Volcanic Red Alert Issued As Residents Are Evacuated From El Hierro Town
Spain’s Instituto Geográfico Nacional (IGN) confirmed on Tuesday that an underwater eruption has occurred five kilometres off the southern coastline of El Hierro, the smallest of the Canary Island. The eruption is Spain’s first since the eruption in 1971 of the Teneguía volcano on the island of La Palma (Canary Islands).
The IGN says all three of its seismic stations on El Hierro in the Canary Islands have registered a volcanic tremor of low frequency in the south of the island at La Restinga, the southern-most village in the Canaries. The estimated 537 residents of the town were summonsed to a local football field on Tuesday afternoon to be briefed on evacuation procedures.
A Red Alert has since been issued by local authorities for the town. A notice posted on the Emergencia El Hierro website on Tuesday evening stated: “Phase pre-eruptive. It involves the initiation of a preventive evacuation. Make yourself available to the authorities.”
Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and cabinet colleagues will attend an emergency briefing on the developing situation on Tuesday evening.
Scientists from IGN and CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas), meanwhile, have conducted a reconnaissance flight over the sea to the area south of the island, where they have located dead fish floating on the surface five kilometres from the coast. The dead fish were identified in an area where lower seismic magnitude occurred on October 9, at a depth of approximately 2 km.
The present volcanic activity is understood to be occurring at a depth of 600 metres (just under one kilometre) below sea level, in the Las Calmas sea.
Scientists from IGN, CSIC and the University of Cadiz have established their monitoring base at La Restinga. Efforts are underway to determine if the subsea volcanic vent is widening and if so, in which direction (away or toward El Hierro).
Initial reports of the eruption were received from crews on board four separate ships. Local media agency Canarias7 reported on Monday that Government authorities have suspended ferry activities to and from the 285 square-kilometre island.
English language newspaper islandconnections.eu reported: “The martime chief for the province of Santa Cruz de Tenerife Antonio Padrón has issued a recomendation that boats should not sail closer than four miles off El Hierro. Divers have also been told to suspend all activities.”
Background To The Eruption
The eruption takes place amidst an unprecedented earthquake swarm in El Hierro. The number of earthquakes recorded since July 17, 2011 on El Hierro has now exceeded 10,000.
Hierro, a shield volcano, has had a single historic eruption from the Volcan de Lomo Negro vent in 1793. The eruption lasted approximately one month and produced lava flows.
The recent surge in the number and intensity of earthquakes prompted officials from the IGN and The Canary Islands Government to raise the alert level for the Hierro volcano to ‘Yellow’ late last month. The alert remained in place on Monday, but the estimated 11,000 residents of El Hierro were being reassured not to be alarmed.
The majority of the earthquake activity shifted from El Golfo in the island’s northwest to beneath the Las Calmas Sea in the south earlier this month. Surface deformations exceeding 35mm have also been recorded on the island in recent weeks.
A dramatic rise in recorded earthquakes on El Hierro prompted officials to evacuate some local residents, shut El Hierro’s main tunnel, and close local schools on 27 September.
The Spanish Civil Guard (Guardia Civil) advised almost 50 residents of the municipality of La Frontera to leave their homes because of landslide fears. Two units of the Spanish military’s emergency intervention unit (EMU) were also placed on standby to depart the nearby island of Tenerife to assist in the possible evacuation of hundreds of other El Hierro residents.
Meanwhile, the island’s main tunnel (Tunel del Golfo), which links Frontera to Valverde, was shut forcing motorists to travel across the 280-sq-km island via a mountain road. The Cabildo de El Hierro also ordered the closure of schools.
Latest seismic activity on El Hierro
Possible Harmonic Tremor On El Hierro
Earthquake swarms are events where a local area experiences sequences of many earthquakes striking in a relatively short period of time. The length of time used to define the swarm itself varies, but the United States Geological Survey (USGS) points out that an event may last for days, weeks, or months.
Harmonic tremor describes a long-duration release of seismic energy, with distinct spectral (harmonic) lines, that often precedes or accompanies a volcanic eruption. More generally, a volcanic tremor is a sustained signal that may or may not possess these harmonic spectral features.
El Hierro’s Volcanic/Seismic Past
El Hierro is situated in the most southwestern extreme of the Canaries. The island was formed after three successive eruptions, and consequent accumulations, the island emerged from the ocean as an imposing triangular pyramid crowned by a volcano more than 2,000 metres high.
The volcanic activity, principally at the convergence of the three ridges, resulted in the continual expansion of the island. A mere 50,000 years ago, as a result of seismic tremors which produced massive landslides, a giant piece of the island cracked off, crashed down into the ocean and scattered along the seabed. This landslide of more than 300km3 gave rise to the impressive amphitheatre of the El Golfo valley and at the same time caused a tsunami that most likely rose over 100 metres high and probably reached as far as the American coast.
According to the Global Volcanism Program, the massive Hierro shield volcano is truncated by a large NW-facing escarpment, seen here from the east, which formed as a result of gravitational collapse of the volcano. The steep-sided 1500-m-high scarp towers above a low lava platform bordering 12-km-wide El Golfo Bay, which is barely visible at the extreme left. Holocene cones and flows are found both on the outer flanks and in the El Golfo depression. The last eruption, during the 18th century, produced a lava flow from a cinder cone on the NW side of El Golfo.
According to ElHierro.com: “Although over 200 years have elapsed since the last eruption, El Hierro has the largest number of volcanoes in the Canaries with over 500 open sky cones, another 300 covered by the most recent outflows, and some 70 caves and volcanic galleries, notably the Don Justo cave whose collection of channels surpasses 6km in length.”
El Hierro is located south of Isla de la Palma (population 86,000), currently the most volcanically active of the Canary Islands. About a half a million years ago, the volcano, Taburiente, collapsed with a giant landslide, forming the Caldera de Taburiente. Since the Spanish occupation, there have been seven eruptions.