La Palma volcano eruption
La Palma’s volcanos spring back to life after 50 years
After half a century of dormancy, La Palma’s volcanos sprang back to life on 19 September 2021 when the the Cumbre Vieja volcano started to erupt. The eruption spewed ash, smoke and lava over the Atlantic island, one of the smallest and most westerly of the Canary Islands.
More than a thousand buildings destroyed
The lava flow cut a path of devastation on its way to the coast. in the process, it destroyed around 1,000 buildings, as well as banana plantations, roads and other infrastructure. Most of the island was blanketed in ash, from a plume that rose 3 kilometres into the atmosphere, posing a hazard to aircraft in the area. About 6,000 of La Palma’s 83,000 inhabitants were evacuated – mostly from the towns of El Paso and Los Llanos de Aridane.
NPL photographers document the eruption
The last major eruption of Cumbre Vieja (the Spanish name means Old Peak) was in 1971. However, this time the volcano has already expelled three times the amount of material, in a quarter of the time. NPL’s Spanish photographers Eduardo Blanco and Oriol Alamany were quickly on the scene to document the eruption. Here we share their images and video and describe the eruption in their own words.
The volcanic history of La Palma
Oriol Alamany tells us about the historical context: “This is the third volcanic eruption in the southern half area of the island in the last century, after those of the Teneguía volcano in 1971 and San Juan volcano in 1949. But these two were different volcanoes to the currently active one. This one is absolutely new.
In fact people in the Canaries are talking about what name to give the volcano. For now they call it the “Cumbre Vieja volcano” as it’s inside Cumbre Vieja Natural Park. Probably it will be given a name after the human emergency situation is over. In the last 600 years La Palma has suffered no less than eight eruptions, making it the most active of all the Canary Islands.”
A split personality
Photographer Eduardo Blanco booked a flight to La Palma within an hour of hearing news of the eruption. His impression of the volcano is that it displayed two different personalities: “During the day it was a huge grey element, whose roar was overshadowed by the sounds of human activity. But at night, its soul seemed to transform. The incandescent red of its lava and flying pyroclasts was more visible, and its explosions were the dominant soundtrack. It’s not nice to watch a volcano make someone’s house disappear. But it is amazing to see a volcano erupt. It continually ejects material minute after minute, hour after hour and day after day, with a force that until now I did not imagine was possible. Looking at it, and seeing the lava flow like an upwelling of water on the mountain, was almost hypnotic.”
Two ways to approach this shoot
Eduardo Blanco: “As a photojournalist, I could see two ways to approach this shoot. In the end I decided not to focus on the human drama, out of sensitivity to the suffering of the local people. Instead I would concentrate on the volcano itself and document its evolution and behaviour, together with the environment. Immediately I saw that there were quite a few graphic media interviewing and photographing the victims. So I understood that one more camera was not going to contribute anything new to this work. Therefore I decided to photograph the volcano from a distance and to avoid the areas where the teams were working, to avoid disturbing them.”
Eduardo also captured video of the eruption
“At night its soul seems to transform as the incandescent red of its lava and flying pyroclasts are visible, while its explosions are the protagonists of the ambient sound”.
Astonishment, sadness and hypnotic fascination
Oriol Alamany describes his contrasting emotions when he arrived on La Palma and saw the eruption of Cumbre Vieja.
“The first feeling when I saw the volcano was of astonishment, as I contemplated the energy and the sound of its extreme eruption. But the second feeling was of sadness, as I witnessed the devastation that the lava flows were causing to the homes of local people. Through the seven days I was there photographing this geological cataclysm and its repercussions, both feelings merged. They became an ambivalent emotion and also a hypnotic fascination with contemplating the fierce power of nature.”
Explore the full gallery
We’ve created a gallery of images by Eduardo and Oriol covering the eruption of Cumbre Vieja, if you’d like to explore more of their material.