Students Monitor the Eruption of the Cumbre Vieja Volcano: ‘It’s Hot, and You Have Ash on You’

Samantha Tramontano sets up a station for sampling ash from the Cumbre Vieja volcano, 10/02/2021

By Lida Tunisi

From their balcony on the Canary Island of La Palma, Earth and Environmental Sciences Ph.D. students Samantha Tramontano and Franco Cortese could see smoke pouring out of the Cumbre Vieja volcano and ash falling from the sky.

“I’m Italian, so I’ve seen Stromboli erupting, and Etna,” Cortese said,” but this is by far the closest, most participative eruption experience I’ve had.”

The volcano’s lava flows now cover about 2.6 square miles and have destroyed over 1,800 buildings on the island. Almost 7,000 people have been evacuated from their homes, though no deaths have been reported.

Tramontano, Cortese, and their adviser Professor Marc-Antoine Longpré (GC/Queens, Earth and Environmental Sciences) traveled to La Palma to study Cumbre Vieja’s eruption, which began over a month ago on September 19. The students returned to New York in October, but spoke to us while they were on the island. 

“One of the main directions is determining how magmatic systems evolve over time,” Tramontano said, “and why certain volcanic systems reactivate after ‘taking a nap.’”

To do this, Tramontano and Cortese don respirators and head out to collect samples of ash and lava every day. This lets them track the chemistry of the samples and notice if anything changes. With better resolution of the chemistry over time they have a better chance of correlating their data with data from other scientists, who might be studying the eruption’s seismic or geophysical activity, for instance.

While the details of Cumbre Vieja’s eruption might not be relevant to all volcanoes, the things the researchers learn could apply to other, similar archipelagos.

The deep seismic activity preceding the eruption has been going on for years. When it began ramping up in early September, Tramontano, Cortese, and Longpré bought tickets and flew out of New York. As scientists, they received passes that let them enter the exclusion zone.

“When you enter the exclusion zone, everything is abandoned, destroyed, covered in lava,” Cortese said. “It’s hot, and you have ash on you. It’s a rollercoaster, but it’s definitely impressive.” 

The collaborative effort and coordination between the civil guard, other government-funded agencies, scientists from different fields, and the media has been impressive, the students said.

“There’s a real sort of camaraderie and spirit of looking out for one another,” Tramontano said. “There’s a lot to be learned from this. We’re really hoping to get closer to a better understanding of when and why volcanic eruptions happen.”

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Submitted on: OCT 21, 2021

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