the incredible trip to the mouth of the volcano on La Palma

The feet sink into the volcanic ash. And when peering into the heart of the volcano on the island of La Palma, that mouth shaped like a desperate grimace, that disjointed scream that spewed fire between September and December, the eyes narrow at the slaps of white smoke, more than lukewarm, that the crater continues to emanate like those machines that anticipate the arrival of the birthday girl at parties of 15.

The volcano’s death certificate says it has been officially immobile for four days. “But the end of the eruption was actually on December 13, at 22:21,” he tells Clarion Itahiza Domínguez, a seismologist at the National Geographic Institute of Spain, who watches over the giant’s dream. “After more than 10 days of drop in parameters, the eruption could be considered finished”, He clarifies.

There is no compass that is worth to reach the top of the volcano. Clarion got it after manage permissions and authorizations to be able to accompany a team of scientists from the Canary Islands Volcanological Institute (INVOLCAN) and firefighters who guided us on a tour of the area that it burned for almost a hundred days.

Ulises, a tracker Schnauzer who accompanies the expedition of scientists from the Volcanological Institute of the Canary Islands and firefighters who guide Clarín through the area that burned for almost a hundred days. Photo: Cezaro de Luca

Toxic gases that can kill

The greatest current danger in the surroundings is represented by toxic gases. “The neighbors don’t understand it. Sure, they are eager to go home. They see the volcano still and they see no risks, but the danger is real. The volcano emits toxic gases that can kill, ”says Germán Padilla.

The guide carries a meter with a fishing rod and a sensor, to extend it and thus be able to measure in height, at short distances, and stick it in the cracks.

“Sulfur gases are easily detectable by odor, and They are harmless, but carbon monoxide, not -Germán clarifies-. It does not smell, and that gas suffocates you.”

Ulises, a sniffer Schnauzer accompanying the expedition, leaps into the ash that surrounds the charred canary pines as if i was on the beach. “If you see him flustered,” warns Carlos, a firefighter who works as a volunteer these days, “You have to pick it up, and get away from the area.”

To reach the crater, one of the more than half a dozen mouths through which the volcano expelled 220 million cubic meters of lava, the expedition deviates its 4×4 from the route that connects the Llanos de Aridane with the port of Santa Cruz de la Palma through El Pilar, a recreational area that has a refuge at an altitude of 1,500 meters, along the road to Cabeza de Cow.

When stepping on the ash, it is indispensable change the chinstraps FFP2 by masks with gas cartridges.

The landscape looks lunar and virgin. No one ever set foot on this firm dune of black sandstone that is now nothing more than a patch of mountain dusted by the rebellious neighbor, that cry of fire and lava that for almost a hundred days spoke for everyone.

The yellowish foliage of the Canary Island pine, cooked by the ashes and by its proximity to the magma, disappears as the distance to the mouth of the volcano shortens. No vegetation possible one kilometer from the crater.

Burnt pines, like a handful of dry stakes. Photo: Cezaro de Luca Burnt pines, like a handful of dry stakes. Photo: Cezaro de Luca

A handful of dry stakes are reminiscent of a work of art, a ritual site, or the antechamber of hell. An inferno that came out of the bottom of the earth and spilled into the populations below, passing through the neighborhoods of Todoque, Las Manchas, La Laguna, until it was extinguished in the paradise of the ocean beaches.

“We go to the edge of the cone and be back in 20 minutes. Because much can not be. Because of the gases, and the temperatures ”, says Pedro Hernández, geochemist and specialist in volcanic gases at INVOLCAN.

Hernández It records temperatures of 1,100 degrees Celsius. “We still have incandescent material under our feet,” are his words, disturbing even if he says it calmly.

The way to get to the crater. Photo: Cezaro de Luca The way to get to the crater. Photo: Cezaro de Luca

“Here there is buried volcanic bombs They can be the size of a van, a car, he says. In recent explosive episodes, the bombs were smaller, the size of soccer balls. This has been a war field.”

From the bottom of the crater of the volcano that no one dared to baptize, a hot smoke with the smell of sulfur. It gives the sensation that it is impregnated in the clothes, in the hair.

“Surely because of the rain, when the volcano is hot, it evaporates and has this effect”, says Hernández before measuring the concentrations of sulfur dioxide “and also taking fumarole samples (vapor and gas emission points) to be analyzed later in the laboratory ”.

Nemesio Pérez, scientific coordinator of INVOLCAN, tells Clarion than his, “has been the only Spanish scientific institution that has been monitoring the emission of sulfur dioxide (SO2) from this eruption as well as the chemical composition of the volcanic plume, both very important parameters during an eruptive process.”

“We have been communicating to people who live in the Canary Islands for more than 12 years that the volcanic risk in the islands is now older than about 50 years ago -he emphasizes-. This increased volcanic risk is not taking place because volcanoes are ‘cooking’ more underground, but because there is greater population and socioeconomic development exposed to the volcanic phenomenon in the islands. ”

And he predicts: “I hope that after this eruption, the most important in Europe in the last 75 years, there will be a before and after in the management of volcanic risk in the Canary Islands. And this should begin with the elaboration and implementation of a Canary Islands Strategy for the Reduction of Volcanic Risk, just as there is one for the fight against Climate Change ”.

The volcano is still surrounded by fumes and gases. Photo: Cezaro de Luca The volcano is still surrounded by fumes and gases. Photo: Cezaro de Luca

“This is magical,” says Fabian, confirming how extraordinary the crater offers. Fabián is a sound engineer and, during the months in which the lava devoured 1,200 hectares of the island, set about capturing the sounds of the eruption, that voice of fire that, in its wake, destroyed more than 3,000 buildings and forced some 7,000 residents to leave their homes.

To Ulysses, the little dog, it will be necessary to lift it more than once, between asleep and hypnotized, to breathe more oxygen than carbon monoxide. After a while he becomes restless and wants to return to land, to this black sand in which he dives.

You have to start retracing the path. In the distance you can see the sea, the Atlantic that, somehow, is familiar to us. However the feeling is to be in other world, maybe on the newer patch of land from the latest version of the world map.

La Palma, Canary Islands. Special Envoy

By Editor

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