A year and a half after the eruption, the new volcano on La Palma and its lava flows continue to be unprotected territory. The excavators that open new paths are destroying lava emission points associated with volcanic tubes that are “unique in the world”, according to what the scientists responsible for preparing the map of special protection areas denounced to EL PAÍS.
In the last days of the eruption, in December 2021, small eruptive fractures disconnected from the main cone opened by surprise through which lava was emitted at the southern edge of the lava field. It was the last gasp of the volcano, which went out on the 13th of that month, precisely with the emission of a small lava flow in one of these fractures in the El Corazoncillo area.
The lava that flowed from these centers was so fluid that the gases bloated it into domes that then burst like bubbles of gum, leaving striking formations resembling miniature volcanoes. In the underground part, lava tubes were formed which, when the eruption ceased, gave rise to a system of spectacular cavities covered by the last splashes of lava. Most of these tubes cannot be explored yet because they are still over 100 degrees.
A few days ago, a team from the Geological and Mining Institute (IGME-CSIC) that was going to study one of these points discovered that the excavators had opened a track right through the middle. They had knocked down part of the vault and filled the hole with rubble from the casting itself. According to those responsible for the IGME, the municipalities involved and the Cabildo de La Palma knew since February that this was an area to be preserved. The road has been opened to give access to a few houses in the area, but according to scientists the same could have been done by going around the protected area. The institution has denounced the situation before the Cabildo de la Palma and hopes to do so before the regional government.
“It is a geological accident never seen in the Canary Islands,” explains Juana Vegas, a researcher at the Geological and Mining Institute (IGME-CSIC), a specialist in the conservation of volcanic heritage, who has led the preparation of the map of protected areas. “These points can help us to model future eruptions, to determine the emission rate and the type of lava. Never before in Spain had it been possible to study the lava outlet in this way. And if this were not enough, it is a spectacular and beautiful geological accident. When it is destroyed, it is lost forever”, highlights the scientist.
A scientist inside the emission center, before the destruction. JV
The conflict jumps out in the middle of the perfect storm. There is just over a week left for the regional and municipal elections. The approval of the law that will reorganize the territory after the eruption will not be approved until after the elections. While that is happening, the island’s local authorities continue with the reconstruction work without, for now, there being a legal framework that delimits the protected areas. The great fear of scientists is that this legal limbo will cause the destruction of other unique features of the volcano that, if protected, can be a valuable scientific, tourist and economic resource.
The IGME specialists have been studying the new volcanic edifice since March of last year to delimit, at the request of the Government of the Canary Islands, the most valuable areas that must be protected and excluded from any urban action. The IGME delivered its report in December of last year. It recommended the precautionary protection of the cone and the upper areas of the lava flows in an area of some 260 hectares out of a total of 1,218 hectares of new volcanic terrain created by the volcano. The two lava deltas that formed on the coast were also out of the question. The detected emission points are within the maximum protection perimeter and, therefore, should be untouchable. But the truth is that since the IGME delimited this area, in December 2022, seven drafts of the new law have been prepared without it having yet been approved.
Another view of the emission point filled with chopped castings after the construction of the new runway.J. V
José Antonio Valbuena Alonso, advisor for the Ecological Transition of the regional government and in charge of agreeing on the law, acknowledges that it is being “very difficult” to reconcile the positions of all the affected groups. “Now we are immersed in the writing of the eighth draft, agreeing article by article in meetings with neighbors, because their opinion seems to us the most important and we do not want them to feel that we are throwing them out. We cannot 100% reconcile the interests of scientists, but the people of La Palma are aware of the need to preserve the volcanic heritage and we will try to find space for everyone, ”he explains.
In the hands of the next government
The counselor expects to close the article with the neighbors this week. Then it would have to be agreed with town halls, the Cabildo and taken to the Governing Council after its approval. This will not happen before the elections, acknowledges Valbuena, and will remain in the hands of the next regional government that comes out of them.
Meanwhile, the reconstruction and reopening of roads continue. A spokeswoman for the Cabildo de La Palma explains that they cannot wait for the law to be approved, and that they cannot guarantee the protection of the areas delimited by the scientists until then. “There is brutal social pressure from the neighbors to reopen the access roads. For them this is the first step to start getting their lives back. We know that they have repeatedly called us to please act in this area, ”she explains. Those responsible for the Cabildo undertake to coordinate better with the scientists to guarantee that there is no more avoidable damage.
Volcanic caving technicians explore the Red Tube, a new volcanic tunnel formed after the eruption.Arturo Rodríguez
The underlying problem, explains Nieves Sánchez, an IGME geologist, is wanting to recover the layout of roads and paths as they were before the eruption, when the reality is that there is completely new and different terrain. “We’re not raging conservation nuts, but between preserving everything and destroying as much as we’re seeing, there’s a lot of middle ground,” she points out.
One of the biggest risks is that the legal vacuum continues and other unique formations are damaged, such as the zone of corded lavas and part of the cone that collapsed during the eruption, which would be affected by the LP2 highway if it was decided to trace it exactly where it passed. before.
Added to this future project are others that are almost finished, such as a new pipe and access track that crosses the so-called lava belt left by the volcano, another area that in theory could not be touched. The Cabildo de la Palma has announced that it will finish building this water pipeline for the cultivation of bananas, despite the fact that the coast management of the Government of Pedro Sánchez requested its stoppage.
Map of the area of the volcano and the proposed lava flows for its maximum protection (red limit) and location of the sources of emission (stars). The red one indicates the destroyed focus. Source: IGME
Octavio Fernández is one of the few people on La Palma who knows first-hand the volcanic tubes in the subsoil, which form a possibly kilometer-long network that has yet to be explored. This speleologist collaborates with the IGME and the Government of the Canary Islands in mapping these galleries. For the first time, he has managed to access some of these conduits that have cooled and allow him to travel through areas that are around 50 degrees. This is the case of the red tube, a spectacular gallery lined with gouts of solidified lava. A few meters away from this section the temperature is still around 200 degrees. “We thought that until two years after the eruption it would be impossible to go down, but the cooling due to air currents has allowed us to do so and scientific studies of the mineral composition of the tubes and the search for microbes have already begun,” explains Salazar.
Part of the galleries connected to the red tube would be affected by the new LP2 highway if it is decided to rebuild it where it passed before the volcano, Salazar explains. “We really want to continue exploring all these tunnels, but we are also concerned about whether they are going to be protected. The volcano took with it part of what was there, but it has also left us things that can be an important tourist attraction, ”he reasons.
“The volcano can be profitable”
Carmen Romero, a geographer at the University of La Laguna, has been studying Canary volcanoes for 40 years. Among all the historic eruptions, she says, this is “the first where there is the possibility of doing things differently by taking all voices into account.” “It is obvious that new houses must be built for all those who lost it and the territory must be restructured, but it is being done without respect, as if the volcano and the coladas were a wasteland. But this volcano belongs to the inhabitants of the island and it can be made profitable. We have a clear example in Caños de Fuego, where a volcanic tunnel from the eruption of San Juan in 1949 has been preserved,” he details. “You have to ask yourself if all the land that was urbanized and has been devastated should return to the same use. Perhaps it had not been planned well. Now it is possible to rethink the recovery model,” she adds.
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