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Restless volcano a ticking time bomb

El Hierro is home to an assortment of endangered wildlife.

El Hierro is home to an assortment of endangered wildlife.

Published Nov 18, 2011


Madrid - Steaming magma is bubbling onto the sea surface. The earth shakes, and a smell of sulphur floats in the air.

For over a month, residents of the Spanish Canary Island of El Hierro have lived with an active underwater volcano that not only poses a security threat, but also scares off tourists and endangers the inhabitants' livelihoods.

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Volcanic eruptions could continue for weeks, civil protection science representative Carmen Lopez said this week.

However, the situation has been deemed safe enough for the 550 evacuated residents of the fishing village of La Restinga to return home, though the island was still being hit by earthquakes.

The earth began trembling on El Hierro on July 19, in a sign that magma was rising towards the surface of the smallest Canary Island.

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The island of 11,000 residents has a large volcano and more than 250 craters. But its volcanic power had been dormant for centuries, with the last eruption reported in 1793.

El Hierro has now experienced more than 11,000 earthquakes since July. The vast majority were not noticed by the population, but grew in intensity.

Dozens of people were evacuated for fear of rockslides in September, and an army unit was put on standby to help in the event of a mass evacuation.

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An underwater eruption occurred on October 10, following an earthquake of a magnitude greater than 4. Scientists observing seismic activity confirmed the eruption. Dead fish were seen floating on the water.

Volcanic activity has since continued intermittently, with witnesses reporting jets of gas and ash spewing several metres above sea level.

The eruptions have sent a large volume of greenish magma spilling into the sea.

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An oceanographic vessel discovered a 100-metre-high volcano with a 120-metre-diameter crater located at a depth of about 200 metres.

It is thought possible that magma is also breaking through one or two other outlets. Some of the eruptions have been observed as close as 1.5 kilometres off El Hierro's southern coast.

The nearby La Restinga has been evacuated several times. There has also been concern over a possible eruption off Frontera, the island's economic capital in the north, following strong earthquakes in the area. More than 50 people were evacuated.

“The worst scenario would be an eruption on land,” Canaries security chief Juan Manuel Santana told the daily El Pais.

There is even a remote possibility of eruptions resulting in new land. Possible names for a new Canary Island have already been suggested on the internet, such as Atlantis or Discovery.

For the moment, however, experts are most concerned about the presence of toxic gases, though there is practically no evidence so far of health damage to the population.

Most El Hierro residents are more worried about their livelihoods than about the simmering volcano.

The earthquakes and eruptions have brought fishing and touristic diving to a standstill in La Restinga, some of whose residents had to resort to emergency food aid.

Life is now returning to the village while two nearby coves still remain closed to the public.

The authorities are also maintaining some of the traffic restrictions imposed earlier. Traffic will remain limited in a key tunnel linking Frontera with the island's capital Valverde. The traffic problems have sparked more protests over economic losses.

There were initial hopes that the volcano would draw more tourists to the island, which receives about 7,000 visitors annually.

But the opposite happened, with more than 1,500 cancelling their holidays and causing losses worth hundreds of thousands of euros for the local tourism industry, its representatives said.

Magma now covers some of the island's rich underwater flora and fauna at the Mar de las Calmas marine reserve, which was a favourite among tourists.

Some El Hierro residents are preparing demonstrations, accusing Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government of abandoning them.

“Other emergencies only last a certain time, but that is not the case now,” Santana said. “What people want is a return to normality, to routine.” - Sapa-dpa

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