Since the Cumbre Vieja volcano began erupting on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands on September 19, the lava flows have destroyed more than 2,500 buildings, forced around 7,500 people to evacuate, and introduced a number of deadly hazards to the area.
The lava is showing no sign of stopping or slowing down, so one local politician has a brilliant idea: What if we just bombed the shit out of it The president of the La Gomera Municipal Council, Casimiro Curbelo, floated the idea last week.
“Isn’t there a plane that flies and can drop… today the technology is very reliable… and boom! And send the lava in a different direction?” he said in an interview with Radio Faycán, a radio station in the Canary Islands. “Maybe it’s madness, but I get the impression from a technological point of view that it should be attempted.”
As crazy as Curbelo’s idea sounds, he’s actually not the first one to come up with it — and it’s even been tried before. Lava flows are tricky to stop: Shannon Nawotniak, a professor of geology at Idaho State University, said in a BBC interview humans have had a “spectacularly poor success rate” at stopping lava. Lava often flows through what are known as lava tubes, where molten lava is surrounded by a hard, protective, cooled crust. Accordingly, the idea of forcibly breaking them up with explosives is not, per se, a bad one; it would break through that hard outer crust and expose the lava flow to the air, cooling it down and possibly diverting the flow to a new route.
It’s even been attempted before. In 1935, the U.S. Army dropped a cluster of bombs onto the active Humu‘ula lava flow on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano, which erupted for over a month between 1935 and 1936. The bombings were an attempt to stop the lava flow from reaching the city of Hilo. The aerial bombing campaign didn’t work, though the lava flow eventually stopped naturally and spared Hilo. But the idea wasn’t conscripted to history. In the early 1990s, engineers created trench using more than 7,000 kilograms of explosives to protect a small Italian town from a Mount Etna eruption.
Desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures, and things have gotten pretty gnarly on La Palma recently. Some of the Cumbre Vieja’s lava flows are now more than 40 metres tall. Earthquakes of up to magnitude 4.9 shook La Palma and its neighbouring islands up to 96 kilometres away last week. Experts say there could be earthquakes of up to magnitude 6 on the Richter scale, which could unleash a new wave of damage even outside the areas impacted by the lava flows. (Volcanoes often produce related earthquake activity.)
Dramatic lightning tied to the volcano has also lit up the sky. Scientists from the Canary Islands Volcanology Institute have said that lightning sightings in the ash column have become more common in recent days. “During an explosive volcanic eruption, ash, rock, lava, and sometimes water collide, creating electrical charge in the eruption plume, and if the charge build up is high enough, lightning occurs,” Chris Vagasky, a meteorologist at the private weather firm Vaisala (which extensively maps lightning), wrote in a 2020 blog post for the company.
Predicting when the volcano is going to stop erupting is a tricky business. The Canary Islands “are closely connected to thermal anomalies that go all the way to the core of the earth,” a Cornell University geochemist Esteban Gazel who has been taking samples from the volcano told the AP. “It’s like a patient. You can monitor how it evolves, but saying exactly when it will die is extremely difficult. It’s a process that is connected to so many other dimensions of the inside of the planet.”