The Cumbre Vieja volcano in La Palma, one of the most active volcanos in Spain’s  Canary Islands, has been erupting since 19 September 2021. By 20 September around two hundred houses have been destroyed by the lava. Luckily, no casualties were reported and flights continued into the islands.

A deceptively serene Cumbre Vieja

The eruption,  with at least five main eruptive vents, is in a forested area called Cabeza de Vaca (Cow’s Head) in the Montaña Rajada (Rajada Mountain). The Cabeza lies northwest of the two 1949 eruptive centers of Duraznero and San Juan. Around 300 people from the local area were evacuated shortly after the eruption began, as well as some 700 people (including 500 tourists) from the Los Llanos de Aridane coastal region in case the lava flows to the sea and cuts off the main access roads.  At the start, it was estimated that as many as 10,000 might have to be evacuated.

Fissure vent of the volcano of San Juan (El Duraznero) on its eruption in 1949

The Los Campitos public school in Los Llanos de Aridane was destroyed on Monday, 20 September. In the early afternoon of 21 September, the lava reached the neighborhood of Todoque, in the municipality of Los Llanos de Aridane, with 1,200 inhabitants. At the end of that day, 185 buildings were destroyed, 400 hectares of arable land were burnt and 5,500 people were evacuated.

Lava from Cumbre Vieja 20 September 2021: Roads have to be blocked as a safety measure

As of 23 September, the alert remains at the highest level—red.  According to the Volcanological Institute of the Canary Islands, the eruption has entered a more explosive phase but not more dangerous, the amount of gases decreasing. The rate of the lava flow has gradually been slowing down the further away it got from the crater (120 meters/ hour on 21 September), which makes it more destructive as it goes on its way.

The last subaerial volcanic eruption in Spain (1971) was also on La Palma. It resulted in one fatality, a photographer who got too close to the lava and was asphyxiated by the fumes. The eruption caused no material damage.

The last volcanic eruption in Spain, until the 2021 eruption, was the El Hierro eruption on December 2011, which was a submarine eruption.


An earthquake swarm ( a sequence of seismic events occurring in a local area within a relatively short period of time) started under Cumbre Vieja on 11 September 2021, migrating slowly to the surface with 22,000 earthquakes in just one week, with an intensity of 3.5 on the Richter scale. This prompted the government to issue a yellow warning of potential volcanic activity in the municipalities of Los Llanos de Aridane, Fuencaliente, El Paso and Villa de Mazo whose combined population is 35,000 people.

Port of Tazacorte, Los Llanos de Aridane, one of  the hardest hit areas. The flow of lava on to the sea is exceedingly slow, causing more damage than if it  went faster

In the afternoon of 19 September, the Emergency Committee of the General Hospital of La Palma suspended all non-urgent surgeries, outpatient consultations and patient visits, with exceptions in the latter case, as a preventive measure to guarantee the hospital’s capacity to attend in the event that it was required due to the eruption. The activity returned to normal the following day.

On 20 September morning, the Canarian Ministry of Education ordered the suspension of the classes in the schools of the nearby municipalities of El Paso, Los Llanos de Aridane and Tazacorte. In the morning of that same day, direct flights to the island of La Gomera were suspended but were restored a few hours later. The day before, the public company in charge of civil air navigation and civil airports in Spain, ENAIRE, together with Eurocontrol, activated the action procedure for volcanic ashes but assured that the air traffic in the Canary Islands was not affected.

On 20 September, the European Union activated the Copernicus Programme to monitor the eruption. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, Twitted that “additional support, if necessary,” would be made available to the Spanish government.

Prime Minister Sánchez, right, during his first visit to La Palma to check out the volcanic eruption. See smoke billowing out of the Cumbre Vieja volcano in the background, 20 September 2021

The Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sánchez, went to the island shortly after the eruption to see first-hand the situation on La Palma, postponing his trip to New York to attend the Seventy-sixth session of the United Nations General Assembly till the 22nd of September.

On Wednesday, 23 September, Sánchez returned to La Palma after the UN event: “On Thursday,” he said, “I will join, hopefully on time, the visit of the Head of State, His Majesty the King, to the island of La Palma. And on Friday I,  together with the Canary Islands Government and the La Palma City Government, will remain here at the City Hall [in La Palma] to continue participating in the PEVOLCA Steering Committee,” Sánchez said. (PEVOLCA is the Spanish acronym of the Special Plan for Civil Protection and Emergency Care due to Volcanic Risk).

Sanctuary of Nuestra Señora de Las Nieves: The bishop said Mass for a speedy end of the eruption

The Bishop of Tenerife Bernardo Álvarez Afonso, celebrated a Mass on 22 September at the Sanctuary of Nuestra Señora de las Nieves in La Palma, together with the priests of the island, to pray for the end of the eruption.

Sources: Wikipedia, La Moncloa Gobierno de España


Featured image (volcanic eruptions constructed with Photoshop elements, fantasy composition)/Maxwell Hamilton, CC BY2.0
A serene Cumbre Vieja/Ivan Borisov, CC BY-SA2.0
Fissurfe vent of San Juan volcano/Frank Klemm, CC BY-SA4.0
Sanchez/Pool Moncloa-Borja Puig de la Bellacasa
Sanctuary/Frank Vincentz, CC BY-SA3.0