The erupting volcano on La Palma in Spain's Canary Islands. / EFE

La Palma is rocked by the strongest earthquake since the Cumbre Vieja volcano started to erupt

The air quality on the island has worsened and the volcanic ash cloud has forced the airport to close and flights be cancelled

JAVIER ARIAS LOMO / ANTONIO PANIAGUA

The ash cloud that the La Palma volcano was spitting out on Thursday, 7 October, was so abundant that the island's airport had to close. Even the Tenerife North airport in Spain's Canary Islands was affected by the fallout, with some services suffering delays while other flights had to divert to Tenerife South.

Suspended ash particles, capable of causing serious engine damage, rendered La Palma’s airport "inoperative" for a time, according the airport operator Aena. The two companies that operate flights, Binter and Canaryfly, cancelled their scheduled services.

After the volcanic activity seemed to enter a phase of stability the day before, on Thursday the calm ended as a new lava flow appeared about 600 metres to the south of the main ‘tongue’ and approached the ocean in an area known as Volcán beach, named because this area was affected by the San Juan eruption in 1949, between the Los Guirres beach and El Charcón. This forced the evacuation of the general population, and also of scientists and emergency service workers in the La Bombilla area.

Air quality worsens

In addition, the air quality on La Palma is reported to be worsening and seismic movements are far from subsiding. An earthquake, with a magnitude of 4.3, was felt at 12.17 pm in the town of Mazo, at a depth of 35 kilometres, according to the director of the National Geographic Institute in the Canary Islands, María José Blanco.

The earthquake was felt in Tijarafe, El Paso, Breña Alta, Los Llanos, Puntagorda, Fuencaliente, Garafía, Santa Cruz de La Palma, Breña Baja, Tazacorte and San Andrés y Sauces. It is the most intense earthquake since the Cumbre Vieja volcano started to erupt. But the fact that it happened so far below the earth's surface reassures volcanologists and experts of the Volcanic Emergency Plan of the Canary Islands (Pevolca), said that the tremor does not necessarily mean that a new crater will open.

Virulence of the volcano

A smell of sulphur was stifling the air in the Aridane valley on Thursday. Apart from the discomfort, the gas is a good indicator of the virulence of the volcano. The air quality, which previously was labelled "good", dropped and is described as "regular." Up to 667 microgrammes of sulphur dioxide per cubic meter were recorded at the measurement stations, exceeding the alert threshold set at 500 microgrammes. However, it is a tolerable toxicity for the general population as a whole, except for people with immune system deficiencies.

The area occupied by the lava now stretches to 431.2 hectares, some 9.27 hectares more than the day before. In addition to homes and crops, the lava has washed away 26.47 kilometres of roads. On a scale of eight, the explosive level of the volcano remains at two, while three emission centres remain active in the crater and one on the north side of the main cone.

Tourism recovery plan

Spain’s Minister of Industry and Tourism, Reyes Maroto, said that the central government is working on a tourism recovery plan for the island but didn’t offer any further details.