The “scientific war” of the El Hierro eruption, a lesson that avoided chaos on La Palma | Science

In the two months that the unnamed volcano has been sweeping La Palma, we have become accustomed to the routine of consensual scientific statements, to the normality of the different administrations rowing in the same direction, to the simplicity of coordinated management. But just 10 years ago, the scenario was totally opposite. During the eruption that affected the island of El Hierro in autumn 2011, scientists insulted each other, institutions turned their backs on each other, politicians made decisions without warning and citizens lived in a permanent unease of contradictions. “That was chaos,” repeat those who lived it. Fortunately, that eruption arose under the waters, in the Sea of ​​Calms, without endangering the lives of the people. And it became a decisive lesson not to repeat that chaos now that the lava and gases do threaten the palm trees with danger.

“We have improved the dysfunctions that were seen, both scientific in the committee itself and in the management, because it was the first time they started the Pevolca [Plan de Emergencias Volcánicas de Canarias]”, Explains María José Blanco, director of the National Geographic Institute in the Canary Islands (IGN). His is a common face on televisions throughout Spain, since he is in charge of giving voice almost daily to the conclusions agreed every morning by the scientific committee that advises the authorities, and he also had to stand before the micros in El Hierro . “In the case of La Palma, that previous experience has made it much easier because these malfunctions could be corrected and solved in the new version of the plan that is now operational,” he adds.

And that’s one of the main differences with the El Hierro eruption. Today, the different scientific institutions included in the committee (IGN, Geological and Mining Institute, Involcan, CSIC, universities …) agree on their technical analysis of the situation of the volcano, which is transmitted to the public calmly and a single voice, in a single statement. A decade ago, it was a cacophony of scientists who contradicted each other, who ignored the official press conferences, who were disrespectful and who scared the Herreños by warning of dangerous events that never occurred.

María José Blanco, on the screen, at a press conference after the Pevolca meeting.
María José Blanco, on the screen, at a press conference after the Pevolca meeting.Canary Islands Government

The president of the Cabildo de El Hierro both in 2011 and now, Alpidio Armas, remembers that with particular frustration. “The scientists came to El Hierro to each seek their moment of glory: each one had a different vision and each one said a different thing. There was a very, very important war, “he recalls. They were not only personal battles that took place years ago, but also confrontations between institutions for control of the situation: “Involcan, the IGN, the CSIC …, all those who participated in the issue,” denounces Armas. “And that was made public, it caused uneasiness in the people, because if they tell you one thing in the morning and something different at noon, you don’t know what to expect,” laments the president of the Cabildo.

“The difference is also that many of those divas”Says one of the geologists who are today at the foot of the volcano on La Palma, referring to scientists such as Ramón Ortiz, Juan Carlos Carracedo and other geologists who every day provoked a controversy worse than the previous one. Carracedo, from outside the committee, accused his colleagues in the media of making an “international ridicule”. Ortiz, from the CSIC, responded to the concerns with occurrences such as “ask the volcano.” The Herreños had breakfast every morning with a new controversy between scientists in the headlines of the newspapers; what if there would be another eruption on the other side of the island, what if there would be dangerous explosions. In the absence of a clear and respected spokesperson, the media exploited these differences by resorting to different geologists who confused the population by making contrasting readings of the eruption and crossing accusations.

Volcanic nationalism

The differences between the institutions also had a very clear political aspect. It all started in 2004, when a series of earthquakes on the island of Teide, Tenerife, alerted the authorities: there was no one in charge of volcanological surveillance in Spain. Legislation was immediately passed to entrust this task to the IGN, which maintains those powers. But in 2010 the Cabildo de Tenerife created a public company, the Instituto Volcanológico de Canarias, with the intention of carrying out this function in the archipelago, after receiving support for its creation in the Senate and Congress at the request of the Canarian nationalists.

When a seismic swarm began in El Hierro in the summer of 2011, very few in the Canary Islands accepted the authority of the IGN, sources from the agency recall. The disorder was such that the Canarian Parliament had to approve a regulatory framework that would regulate the operation of the crisis committee 10 days after the eruption. It was like repairing a moving plane.

These were the views from the shores of the town of La Restinga, in El Hierro, four days after the eruptions.  On the horizon you can see the huge magma stain in the sea.
These were the views from the shores of the town of La Restinga, in El Hierro, four days after the eruptions. On the horizon you can see the huge magma stain in the sea.EMERGENCIES AND RESCUE GROUP (GES) / EFE

Now all political leaders, from all parties, are working together to mitigate the effects of the crisis. “That did not happen in the El Hierro volcano, I say it with absolute clarity,” denounces Armas. And he ends: “It became a very low-level politics.” The small coastal town of La Restinga was evacuated for fear of the gases from the underwater eruption and it was done without notifying the president of the Cabildo (PSOE), the main island institution. “It was announced by the Canarian Government when it connected with the regional television to go live. This is a sign of how the volcano issue was handled, ”laments Armas, who had taken office a few months earlier with a motion that evicted the Canary Islands Coalition. “The media and other types of issues were used to make bad politics. And this is not happening on La Palma fortunately; it is the fundamental difference ”, he highlights.

The friction and mistrust between institutions culminated in a meeting in Madrid, a month after the eruption began, in which only scientists from state institutions participated, leaving out those from the archipelago. The scandal was huge, because it put salt in the wound of Canarian science, and caused a formal complaint in the Ministry of Science.

Delicate balance

In these weeks, all the scientific bodies convened within the Pevolca agree on a daily diagnosis of the eruption, each one providing information based on their instruments and knowledge. And the IGN assumes the spokesperson, which nobody disputes. However, the clouds are not completely dissipated: the Government of the Canary Islands has announced that it will buy Involcan for 600,000 euros and its president, Ángel Victor Torres, was about to kick the hornet’s nest from Herrera when he proposed that the IGN be based in Canary Islands, within the decentralization debate of Spanish institutions.

Blanco, who heads the IGN in the archipelago, explains that there are 15 people dedicated to these tasks at the headquarters in Santa Cruz de Tenerife and between 15 and 20 in Madrid “who receive the data just like us through the same servers, for so it doesn’t matter ”. “The field part is easier if you are in the environment where you are going to develop it, of course, but for data analysis it does not matter where you are,” he adds. Everything is kept in a very delicate balance that they strive to sustain while the volcanic crisis is still alive.

Eugenio Fraile, in the center, aboard the 'Ramón Margalef' while the lava overflowed into the sea.
Eugenio Fraile, in the center, aboard the ‘Ramón Margalef’ while the lava overflowed into the sea.arturo Rodríguez

It has not only been learned to put aside the egos – political and scientific – when people’s lives are at stake. Practical and technical issues were also learned, such as the need to have a scientific vessel available in an eruption that occurs in the middle of the ocean. In the underwater volcano of El Hierro – called Tagoro – it was especially bloody because this lack made it impossible to know what was happening under the water. When he arrived Ramón Margalef, practically recently launched, began “a line of research that did not exist for us 10 years ago, marine volcanology,” says Eugenio Fraile, scientist at the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO). “Now we are an international benchmark and we are very proud,” he adds.

Fraile was in that improvised campaign on the Tagoro in 2011, which later became a long-term project that still continues (Vulcana), and has also been in the Margalef monitoring the eruption of La Palma. On this occasion, the ship arrived on time, before the lava reached the sea, among other things because now the IEO is already part of the Pevolca. “It was seen that our work is also key to better managing the crisis and minimizing damage. We have learned a lot in these years, because this has happened, happens and will happen again ”, summarizes Fraile.

Lessons and improvements

Blanco recognizes other learnings, such as improving staff preparation. “Although we already knew it, in El Hierro we understood that the station networks have to be very dense to be able to detect the earliest signals; there is nothing like corroborating it with reality, the need for adequate insult coverage ”. On La Palma, thanks to this, there was already a deployment of instrumentation that “practically did not have to be increased”, he points out: “Very few stations have been added, already more focused on the area of ​​the eruption”. Logically, new features such as the Copernicus program satellites and drones have been used, “tools that were not available before and that make it much easier to be able to continuously interpret information about the eruption and the progress of the flows,” says Blanco.

For the president of El Hierro, there are no doubts: what he suffered a decade ago has avoided chaos in the current scenario. “Certainly, the lesson of El Hierro was learned and at least what should not be done because it was done wrong was learned. In scientific coordination as well. The lessons learned from El Hierro have prevented more problems in the La Palma volcano ”, he applauds.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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