Disaster Ecology: Our experience as biologists in the middle of a volcanic eruption (La Palma, Canary Islands, 2021)

Manuel Nogales and Félix Medina talk about their experience working under the eruption of a volcano in Canary Islands (Spain), while sharing their mixed feelings on the research opportunity and the destruction they lived. 

On Sunday, September 19, 2021, a volcanic eruption began in the southwest of La Palma, one of the islands that are part of the Canaries, Spain. It is the first terrestrial volcanic eruption in the Canary Islands after the Teneguía volcano, which occurred in 1971, in the south of this island. Furthermore, it is the last volcanic episode after the eruption of the underwater Tagoro volcano on the island of El Hierro, which occurred 10 years ago.

When the La Palma eruption occurred, in a zone called “Hoya de Tajogaite” at Cumbre Vieja mountain ridge, I, Manuel Nogales, had already prepared my backpack for traveling to this island as volcanologists had warned about a high possibility of an eruption. The day after, members of my Institute of Natural Products and Agrobiology (IPNA), dependent on the Spanish National Council (CSIC), were already on La Palma. At that time, Félix M. Medina, the only biologist from the Environmental Service of the Cabildo Insular de La Palma, joined the team. Since then, we have been the only two ecologists working permanently in the area of the volcano. Our job consisted on monitoring what happens to biodiversity subjected to volcanic stress; probably the only study done on the fate of biodiversity during an eruptive process.

Although the monitoring and surveillance of the vulcanological processes in the “Cumbre Vieja” area had been carried out for several years, the eruption occurred quite suddenly. Therefore, we urgently needed to adapt the sampling methodology we have been using to the new terrain conditions; a task we were forced to repeat several times since the unpredictability of the different phases of the eruption forced continuous adjustments to fieldwork. This was a quite challenging task, making our activity more complicated and layered with additional risks. Thus, we were always provided with the regulatory personal protective equipment in developing our performance, which undoubtedly implied an extra effort.

In a landscape that has suddenly gone from being “in colour” to “black and white”, due to the rain of the abundant volcanic ash, we were dedicated to inventorying and quantifying the species of flora and fauna in areas occupied by lava flows during their advance. Specifically, we investigated the area located in the 200 meters closest to the front and the flanks of the lava streams. In the crater area, we carried out studies up to a distance of 1 kilometre, following the guidelines of the Volcanic Emergency Plan of the Canary Islands (PEVOLCA). In addition, we installed 32 workstations surrounding the terrestrial area of the eruption from the main crater to the sea.

Concerning the flora, we identified the number of specimens and cover of each species, together with their state of conservation. At the same time, we collected information on the natural history of the area, which allows us to verify the changes that occur in the behaviour of animals and the state of plants. Concerning the latter, we have detected that a high proportion (90%) of those species found in areas closest to the streams or the crater have died or are seriously affected; a situation that improves as we move away to the most distant areas of the volcanic cone.

A Raven (Corvus corax) in the middle of the pine forest near the volcano.
A Raven (Corvus corax) in the middle of the pine forest near the volcano.

With regard to the animals, we carried out censuses of birds (in the first 3 hours after sunrise) and reptiles (from 3 hours after sunrise until 3:00 p.m.). The most affected group has been reptiles (especially lizards), which tend to hide under rocks when they notice the advance of lavas. The medium and large-sized birds, however, resisted much better keeping their usual behaviours, although showing occasional unusual patterns in areas near the volcano and the lava flows. On the other hand, the small passerine birds decreased drastically their abundance near to the volcanic cone. Besides, everything seems to indicate that animals are ingesting volcanic ash with their diet, which presumably could have adverse physiological effects in the future. In addition, we collaborate with four biologists from the Canary Islands Government to characterize the invertebrate (Nieves Zurita and Manuel Arechavaleta) and Chiroptera fauna (Silvia Fajardo and Ángel Vera). We intend to continue with the censuses, which will allow us to know the temporal evolution of the populations during and after the eruption.

The experience of living an eruption on the front line exposes us to dramatic situations that provoke mixed feelings. As scientists we lived an extraordinary opportunity to monitor the impact of a natural phenomenon in real-time on an oceanic island, while at the same time we observed the explosion of houses very near us and shared the sadness of many, many people who lost everything. After this extraordinary event, our personal feelings as biologists were that we are people in the first place, very concerned by the future of the people of La Palma and how resilient they must be after the eruption, and secondly researchers that want to know how is the evolution of the biodiversity in volcanic islands. Nevertheless, we are completely convinced that science was fundamental helping people and governments to take correct decisions during the eruption avoiding personal damage. So, we hope that after this eruption, appropriate measures, also based in science, will be taken to help people recovering their lives in connivance with ecological restoration/succession. Thus, people and environment will coexist in harmony within the unique and beautiful ecosystem of volcanic islands. 

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