west.
It lasted around 10 days, caused some destruction of property but no loss of lives, and covered large parts of the island in ash.
Confirmed historical accounts suggest Mount Teide has erupted at least six times in roughly the last 500 years: 1492, 1704, 1706, 1798 and 1909.
Christopher Columbus happened to be in the Canaries in 1492 before setting off to stumble across the ‘New World’ making a note of the volcanic eruption in his diary.
Historical records also suggest La Palma has had seven volcanic eruptions since 1430.
Volcanic activity has occurred in the past 600 years on all the Canary Islands except La Gomera, Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura.
According to the Canary government, the archipelago’s volcanoes are of the “effusive type”, meaning the lava steadily flows out of a volcano onto the ground, making them “less dangerous and destructive”.
Does that mean there is no risk to property or life if a volcano erupts in the Canary Islands?
Given the nature of eruptions, the teams of experts monitoring seismic activity around the clock and quick police response on the islands, the risk to human lives is low.
But the more than 700 buildings destroyed over the past week in areas close to the Cumbre Vieja eruptions prove that even if the lava flows slowly, not much can be done to stop it in its tracks.
Mount Teide as seen from the touristy city of Puerto de la Cruz in the north of Tenerife. Photo: Wikipedia
The islands, in particular Tenerife and Gran Canaria, are densely populated given their small size and their 2.2 million inhabitants, so building homes in areas which could be in danger in the unlikely event of an eruption is a risk they’re willing to take.
But is the threat any greater than living on an earthquake fault line, an area that’s prone to recurring flooding or forest fires? Taking into account the law of averages, the risk of volcanic eruptions is far lower.
There are around 65 volcanoes across mainland Spain, mostly running along its eastern side.
The areas which house most of them on la península (the mainland) are La Garrotxa (Girona in Catalonia), Cabo de Gata (Almería in Andalusia), Cofrentes (Valencia), the Columbretes Islands (Castellón province) and Campos de Calatrava (Ciudad Real).
The volcanoes found in Girona in northwest Spain are the only ones on mainland Spain that are active.
In order for a volcano to be considered active, it has to have erupted over the past 10,000 to 15,000 years.
Even though there are around 40 volcanic cones in Girona, there hasn’t been an eruption there in thousands of years.
Therefore, the risk of a volcanic eruption happening anytime soon anywhere else in Spain apart from the Canary Islands is extremely slim.