He never imagined having to appear on television almost daily or that his career as
PhysicalIt will take him to put on his boots and walk around the countryside.
The La Palma volcano has been the greatest professional challenge for geophysicist María José Blanco, director of the delegation of the National Geographic Institute (IGN) in the Canary Islands.
- On September 11 the seismic swarm began in La Palma and eight days later the eruption began. Could anyone imagine that everything was so fast?
- No. In fact, the only precedent we had was the submarine eruption of the Tagoro volcano, in El Hierro. And since the anomalous seismic activity began until the eruption began, several months passed; it started in July and the eruption was in October. This was the only reference we had and that is why we thought the process would take longer.
- How did you experience the first moments of the eruption?
- Very nervous. When the eruption began and we saw the position of the eruptive center, we understood the effects it could have on the population and the responsibility assumed by advising on emergency management in an urban eruption.
- What was the moment of greatest tension?
- I believe that the moment of greatest tension at the scientific committee level was one day, September 24, when it was thought that a sector of the volcanic cone could collapse. Something that, finally, did not occur. That collapse was going to affect the area that was finally affected by the lava flows. But a collapse is very dangerous and, therefore, it greatly complicated the management of the emergency. That forced us to talk about this collapse in terms of probability in the scientific committee.
- Was it difficult to set up the surveillance post in Tajuya so quickly? Did they already have it installed before the start of the eruption?
- No. What we had were the operational instrumental networks on La Palma, but we needed an operational center on the island where the eruption is taking place. Before the eruption began, we were thinking of mounting it at the Caños de Fuego Interpretation Center, but when we saw where the eruptive center was, we thought that the best place was Tajuya. It was difficult to mount it. You do not have an infrastructure to support the entire operation; communications, computers... It's not easy. We had previous experience with the Tagoro and this enabled us to streamline this operating center as much as possible.
- How many IGN personnel participated in the volcanic surveillance during the eruption?
- A total of 50 people from the IGN were involved. They worked in shifts. Not only did personnel from the IGN volcanology area participate in the operation deployed to La Palma, we also received reinforcements from people involved in the National Seismic Network or the Geodesy Observatory to support the volcanological units.
Blanco in the operational center of the IGN in La Palma, installed in the parish center of Tajuya. /
- Has the IGN changed anything after the eruption? Was there a before and after the volcano?
- Of course, I think that volcanology is gaining weight within the IGN and helped by the great public visibility it had during the eruption and which had not been achieved until then.
- The submarine eruption of Tagoro, in El Hierro, was almost a test of what would happen in La Palma. What has improved in the scientific part of emergency management?
- After the Tagoro, the General Directorate of Emergencies of the Government of the Canary Islands made modifications to the Pevolca -Special Plan for Civil Protection and Emergency Attention due to volcanic risk in the Autonomous Community of the Canary Islands- to remedy the dysfunctions that were observed in El Iron. This resulted in better management of the participation of the scientific committee in Pevolca. We had a previous shoot. That allowed us to make more useful reports to advise on civil protection work; not so much in terms of scientific discussions, but to facilitate the best possible management of the emergency. In the Tagoro we understood the need to create prior operating networks of an insular nature. For this reason, in La Palma there was almost no need to reinforce the instruments for the detection of volcanic anomalies and it required less effort to have these operational networks.
- And what should be improved?
- The IGN always has to add new techniques, both at an instrumental level and at a data analysis level. It is a continuous task that requires effort, not only during an eruption, but in the period between eruptions. Observing anomalous behavior in volcanic edifices requires continued effort. In these ten years that have passed between the eruption of El Hierro and La Palma, the appearance of drones and their widespread use has been fundamental. Staying up-to-date is essential.
- With El Tagoro the scientific community went to the brawl. Have rough edges been smoothed out? Is there much to iron out to improve collaboration?
- In the case of the Tagoro, for the scientific community as well as the managers, it was the first time we launched an operation in a real emergency situation. The eruption, being underwater, did not give so much news to the media and that meant that the problems that could exist in the scientific field, which are always possible, were taken out of context and magnified. Science advances thanks to discrepancy and collaboration. In the case of La Palma, the group was already consolidated. There were people who were no longer part of the scientific committee in the years since El Tagoro and there were new additions. We all rowed in the same direction. There was unanimity regarding the collaboration to give the best of science for emergency management.
- An eruption in Spain has never been monitored so much. Is the IGN carrying out investigations? When will the scientific results of this close monitoring be seen?
- These days, presentations are being made at congresses of the first studies carried out on the eruption. The data obtained require an analysis that will not be immediate. These data, in combination with other techniques, will allow us to improve our knowledge of the processes of monogenetic eruptions in the Canary Islands. Part of the IGN data is available. As a public institution, they are accessible on our website and, in terms of processing, we are still purging the data.
- Studying an eruption at the foot of a volcano is the professional culmination of any volcanologist. It was exciting? Did you have mixed feelings seeing the destruction and enjoying yourself from a professional point of view?
- The truth is that, during the eruption, the damage caused by the volcano was so heavy that we were totally focused on contributing as much as possible to facilitating the management of the emergency. There was no time to enjoy the images of a natural phenomenon of undeniable beauty. In addition, contact with the population was continuous. There was no room for any kind of joy. We had a feeling of regret, although the eruption was the litmus test of everything that had been done at IGN since 2004, when we assumed responsibility for volcanic surveillance and the dangers associated with volcanism. It was time to see if all this preparation of so many years was heading in the right direction.
- The Spanish volcanological center is being developed and will be installed in the Canary Islands. Do you think such an institution is necessary? Do you already know what role IGN will have in this center?
- The truth is that I have no information from the volcano center. Its creation is a political decision. We will continue working as we have been doing up to now. It will be other instances that will have to tell us if we integrate into it, how and in what way. On a technical level we have nothing to say.
- Scientists are combining their scientific work with outreach. Is this a new task? Is it necessary to deal with hoaxes?
- Disclosure is increasingly necessary at a time when social networks and the media drain so much information from society. Now it is essential to obtain funding that research projects contemplate that the results be disclosed to society and, when there is a phenomenon such as the eruption, with such great social significance that it interests both the affected population and the outside population , a great effort must be made in dissemination.
- Training in volcanology does not exist in Spain. Do you think that this eruption will contribute to arouse interest in this scientific branch?
- There is no university degree as such, but there are different degrees that have direct application in volcanological knowledge. It would be nice to have a master's degree in volcanology in Spain. It has been raised on previous occasions and it would be interesting to improve training in this field.
«It hurts me that it is said that the gas problem is not true»
During the eruption of the La Palma volcano, the information about the process was so fluid and abundant that there was hardly any room for hoaxes. But now, the desperate situation of the coastal populations of
Puerto Naos and La Bombillastill evicted due to the presence of volcanic gases in harmful and even lethal concentrations, has fueled misinformation and in certain media and networks it is said that the problem is not true, explains the director of the National Geographic Institute in the Canary Islands, María José Blanco .
“It hurts me because of the importance that this information has on the affected population. You have to be aware and very careful when talking about a phenomenon like this that affects the way of life of a society », she regrets.
According to the
carbon dioxide concentration (CO2) in both neighbourhoods, Blanco points out that the measurement stations show a sustained trend and that «it is not possible to know how long the degassing process will last. Right now, the concentration of CO2 at a height of 45 centimeters above the ground is so high that it is
incompatible with life in many areas» and the oxygen level, especially in La Bombilla, is very low.
“Now the return of the population is not possible.
The risk is not theoretical, it is a real risk.», says geophysics.