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That Canary Island Time Bomb


By James Donahue


An ominous swarm of earthquakes on El Hierro, the smallest of the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain, has volcanologists and other researchers worried about how the quakes, and the threat of an imminent eruption of the island volcano, will have on the nations surrounding the Atlantic coast.


That is because too much shaking in the Canary Islands area has the potential of launching one catastrophic mega tsunami that will sweep the entire Atlantic basin.


Scientists warn that this kind of disaster is poised to really happen because of a large part of Cumbre Vieja, an active volcano on nearby La Palma Island that has cracked and is slipping steadily toward a spectacular plunge into the sea.

All it may take is another eruption or an earthquake to trigger this destructive event, said Bill McGuire, director of the Benfield Greig Hazards Research Centre, University College London.


Cumbre Vieja is known to erupt at intervals ranging from decades to a century. The last time this volcano erupted was in 1949. At that time a large block of the mountain’s western flank dropped four meters into the sea. Some researchers believe this massive rock, twice the size if the Isle of Man and weighing an estimated 500 million tons, is continuing to slip and that the flank is so unstable, another eruption or sizeable earthquake will send it crashing into the Atlantic.


While Cumbre Vieja appears to be quiet for now, the entire region surrounding this island has been unusually active during the past year. 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 massive 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.


He said the potential for disaster was set up when Cumbre Vieja last erupted. The blast caused a huge part of its western flank to crack. Since then, a massive part of that mountain, an estimated 500 billion tons of it, has been slowly sliding toward the sea.


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.


Worse hit will be harbors and estuaries that channel the waves inland.


Even though the potential for disaster is known, McGuire said little has been done to monitor the geological activity on La Palma. He said a few seismometers are set up on the western flank of the island, but they don’t provide the information needed to predict an eruption.


It’s really a worrying situation,” he said. “We may not get the notice we need.”