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La Palma volcano: Lava reaches the sea amid toxic gas fears

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By Euronews  with AFP
Lava from a volcano reaches the sea on the Canary island of La Palma, Spain in the early hours of Wednesday Sept. 29, 2021.
Lava from a volcano reaches the sea on the Canary island of La Palma, Spain in the early hours of Wednesday Sept. 29, 2021.   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

Lava from the volcano on La Palma in the Canary Islands has reached the ocean, a situation feared as potentially dangerous due to the toxic gas that is created.

Ten days after the Cumbre Vieja volcano erupted on the island, the molten rock finally reached the sea on Tuesday night.

This encounter between lava, a rock melted at more than 1,000 degrees Celsius, and seawater that is around 20-25 degrees Celsius, was particularly feared because of the production of toxic gases and harmful particles that it could cause, making it potentially very dangerous.

The regional government of the archipelago has ordered a "2 nautical mile exclusion radius" around the area where the lava was expected to arrive.

While the flow of lava was still entering the water by midday on Wednesday, the wind was pushing the toxic gases offshore, protecting a traumatised local population for now.

The volcano itself continued to erupt on Wednesday.

Images broadcast by regional television in the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa, showed glowing lava entering the water amid a large amount of smoke.

Images from Playa Nueva, on the island's west coast, showed a torrent of lava plunging into the ocean from a 100-metre high cliff amid huge plumes of steam.

The Spanish Institute of Oceanography said in a tweet, with pictures to back it up, that the lava was gaining ground on the sea, its accumulation forming a sort of deposit, a pyramid, in the water, reaching a height of about fifty metres and continuing to grow.

The Cumbre Vieja volcano erupted on 19 September.

On Tuesday afternoon, the lava, which had varied greatly in speed over the past few days, even coming to a standstill at one point, was still some 800 metres from the sea, making it impossible to predict when it would reach the ocean.

On Monday, residents of several neighbourhoods in Tazacorte, a village located near the coast, were told to stay indoors to protect themselves from possible toxic gas emissions resulting from the lava's arrival in the ocean.

This decision was taken because of "the possibility that there will be a small shock when the magma enters the sea and that this small shock will cause vapours that could be toxic", said the technical director of the Canary Islands Volcanic Emergency Plan (Pevolca), Miguel Ángel Morcuende.

No information was immediately available on the quantity of toxic gases produced and the danger of the situation.

"We have a strong wind in the area at the moment, which is dissipating more (gas clouds) towards the sea, so the risk is much lower" than the experts expected, Rubén Fernández, one of those in charge of the Canary Islands Volcanic Emergency Plan (Pevolca), said on national radio.

The entry of the lava into the sea came hours after the government released 10.5 million euros in direct aid to the victims of the eruption on Tuesday, including the purchase of housing for those whose homes were engulfed by the lava.

A state of natural disaster has been declared on the island of 85,000 people, where lava flows have destroyed a total of 656 buildings - not all of them homes - and covered 268 hectares of land, according to the European geospatial measurement system Copernicus.

The lava also destroyed many roads. The president of the Canary Islands region, Angel Victor Torres, estimated last week that the damage would exceed 400 million euros and said he was counting on European funds to rebuild.

No one was killed or injured in the eruption, but more than 6,000 people had to leave their homes.

Since it erupted, the volcano has been spewing huge columns of smoke up to several hundred metres high, as well as ash.

The accumulation of ash has disrupted air traffic, causing the cancellation of seven scheduled domestic flights on Friday and the closure of the airport the following day. Although it has officially reopened, flights remain suspended for the time being.

Experts believe the eruption could last for several weeks or even months.

The two previous eruptions in La Palma took place in 1949 and 1971. They caused a total of three deaths, two of which were caused by gas inhalation.