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La Palma volcano brings both destruction and renewal to the island


For nearly two months, a volcano has been spewing lava and ash on the island of La Palma. That's in the Spanish Canary Islands. So far, the lava has wrecked more than 1,400 buildings. It has razed fields of crops. Last Sunday alone, the ongoing eruption triggered more than 20 earthquakes. Estefania Martin lives on La Palma. She says the lava is now only 400 yards from her house.

ESTEFANIA MARTIN: (Through interpreter) You never expect a volcano to show up at your door. I feel like I'm living inside a comic book. Every day, there's a different vignette to look at because every day the volcano is different.

KELLY: Well, the encroaching lava drove Martin and her family from their homes. Ash rained from the sky, she says, choking their breath. Lately, she's been watching from afar.

MARTIN: (Through interpreter) I used to follow things on TV, but I don't even watch TV anymore. All I do is look at Twitter at a camera pointing at the volcano all the time.

KELLY: Martin says the eruption has her rethinking life in La Palma. It hurts to leave, but she says she's going to take a job on another island, for now at least

MARTIN: (Through interpreter) I will come back. La Palma is my life. All my things are here. It's my home. But we will never be able to forget this. This marks a before and after. And it will leave a scar and a lot of pain. I don't want to break down, but this is really difficult.

KELLY: So what is driving this life-changing event on La Palma? The volcanologist Carmen Solana grew up in the Canary Islands. She was on La Palma to witness the first days of the eruption back in September, and she joins us now. Welcome.

CARMEN SOLANA: Hi, how are you?

KELLY: I'm all right. Thank you. I want you to tell us what that was like. You have returned. You live in England. And you're back at your home base there now. But can you describe what you saw in September when you were in the Canary Islands, what it felt like, what it sounded like?

SOLANA: Well, it was the first eruption in a very long time in the Canaries. There was an eruption in 2011, but it was a submarine one. It was really under the water. And so somehow people had forgotten what an eruption looks like. So the last eruption had been exactly 50 years before this one in 1971. And I think a lot of people hadn't realized what the eruption entailed. When I arrived, it was amazing what I saw. It was like a lava fountain and a very high jet of lava and ash towards the sky. The noise was something, quite something I would say. It was like a jet, the sound like of a jet engine. And everybody was, I will say, in shock. There have been several seismic crises previously in the previous years, but somehow we didn't know that this was big one and this eruption was coming.

KELLY: You were there in September. You saw the beginning. We're talking in November, and it's still erupting two months later, nearly two months now. Is that unusual?

SOLANA: Well, no, not really. This type of eruptions last between a month and three months. It was heartbreaking because within a week of those eruptions starting, I had so many people asking, is it going to finish soon? And it was just so hard to say, well, we don't know. But typically, these eruptions are going - last longer. I will say six to eight weeks, and unfortunately it's happening.

KELLY: Are you in touch with people on La Palma? What do they tell you?

SOLANA: Yes, I'm actually - I receive daily WhatsApps from friends, from people I met in there, from emergency services. Well, they're saying that sometimes the volcano gives them a respite, that the sound has changed and it's not as poignant (ph) as it was previously. And that some days you have quite a lot of ash and quite a lot of - the quality of the air sometimes is really low. So they're - they really are exhausted of all the destruction and the disruption to their lives. They want to move on. But of course, you need to wait for the volcano to finish and then start thinking, what's going to happen next?

KELLY: And I gather the history here is that volcanic eruptions have been a feature for as long as there have been Canary Islands, that the islands themselves have been shaped by eruptions and lava for - what? - millions of years.

SOLANA: Yes, the Canary Islands are volcanic islands, and, to be honest, volcanoes are vital for the survival of the island. I was trying to explain to some people that were saying, oh, this monster, this horror and everything, I was saying, well, actually, you know, if this wouldn't happen, the island will be completely eroded by the sea. The sea will just take it away and we won't have a home. We wouldn't have a place to live on. So while, of course, it's been very destructive and it's very traumatic, but at the same time, it is a constructive process. The island is expanding. It's growing. It's producing new lava deltas and platforms at the base of the cliffs, where in the future I'm positive that people will grow again bananas and be able to have a life again.

KELLY: That's fascinating. So it's replenishing even as it destroys.

SOLANA: Yes. It's destroying the livelihoods of people. But it really is growing and it's expanding and it's protecting the island from being destroyed by the sea.

KELLY: So what are you watching for now? You said these things tend to play out over a cycle of a number of weeks.

SOLANA: Activity at the moment seems to be decreasing, but we are very cautious because of volcanoes are not predictable. And much less, volcanoes like those in the Canaries, because it only erupt every 50 years, we don't have enough data to be able to say, well, the majority have behaved in this way. There are indicators that the eruption might be decreasing at the moment, but we're hoping it won't increase. It will carry on in this trend and will eventually finish. I think in short term, it's sad. But I'm positive that after the eruption, the reconstruction is going to be faster than people think, and they will be able to recreate somehow their livelihoods again.

KELLY: Carmen Solana is a volcanologist at the University of Portsmouth in England. Thank you so much for joining us and sharing your expertise.

SOLANA: A pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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