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Playing With Fire

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Recklessly Drilling For Oil At The Canary Islands

By James Donahue

The world quest for finding the final oil reserves has prompted wildcat oil companies to go where no drilling rigs have gone before . . . or ever should go. Now three multinational drilling companies have just received permission from the Spanish government to sink exploratory wells on the Atlantic seabed, just off the eight Canary Island archipelago.

This project has stirred the ire of European Universities, the United States, the scientific committees of over 100 other countries, UICN, Oceana, Greenpeace, WWF, Friends of Earth, The Society for the Studies of Cetaceans on the Canary Archipelago, various cultural, artistic, social foundations and an untold number of individuals.

The drilling is planned just 10 kilometers from the main beaches of the island of Fuerteventura and 18 kilometers from Lanzarote, both designated United Nations Biosphere Reserves. The drilling is expected to be for deep wells of over 5,000 meters, from more than 1,500 meters under the surface of the sea.

What frightens critics is that this area has been recording intense seismic activity in recent years. The main worry is that an accidental oil spill like the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico would virtually destroy the eight-island archipelago that attract millions of tourists from all over the world to enjoy the unique landscape, rare flora and fauna plus four national parks.

There is yet another reason drilling should be prohibited in this area. There is a great danger that such human operations deep in the plate tectonics will trigger the ultimate disaster poised on Cumbre Vieja, an active volcano on La Palma Island. The last time this volcano erupted in 1949, a massive 500-ton block of the western flank of the mountain cracked and began sliding toward the sea. It still hangs there today, slipping steadily toward a spectacular plunge into the water.

Another eruption or earthquake may be all it will take to create one of the worst disasters in history, according to Bill McGuire, director of the Benfield Greig Hazards Research Center, University College, London.

While Cumbre Vieja appears to be quiet for now, the entire region surrounding this island has been unusually active in recent months. A series of quakes has been rattling the area around the Mediterranean, affecting Italy, Spain and including the Canary Islands. Also Italy’s infamous volcano, Mt. Etna, has been constantly active.

This latest swarm of over 150 tremors on El Hierro has prompted plans for the ordered evacuation of homes that may be threatened by landslides even if the volcano does not erupt.

The jarring of Cumbre Vieja and the release of the top of that part of the mountain into the sea could generate a massive tsunami racing across the Atlantic at speeds of over 500 miles-per-hour and striking the entire east coast of North and South America. The wave would inundate the other islands from the Canaries to the Gulf of Mexico and slam the West African coast, Europe, the Mediterranean coast and the British Isles.

The waves would hit the African coast quickly but people in the Caribbean and on the United States coast would have from eight to nine hours to flee.

The danger is quite real, McGuire warns. When it goes, it will likely collapse in about 90 seconds," McGuire said. As it drops, it will fall into water almost four miles deep and create an undersea wave unlike anything ever seen in recorded history. McGuire, said the wave would be about 330 feet high when it strikes land.

"When one of these comes in, it keeps on coming for 10 to 15 minutes," he said. "It’s like a huge wall of water that just keeps coming."

The destruction from such a wave would not be limited to just the immediate coastal areas, but reach inland until the power of the water is exhausted. Entire coastal cities could be destroyed.

The wave could be formed and strike these areas with such speed that there would be little time for evacuation. Millions would be caught almost unaware.

McGuire said computer models show that the super waves could cross 4,000 miles of ocean and reach the Caribbean islands and the eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada within nine and 12 hours. Europe and Africa would be struck much earlier.