Scientists from around the world are flocking to an island in the Atlantic Ocean. They’re using cutting-edge technologies to examine a God-made phenomenon from land, sea, air—even space. It’s a rare opportunity to study a long-lasting volcanic eruption.
Using drones, high-tech instruments, and satellites, volcanologists analyze gas emissions and molten rock flows on La Palma, one of Spain’s Canary Islands. On the ground, they collect everything from the tiniest particles to “lava bombs”—powerful glowing projectiles the size of watermelons.
The goal at La Palma is to use a unique window of opportunity to better understand volcanic eruptions: how they form, develop, and even more crucially for islanders, how and when they end.
It’s amazing that for all humans’ technology and scientific leaps, researchers can only estimate what happens in the “underworld,” where magma is formed and melts any human-made equipment. The deepest humans have been able to drill into the planet’s crust has been just over 7.6 miles.
“There has been a lot of progress in the last 30 or 40 years in the understanding of geological and evolutionary processes, but it’s still difficult to know for sure what happens at [25 to 50 miles] of depth,” says Pedro Hernández, an expert with the Canary Islands’ volcanology institute.
Sadly, scientists often start from the inaccurate premise of evolution. Of course, God the Creator knows every detail of the world He formed (Genesis 1:1, Colossians 1:16)—even to the Earth’s core!
Volcanic eruptions are a once or, at most, twice-in-a-generation event in the Canary Islands, which lie 62 miles northwest of Africa. Some of the Canary Islands are still growing due to magma accumulating underneath and around them, like on La Palma.
There have been no deaths directly linked to the long-lasting La Palma eruption. That’s partly because new technologies—from drones that allow scientists a peek into a volcanic cauldron to supercomputers that run prediction algorithms—helps keep researchers safe.
The European Union’s Copernicus satellite program has produced high-resolution imagery and mapping of the island to track quake-induced deformations. That has led to near real-time tracking of lava flows and ash accumulation. Experts have also been able to observe how large plumes of toxic gas have traveled long distances across North Africa, the European mainland, and even as far as the Caribbean.
At sea, Spanish research vessel crews study the impact the eruption is having on the marine ecosystem as fingers of lava extend beyond the coast.
To date, most of the scientists’ work has focused on predicting how far the volcano’s damage will impact the surrounding community. Residents have already lost thousands of houses, farms, roads, irrigation canals, and banana crops. But the real question is when the eruption will end.
Esteban Gazel is a geochemist with Cornell University in New York. He says the Canary Islands are closely connected to activity going all the way to the core of the Earth. That makes predications even more difficult.
He says, “You can monitor how [the eruption] evolves, but saying exactly when it will die is extremely difficult.”
(Scientists from the Spanish National Research Council take measurements on the Canary Island of La Palma, Spain, on November 13, 2021. AP/Taner Orribo)