‘When lava moves very slowly, it sounds like broken glass.’

La Palma photographer Arturo Rodríguez tells National Geographic about a month accompanying scientists on the slopes of the erupting Cumbre Vieja volcano.

Scientists conduct research on the erupting Cumbre Vieja volcano.

Photograph by Arturo Rodríguez, National Geographic
photographs by Arturo Rodríguez
Published 19 Nov 2021, 19:59 GMT

The career of Spanish photographer Arturo Rodríguez speaks for itself about the ability of a snapshot to lift the thin veil that makes our silence deafening when it comes to certain realities. Born in La Palma in 1977 and the winner of the World Press Photo in 2007 for his work on African immigration in Europe, Rodríguez has travelled the world covering scenarios often marginalized in mainstream media. These range from the Kosovo War to the drama of the refugee camps of the Saharawi people, those of Macedonia and Palestine, major natural disasters or the cholera epidemic in Haiti. Working for Reuters, The Associated Press and EFE, his work has been published in media such as The New York Times, Washington Post, El País and Der Spiegel, among others.

In 2021, he received a grant from the National Geographic Society to develop a photographic project on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in his homeland, the Canary Island of La Palma. Then, the island hit the headlines at the end of September due to the eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano.

Rodríguez is covering the volcano's eruption from the front line, accompanying scientists to the so-called exclusion zone. Using an undependable wi-fi repeater on the neighbouring island of Tenerife, before returning to the foot of the volcano, he tells us about his experience of a month of following one of the greatest forces of nature minute-by-minute: the energy of the interior of the Earth forcing its way to the surface. 

How did you experience the moment when the eruption began? 

I was not yet in La Palma. I had been in Tenerife since the first seismic movements began, in order to photograph the scientists at work. It had been clear to me for many years that, as a Canary-born photographer, I would one day be photographing a volcano erupting in the Canary Islands. For work reasons, I ended up arriving three hours after the eruption with an incredulous expression on my face, as half an hour before the volcano erupted, the President of the Council of La Palma had announced that the state of alert was at amber and that no eruption was imminent. He finished the press conference and thirty minutes later the volcano burst open. Obviously, he was not to blame. But there were scientific groups, like the Geological Mining Institute of Spain, that had warned that in 24 hours, at most, it was going to erupt. I had my [plane] ticket for 8:00 p.m. that night and I saw the start of the eruption live on TV.

Lava spews from the Cumbre Vieja volcano while police officers look on.

Lava erupts from the Cumbre Vieja volcano while La Palma police officers look on.

Photograph by Arturo Rodríguez

As a palmero [citizen from La Palma] and photographer, how have you lived the weeks following the eruption documenting something so impressive on a natural level, but so devastating on a human level?

Working in a natural disaster is always terrible because you see a lot of suffering. If it's happening in your home, it's even worse. The scars it leaves are much deeper. But I also have to say that no natural disaster that I have lived through has caused me to reflect this way: This is the way my islands were made. And how the world was made, actually. The night I was on the Oceanografic ship, when I went to bed at night there were some small stones of lava falling into the sea, and to wake up the next day and see a platform on which two soccer fields could fit had been formed in just eight or nine hours is impressive.

You have that twofold vision of knowing that for some people it is being very hard to cope due to the misfortune of the eruption taking place in a populated area, but on the other hand, aesthetically and scientifically, it is a real wonder. It is amazing to see and hear it. The first time I visited the area, there was a valley and now, one month later, there is a mountain 300 meters high.

Throughout this month you have accompanied the scientists working in the field. What has that experience been like?

I have been with the Spanish Institute of Oceanography, the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain and the National Geological Institute, seeing how they work and listening to all the information they give me. I have to say that some things have been really scary, but in general I have learned a lot. These are people we, the population and especially the politicians, should pay more attention to.

Especially with COVID-19, we have witnessed the importance of investing in science, in research. Probably, if we invested more in the National Scientific Research Council in general, which includes institutes that applied science for the safety of the population, many things could be avoided in the future. A volcano is never going to be avoided, but we would probably have much more information.

Accompanying the scientists I haven't really had any real tough times. I have seen how houses have collapsed, and I am very sorry for the people, but the reality is that we have to be thankful that no one has been killed. Yes, it is true that a lot of property has been destroyed and it can mean an important economic loss for the island’s banana sector, but there has also been a very important luck factor for nobody to be killed, because although they were prepared, they were caught a little bit off-guard at the last moment.

How have you experienced the daily work of these researchers?

I have been told that the Cumbre Vieja volcano is probably the most monitored volcano in history, due to a series of circumstances: it is almost next to an urban nucleus, it is in Europe, etc. There are universities and all kinds of scientific entities working on it, and more than 300 drones asking for permission every day to fly with thermal cameras, with all kinds of devices to measure gases, temperature and so on.

One of the things that has surprised me the most is the close collaboration that exists in Spain between the Army and scientific institutions. The UME, the Military Emergency Unit, with whom we have been working, has an agreement with the CSIC (National Research Council) so they can work hand in hand. They have equipment for working in these situations, such as suits with thermal shields that withstand incredibly high temperatures, which have allowed them to go there to take samples of boiling lava for the CSIC scientists.

“Working in a natural disaster is always terrible because you see a lot of suffering. If it's happening in your home, it's even worse.”

Winner of the World Press Photo in 2007, Spanish photographer Arturo Rodríguez has covered the eruption ...

Winner of the World Press Photo in 2007, Spanish photographer Arturo Rodríguez has covered the eruption of Cumbre Vieja in his native La Palma on the front line.

Photograph by Arturo Rodríguez

I was surprised and thought it was a fantastic idea, because scientists sometimes haven’t [made] the preparations necessary for getting into a situation like this. The feeling I have is that volcanology is something very recent about which almost nothing is known, because it is not only a question of lack of financial investment, but also the eruptive processes on the planet are scarce and very different, and so, we are just learning as we go along.

The last few weeks I have been working mainly with the IGME (Spanish Geological and Mining Institute). They work shifts, obviously, but it is true that they work very long hours, they practically do not sleep, they get up in the morning and go to each of the points where the lava is advancing to check if it has advanced, if it has cooled, if it has heated up, if it is emitting more gases, etc. There is a huge number of people watching this event 24 hours a day. The IGME is not going to sleep, and the Guardia Civil and National Police are there continuously doing everything they can.

What difficulties have you encountered in covering it?

The press is working very hard, but with more difficulties than in a normal situation, precisely because of those high up in the chain of command who have decided that it is not appropriate for us to be working all over the place, although I do not really understand the reason. I have been quite lucky because National Geographic is scientific reporting and not press – but it is true that colleagues tell me frequently that they are not allowed access to almost anywhere.

The press is covering the volcanic eruption from the outer perimeter of the exclusion zone. These decisions have been taken for reasons of safety and privacy, but I, as a native Palmero, interpret that all these kinds of opaque measures may, in the long run, even harm the arrival of resources and donations for the Palmeros, precisely because they are not seeing what is happening.

For scientists, the eruption is an opportunity to demystify a long-studied – but long quiet - volcano. Here, they use temperature measuring equipment to study the lava rapidly solidifying on the flanks of the volcano.

Photograph by Arturo Rodríguez

We are a small community where nothing ever happens, and we are not used to dealing with this kind of media pressure. The almost total restriction of information in the exclusion zone of the volcano undoubtedly harms the coverage of the event. I do not agree with this but I have not been prevented from working at any time because we are considered scientific disseminators.

How does it feel to be a few meters away from an erupting volcano?

Many people tell me that the sound of the videos is very shocking. The truth is that, after witnessing a typhoon in Southeast Asia, the sound of the volcano does not seem to me more than the purring of a cat, but it is true that it can be perceived as very powerful.

I have been surprised by the fact that the lava does not heat up like fire. I have been three meters away from a river of boiling lava, or 150 meters from the crater, and I did not feel the heat. However, if there is a little gust of wind at your side, you suddenly get scorched. It is as if the lava does not radiate heat evenly.

La Palma volcano eruption as experienced by a National Geographic photographer
La Palma photographer Arturo Rodríguez tells National Geographic about his experience after a month accompanying scientists a few meters from the eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano.

Also, touching the cold lava, when it has become a crust. You can touch it with your hand and it's a little warm and suddenly there's a crack in the middle where it's red hot and you can't even get close to it because it's radiating 1,000ºC. But if you touch ten centimeters away you don't get burned. I was very impacted by how stone forms this crust, acting as a thermal shield.

Regarding the sound, I [noticed] the sound of the lava when it moves very slowly. It sounds like broken glass. One of the IGME geologists defined it perfectly: "it is as if you were breaking very thin champagne glasses, as if you were putting them in a bag and crushing them". That is the sound that the lava makes as it moves forward. That's how you notice that it is moving, because you see it as still, but you hear crystals breaking.

This article originally appeared on National Geographic Espana.


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