The advance of lava from a volcanic eruption in Spain’s Canary Islands has slowed significantly, raising fears Thursday that it might fan out further across the land and destroy more homes instead of flowing into the sea.
A giant river of lava 600 metres wide slowed to a speed of four metres per hour after reaching a plain on Wednesday. On Monday, a day after the eruption on the island of La Palma, it was moving at 700 metres per hour.
Stavros Meletlidis, a volcanologist at Spain’s National Geographic Institute, said the dynamics of any eruption are in constant flux.
“The lava is advancing very slowly because it cools in contact with the atmosphere, through friction with the ground and building materials and, above all, because its front edge is widening out,” he told Radio Television Canaria.
As it slowed, the lava also grew thicker. In places, it rose up to 15 metres high, authorities said. The lava now covers 166 hectares and has swallowed up around 350 homes.
Residents flee as flow slows
The lava’s slowing pace bought time for more residents of towns in its path to grab belongings, with the Guardia Civil police force escorting them to their homes in Todoque, close to the coast, on Thursday morning.
The Guardia Civil said seismic activity in the area, which surged before the eruption and has remained strong, has stabilized.
But molten lava, ash and smoke continued to pour from the volcano’s mouth, shooting up to 4,200 metres high, the Canary Islands Volcanology Institute said. That raised concerns about whether airspace above the island could remain open.
ENAIRE, which manages Spain’s airspace, said two areas above the affected region are being declared no-fly zones to allow emergency services to operate freely. Many flights into and out of La Palma were delayed early Thursday.
Volcanic ash can be dangerous for aircraft. It can also cause respiratory problems, as well as potentially being an irritant for the eyes and skin.
The Emergency Military Unit deployed on the island said the readings it has taken of the air found no threat to health.
Authorities haven’t reported any casualties from the eruption, though damage to property, infrastructure and farmland is expected to be significant.
Scientists were monitoring the volcano activity and had warned of a possible eruption. That allowed almost 7,000 people to be evacuated in time.
Spain’s King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia, and Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, visited La Palma on Thursday and met with some of those made homeless.
Worry over lava flowing into ocean
Officials had initially expressed fears about what would happen when the lava reached the Atlantic Ocean. The lava, whose temperature exceeds 1,000 C, could cause explosions, trigger landslides and produce clouds of toxic gas when it hits the ocean, experts say.
The eruption and its aftermath could last for up to almost three months, according to the Volcanology Institute.
Life on the rest of La Palma, which is roughly 35 kilometres long and 20 kilometres wide at its broadest point, has been largely unaffected, with tourists still landing for previously scheduled vacations.
The Canary Islands are a popular destination for European tourists due to their mild year-round climate.
The islanders mostly live from farming and tourism.