Cumbre Vieja volcano in Spain has been erupting for a month, no end in sight

The La Palma island hasn’t been fully evacuated yet

Today's expression: At risk of
Explore more: Lesson #413
November 4, 2021:

The Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma in Spain has been erupting for a month, and unfortunately, it shows no signs of stopping. The full island still has not been evacuated, and some residents plan to wait it out in the toxic gas and ash. Plus, learn “at risk of.”

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A volcano continues to erupt in Spain’s Canary Islands

Lesson summary

Hi there everyone, it’s Jeff and this is Plain English, where we help you upgrade your English with lessons about current events and trending topics. And while we’re at it, we also show you how to use some great English expressions and phrasal verbs.

What do we have in store for you today? Well, the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma, in Spain, is erupting… and it has been for weeks. I’ve wanted to do a lesson about this for a while, but I was waiting for it to finally stop. The problem is, it shows no signs of stopping. The eruption has been going on day and night for over a month now.

That is the topic of today’s lesson, which is number 413. JR is the producer, and he has uploaded the full lesson, including the transcript, to PlainEnglish.com/413. Today’s lesson also includes an expression. That is “at risk of.” We also have a how-to video on the website, plenty of exercises, and much more.

If you’ve just been listening on Spotify or on a podcast app, then you don’t know what you’re missing. Try out the website sometime. PlainEnglish.com/413 is a great place to start. Now, let’s dive into today’s lesson.

Eruption on La Palma

A monthlong eruption of a volcano in Spain has sent lava spewing into the air and sliding down the mountainside, destroying homes and businesses, even remaking the map. It’s all happening on the island of La Palma, part of the Canary Islands.

The Canary Islands are an archipelago of eight islands in the North Atlantic Ocean, just off the northwestern coast of Africa and near Morocco. Together, they are an “autonomous community,” like states under Spain’s unique form of government. They are a popular vacation spot and are known for their stunning black and white beaches.

The islands are volcanic. That means that, long ago, a volcano formed from the ocean floor, and the top of the volcano peaked up above the waterline, forming an island. This is a description of how the islands were formed, not what they’re like today. The islands of Hawaii, for example, are volcanic islands, as are the Virgin Islands , and others in the Caribbean. Not all volcanic islands are active volcanoes today. Active or not, most have steep ridges; when they are inhabited, people generally live around the perimeter.

Because of their nature, volcanic islands form in areas where the earth, underneath, is or was unstable. Some of the volcanoes that form these islands are still at risk of erupting today, even if that risk is small. And that is exactly what happened with the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands.

La Palma is home to about 85,000 people, spread out in about 14 villages. The highest point on the island is 2,400 meters above sea level, so there are a number of international observatories on the island. Plus, several unique plant and animal species also call La Palma home.

Since Spain began keeping records in the 1400s, there have been just eight eruptions. They were in the years 1470, 1585, 1646, and then again in 1677, 1712, and then, after a long time dormant, the next eruption was in 1949 and then there was just one more in the twentieth century; that was in 1971. Since then, the volcano had been dormant for fifty years until it started erupting again in September 2021.

This year’s eruption was started by seismic activity far below the earth’s surface. A sequence of earthquakes called an earthquake swarm began on September 11. There were over 22,000 recorded earthquakes in the space of just a week. The earthquakes started deep below the earth’s crust and began to make their way up toward the surface.

A warning was issued to about half the population of La Palma that an eruption could be on the way. Soon afterward , it started. The eruption began at about 3:15 in the afternoon on Sunday, September 19. The eruption sent a stream of gas, ash, smoke, and lava up through five main vents. A vent is a fissure in the surface of the earth; it’s the path that magma and gas take from deep down up to the surface, and eventually out into the air.

Lava is the word to describe magma that has reached the surface. Magma is liquid or semi-liquid rock. When it reaches the surface, it ranges in temperature from 800 and 1,200 degrees Celsius. The lava that spewed from the vents in Cumbre Vieja cascaded down the mountain, destroying buildings, cutting off roads, and starting fires.

The full island was not—and still has not been—evacuated. But about 7,000 residents of towns near Cumbre Vieja have been evacuated. School has been canceled in many towns. Flights have been suspended due to limited visibility in the area.

Meanwhile , the earth has not been resting. The main tip of the volcano collapsed on October 4. The heat of the eruption caused the structure to weaken. When the main tip collapsed, more lava was emitted, and it was more fluid, so it traveled faster. Five days later, there was another collapse, this time on the north side of the volcano, further increasing lava flow, and endangering different areas.

Even during the eruption, there have been more earthquakes. A strong earthquake hit at about noon on October 7, more than two weeks into the eruption. Another one hit on October 13 and two stronger ones hit on October 16, almost a month into the eruption.

The lava has spilled into the ocean and cooled, creating about 40 hectares of new land, where just weeks ago there was only sea. Spain has claimed the new land as its own territory. Maps will need to be redrawn. The geography of the island has changed forever—or, I should say until the next eruption changes it yet again.

The damage is significant. Factories, farms, roads, schools, churches, and homes have all been damaged. There are health concerns, too. Breathing toxic gas and air with particles of ash can cause—what else?—respiratory problems. The local government instructed people to seal their doors and windows using tape and wet towels to keep toxic gas from leaking inside their homes.

Waiting it out

I don’t think I would trust that last bit. Residents are supposed to seal their windows with tape and wet towels to keep the gas from getting in their homes. Ok, fine. But the air that you breathe in your house can only come from one place, and that place is outside.

I don’t know how people are continuing to live on that island. Towns have been evacuated; in fact , some have been pretty much destroyed. But other towns are not evacuating. I don’t know how you sleep at night knowing that on this island there is a volcano spewing lava up from the earth 24 hours a day.

But they do. It’s their home. A lot of people don’t have a choice in the matter. They need to rebuild. A lot of people were evacuated, and their homes are not destroyed, so obviously they’re waiting and concerned about their houses, their property, their businesses, or farms. I just cannot imagine. Some people were given just minutes to get out of their homes. I saw pictures of people rushing to put everything they could fit into the back of a pickup truck.

Pets are stranded. I saw a heartwarming article about some dogs that were trapped in an area that was cut off by the lava. So, they sent drones to drop food and water so they could survive. But for every one of those stories, you know there are many, many more stories of pets that are not so lucky. It’s really just so sad.

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Expression: At risk of