In the mouth of hell on La Palma

The geologist Raúl Pérez will never forget the early morning of October 1, when he and two soldiers approached the jaws of the La Palma volcano to take lava samples. It was two o’clock. That night, the team had entered a vehicle of the Military Emergency Unit in the so-called “war zone”, about 650 meters from the main mouth of the volcano. The researcher remembers the “thunderous” noise and “whirlwinds of ash and hot air” that hit the three men, surrounded by lava with temperatures of more than 414 degrees. “An eruptive mouth opened under our feet,” recalls the scientist from the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain (IGME).

Pérez arrived on the Canary Island on 21 of September, with the risky mission of collecting samples on the front line, to try to understand the eruption and that the authorities can anticipate the volcano. “Our job is to avoid unforeseen movements that could affect the population. That is what we have come to do here ”, he sentenced. The geologist, born in Madrid 54 years ago, evokes the “shudder” he felt the first night he approached the rivers of lava. “I do have the feeling that we are doing something dangerous and that we may be risking our lives,” he acknowledges.

An eruptive mouth opened underneath our feet

Raúl Pérez, geologist

The researcher belongs to the Response Unit Geológica de Emergencia, an IGME team that travels to natural disasters, especially earthquakes and floods, to assist in disaster management. Pérez shows on his mobile phone the videos he has recorded these nights in the war zone of the volcano. In one of them, on the bank of a stream and under a shower of increasingly larger lava fragments, the geologist can be heard alerting his two military colleagues: “We’re going to go but now!”

“The Military Emergency Unit carries chemical warfare sensors to detect atmospheres that may be toxic, without oxygen or corrosive. And that is exactly what a volcano does. That’s why we call it a war zone, ”explains Pérez. The geologist is seasoned in fearsome missions. In 2015 he led a scientific expedition to the deepest hole in Spain —the Asturian chasm of Cerro del Cuevón, with 1 . 600 meters deep— to investigate earthquakes. The following year, he entered a Soria cave, the CJ-3, which had suddenly run out of oxygen and had become lethal.

Cinco miembros de la Unidad Militar de Emergencias recogen muestras de lava en el volcán de La Palma.
Five members of the Military Emergency Unit collect lava samples from the La Palma volcano. Raúl Pérez

The environment of the La Palma volcano is apocalyptic, with entire neighborhoods evacuated or buried by lava. In the early morning of October 1, Pérez entered the war zone through a Civil Guard checkpoint called Lima Papa 212, located next to the church of Tajuya, a Christian temple that stays open at night, under the eerie light of the eruptions. It was a good time to get closer to the mouth of the volcano. The monster seemed calm. “We are looking for days with a calmer activity, so that the danger of being hit by a pyroclastic slag bomb is less,” says Pérez. His mission was to enter that hell and remove pieces of “cold lava” from there, more than 600 degrees. “I was nervous about taking the samples I had to take and doing it well, to try not to return,” recalls the geologist.

The scientist and the two soldiers heard an explosion, “a dull sound” , accompanied by a strange black mushroom cloud. They came over to inspect, uneasy that a new lava flow could affect non-evacuated houses. “We were obsessed with giving notice so that those in the forward command post would take all the measures if it were the case,” he recalls. It was then that the ground began to open to less than 30 meters from its feet. The liquid lava began to gush out of two new mouths, each about five meters in diameter.

“With the analysis of the samples from the lava flows, we can learn how the chamber is evolving in depth magmatic. Every time material comes out, it gives us information about what is inside, ”says Pérez. The first analyzes suggest that the basalites predominate, a type of rock typical of less viscous and, therefore, faster lava flows. It’s good news: the lower the viscosity, the lower the explosiveness. “The big question is when the eruption is going to end”, the geologist underlines.

Raúl Pérez, covered with a fire-retardant overalls, laughs when he thinks of the soporific image that his discipline has for some students . “To those young people who believe that geology is a boring subject, that it is a science that has no interest, I would say that here is an example of how fascinating it can be to study the center of the Earth,” he proclaims while putting on the mask. gas and walk to go, one more night, to the mouth of hell.

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