The last day of the volcano

Illustration: Moisés Mahiques

I arrived on La Palma with the team from El cazador de cerebros on the morning of 13 December 2021, full of scientific excitement. Obviously we were no strangers to the human drama of the families who had lost their homes and memories, but the geological event was spectacular: a unique opportunity to witness a volcanic eruption live, accompanying researchers who were monitoring it within the exclusion zone, to which we had access. For a science adventurer who particularly enjoys visiting the laboratories and research centres in person (and talking directly to the scientific staff in the middle of their studies to discuss details, rather than when they have published perfect results), it was going to be fascinating. Because by doing science journalism on site, you see things that are not reported in official communications, or in papers, or on Twitter.

Science is always presented to us as a finished product, but uncertainty is a story. Already during the first weeks of the eruption it was clear to me that we should try to produce an episode there, witnessing how science was helping to manage the emergency, but also how geologists and volcanologists were taking the opportunity to investigate, to test their models, to confront theory with reality, to marvel and to learn.

The first meeting was early in the afternoon with researchers who, standing very close to a cold, now solid lava flow, were firing their spectrographs at different points on the slope of the volcano to analyse the composition of the gases released. To be honest, the picture at the time was not very impressive. There were noises, and whitish gases could be seen coming out of different parts of the crater and the slope, but not much else. The adventure started on a low note. We went to another point in the exclusion zone, quite far from the first, where a group of seismologists and volcanologists had placed sensors to monitor the ground movements. The landscape there was indeed impressive: an area with a massive accumulation of ash covering houses, vehicles, and entire streets. We did not take pictures out of respect, but it was getting dark and it looked apocalyptic. Appalled, we were setting up our cameras for the interview and suddenly there was a loud bang, followed by an unforgettable image: from the crater of the volcano a jet of lava shot into the sky like a fountain in a park. From the distance I could not estimate its height, but it was certainly tens of metres high. The contrast of the dark sky with the incandescent lava was beautiful. To observe such a scene with our own eyes, feeling the constant noise of the volcanic bombs (rocks ejected from the crater that made a thundering sound as they fell to the ground) was overwhelming. You could feel the force of nature and our fragility in a way that is impossible to capture on video. The lights were fading and we could not delay the interview for too long, so we stood there with the seismologist, in a shot with the lava jet in the background, and we started filming. I do not know how it will look, but I think I was looking at the volcano more often than at the seismologist.

In the morning we accompanied the CSIC technicians who were making the first drone flights over the crater to send the initial reports. The use of drones with cameras and sensors was one of the technological tools that made it possible to study this eruption differently from previous ones. At that very moment, at dawn on Tuesday 14 December, they detected something strange: the volcano was much quieter than usual, both on the outside and on the inside. They needed to check their data against other seismological and gas emission parameters, but it was very clear that the activity had dropped drastically compared to other days. They did not want to go into it further. We continued our route all the way around the Cumbre Vieja Natural Park to access the opposite side of the lava flows, where, in an even more sinister scenario of villages buried by the ashes, we visited geologists who were collecting samples, making a sort of stratigraphy of the accumulated lava and analysing any detail that intrigued their scientific minds. After chatting and building up some trust with them, they confessed that everything seemed to indicate that the volcano was now asleep. «You made it to the funeral», they said, noting how lucky we had been to experience the last release of magmatic tension the night before. We were warned, however, that this could by no means be officially reported, because although the gas emission data seemed solid, an upturn in activity could not be ruled out. It would take ten days of the same calm to consider the volcano extinct. That is, indeed, what happened ten days later, on 24 December.


«By doing science journalism on site, you see things that are not reported in official communications, or in papers, or on Twitter»

«I had grown fond of him. I’ll miss it», confessed a researcher who had been on the island since a few days before the eruption. She added an unexpected: «I can tell you about it, but I wouldn’t confess this to other broadcasters». I asked her to explain what she meant, and she told me that while the scientific staff who had been working on the eruption were aware from the start that media attention was essential, many avoided journalists from certain networks because of their constant sensationalism. Of course, the inhabitants of the affected areas of La Palma wanted every citizen and politician to be well aware of the loss and the need for reparations, but some media were going too far with drama and spectacle.

They were very upset with a well-known newscaster who had slipped into the exclusion zone without permission to try to film. I interviewed a biologist who was analysing the impact of the eruption on the island’s terrestrial and marine fauna, and he admitted that they were amazed by the media treatment in the days when the eruption was about to hit the sea, with those live broadcasts counting down the minutes as if any unexpected catastrophe was about to happen. And no, not just anything could happen. In a marine eruption – like the one on El Hierro ten years earlier – gases come out of the seabed and can create toxic and dangerous clouds, but the lava flowing down the slope of Cumbre Vieja had already lost most of its gases and was nothing but very hot rock which, yes, was going to heat up an area of the island’s coastline for a short time and bury a few stray crabs, but not much more. In fact, the expectation was that the minerals in the lava would fertilise the waters in the area and perhaps increase the number and size of species.

No one was trying to minimise the tragedy of the families who saw their homes and neighbourhoods buried under this natural disaster, which I wish had not happened, but that should not overshadow the fact that, thanks to the work of scientists and security personnel, the eruption was foreseen several days in advance and managed in such a way that it did not cause any casualties. If handled fairly for those affected, it can leave positive things for this beautiful island, and it will certainly be a source of invaluable data and information for science that will spark years of research. These are not the kind of statements that are usually made in the media when the camera is on, but they sure are discussed when it turns off.


© Mètode 2022 - 113. Assembled life - Volume 2 (2022)

Writer and science communicator, Madrid. He is the host of El cazador de cerebros (La 2).