The Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma in the Spanish Canary Islands is on its sixth straight week of eruption, seriously shaking up life on the island as it’s forced 7,000 people to evacuate, destroyed 2,500 homes, and created strange and hazardous side effects. As the volcano keeps erupting—and residents and politicians are getting more desperate—ash is also continuing to settle, transforming some evacuated towns and villages into eerie, Martian-like hellscapes.
Ash Settles Everywhere
When a volcano like La Palma erupts, it spews out tiny particles that are a mixture of rock, minerals, and miniature shards of glass. This mix blends with water vapor and gases to form the dark plumes that emerge out of active volcanoes. This lightweight ash can travel for extremely long distances—satellites confirmed in mid-October that ash from La Palma had traveled across the Atlantic—but can also spread and settle in areas around the volcano, blanketing anything and everything in thick piles of gray.
Since the volcano is still active, there’s no sign of the ash from La Palma stopping anytime soon. The Volcanic Ash Advisory Center (VAAC) Toulouse issued an advisory Friday morning about a new plume of ash that had reached an altitude of 8000 feet (2400 meters) and was moving southwest.
Ash Has Dangerous Health Impacts
Ash isn’t just causing a nuisance on the ground, it’s also making the air dangerous. In-person learning in schools in five municipalities has been suspended due to “extremely unfavorable” air quality, according to a spokesperson for the town of Pevolca. Pevolca is also advising residents to wear face masks, abstain from sports and exercise and stay indoors as much as possible.
Sharp Edges Pose Danger For Lungs, Heart
The term “ash” is technically incorrect for what the volcano is expelling, Pedro Cabrera, the president of the Medical College of Las Palmas, told El Pais. “It should be called volcanic sand, given that seen through a microscope it does not look like what is left after the incineration of a human body or a cigarette.”
Each particle, which is smaller than 10 microns across, has sharp edges that make it incredibly dangerous to inhale. Inhalation could trigger inflammation and chronic illness like asthma, putting even otherwise-healthy people at risk for cardiac problems or serious respiratory illness. Carbon dioxide and other gases emitted from the volcano can also irritate the respiratory system.
Earthquakes Hitting Island
Earthquakes have also shaken the area in tandem with the volcano. On Thursday morning, a quake that hit 5.1 on the Richter scale rocked the island. Earthquakes are common occurrences during volcanic eruptions, and experts have warned that quakes on La Palma could reach up to a magnitude of 6 on the Richter scale.
‘It Gets Everywhere’
“The earthquakes are a bit scary,” Elida de Paz, 70, told El Pais. But “ash is what is really unbearable: you’re never done cleaning, it gets everywhere,” she said.
Banana Farmers Struggle
Banana farmers have also struggled in the wake of the eruption as their fields are blanketed in ash: The government estimates that 100 million euros ($116 million) in damages have already been done to the banana industry, with more than 1/5 of the island’s banana farmers affected.
“I would have preferred to lose my house instead of my banana trees,” farmer Jesús Pérez told ABC. “The trees give you life, the house gives you nothing. I have sacrificed all my life, and for what, nothing?”
Influx of Rubberneckers
The economy of the Canary Islands also depends heavily on tourism, which has been affected by the volcano in various ways. Flights from some airlines in the UK, where many tourists to the Canary Islands come from, to La Palma have been canceled through December 1 due to concerns about the ash. Ash has destroyed salt flats that are a popular visitor attraction. And while La Palma has seen a surge of tourism as people from other parts of the Canary Islands and Spain flock to see the erupting volcano, the hospitality industry has decried those who might want to rubberneck—especially since the influx of people is making housing difficult for those who have been evacuated.
‘It’s Time To Help’
“Now is not the moment for tourism for La Palma, it’s the time to help,” Juan Pablo González, the manager of a hospitality association, told El Pais, “These people are not doing that and are instead occupying beds that could, for example, be used by the security forces.”