The patriarch of volcanologists is reunited with his leviathan

“Over there he snorts!” Exclaims the octogenarian volcanologist Juan Carlos Carracedo placeholder image when contemplating on the horizon the ash column of the new volcano of La Palma. It is the same battle cry that the legendary Captain Ahab uttered when he spotted the Moby Dick jet, in his obsessive pursuit of the oceans. Carracedo’s leviathan is Cumbre Vieja, a monumental mountain range full of doors to hell that have been opening one after another in the last millennia. Just as Moby Dick ripped off the whaling captain’s leg, Cumbre Vieja nearly killed the volcanologist. “50 years ago we were about to die here,” recalls the researcher, standing on what could have been his lava tomb.

Carracedo first arrived at Cumbre Vieja half a century ago, at the end of October 1971. An American spy station, located on the Canary Island to keep an eye on Soviet submarines, had detected tremors that heralded an imminent volcanic eruption. On October 26, in effect, a new volcano arose amidst thunderous explosions: Teneguía. A documentary of the Francoist NO-DO He accompanied a young and tall Juan Carlos Carracedo collecting lava in his shirt sleeves and surrounded by toxic clouds without a gas mask. “It was a third world Spain,” says the researcher. The images show volcanologists on the run, under a shower of lava fragments. “At that time I could still run,” he jokes.

The volcanologist Juan Carlos Carracedo poses in the same place, in the eruption of the Teneguía volcano, in 1971 and half a century later.Saúl Ruiz / Personal Collection

The scientist remembers with laughter an anecdote in the middle of the eruption of the Teneguía. The journalists of the Francoist news program approached the volcanologists with the microphone. “I, who was an avid young man for seeming to know a lot, released a roll about basalites, pyroclasts, etc.”, relates the researcher. The reporters, overwhelmed by the gibberish, then questioned the village priest, who was standing next to him. “The priest said that God was in heaven watching so that nothing happened to them,” recalls Carracedo. Finally, the informants gave the floor to the farmer who had seen the first jet of lava erupt. After a thoughtful time, the citizen proclaimed: “It seems to me that these volcanologists know as much about what happens down there as the priest knows what happens up there.”

Carracedo knows more now than half a century ago about what’s going on down there. The scientist, a Riojan who has just turned 80, is one of the greatest experts in this magma labyrinth. He directed the Volcanological Station of the Canary Islands between 1987 and 2011 and continues to research at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. When he presented one of his books on the geology of the islands in 2013, predicted that the next eruption would occur at Cumbre Vieja. “I am not a shaman, I just made a statistical forecast,” he says.

The ridge has 140,000 years of continuous volcanic eruptions

Juan Carlos Carracedo, volcanologist

The veteran volcanologist has returned with EL PAÍS to the place where he was about to die half a century ago. Walk on what were then the lava rivers of the Teneguía. “If we had been here 50 years ago, we would have been quickly killed by one of the falling incandescent bombs,” he warns. There was, in addition, an invisible assassin. Carbon dioxide, emitted in spades by the volcano, accumulated in some areas, displacing oxygen. “We were about to die of suffocation, as unfortunately happened to a photographer and a fisherman in this same area of ​​the island,” laments the scientist. The deceased in the Teneguía were Heriberto Felipe Hernández, 43, and Juan Acosta, 37. The god mentioned by the priest was not there to protect them.

Half a century later, Carracedo continues to investigate the gates of hell on the island of La Palma. “Cumbre Vieja could be my Moby Dick, but not exactly like Captain Ahab, who had a duel to the death with the animal,” argues the scientist. “For me, Cumbre Vieja is a positive aspect in my career, in my life, and I think it is positive in synthesis for the entire archipelago, although now it is causing real human tragedies,” he says. The duel against Cumbre Vieja is lost beforehand. “The ridge has 140,000 years of continuous volcanic eruptions,” he explains.

Carracedo defends the volcanoes with enthusiasm, despite having been on the verge of perishing in one of them. “We owe a lot of things to volcanoes. We owe them the earth’s atmosphere. We owe them our lives. The origin of life would have been impossible without volcanoes ”, emphasizes the researcher. About 2.5 billion years ago, rashes and oxygen-producing bacteria they turned a hostile planet into what became the home of humanity. Carracedo emphasizes that the Canaries themselves would not exist without volcanoes. The scientist is one of the fathers of the theory that a kind of magma piping bag – emerging from a “hot spot” in the earth’s mantle more than 2,000 kilometers deep – has been forming the islands from east to west, beginning by Lanzarote 20 million years ago and ending with El Hierro and La Palma, where volcanic activity is now concentrated.

The origin of life would have been impossible without volcanoes

Juan Carlos Carracedo, volcanologist

Carracedo recognizes the “fascination” produced by the eruptions, although he assures that volcanologists observe them “as a doctor looks at appendicitis.” In this half century, the expert has explored a score of active volcanoes, such as the Hawaiian Kilauea and the Icelandic Eyjafjallajökull. In 1985, he participated in the surveillance mission after the horrific eruption of Nevado del Ruiz, which buried the Colombian population of Armero, leaving more than 22,000 dead, including the girl Omayra Sánchez, a symbol of the tragedy. “The only thing that remained of the town was the bank safe,” recalls the scientist.

The researcher warns that volcanoes made human life possible, but they can also cause a great extinction. “There are supervolcanoes, like those of Yellowstone, in the US, and the Flegrean Fields, in Italy, that could cause a global catastrophe, with famines and the destruction of farmland. They would produce that climate change that we all fear, but in reverse: it would be a winter that would last for many years ”, he warns. Some experts have launched the controversial theory that an eruption in the Flegrean Fields, near Naples, helped the Neanderthals go extinct some 40,000 years ago.

Carracedo recalls the leading role, and often unknown, that volcanoes have played in human history. “The Icelandic volcano Laki, in 1783, emitted such a quantity of ash that it produced a winter that lasted several years and caused a famine that is believed to be the trigger for the French Revolution, ”says the volcanologist.

The researcher walks slowly along the quiet road to the south of La Palma, a reconstructed road over the Teneguía eruption. Here the past is intuited, but also the future. So it will be in a few years what today are the lava rivers of the new volcano of the island. The volcanologist enters a greenhouse with banana trees covered by volcanic ash from the current eruption. “Oddly enough, here we are directly on a 1971 wash, what happens is that they have brought land from other parts of the island, they have created an artificial soil and now we have a banana plantation, which is a tropical fruit that almost constitutes 50% of the island’s gross domestic product ”, he explains. “The canaries have been able to take advantage of the volcanic activity of the islands.”

The octogenarian scientist shows a photograph of himself in exactly the same place, in 1971. “I was then a young boy, 30 years old, full of illusions and with very little knowledge, which I have been acquiring throughout this half century . I am very satisfied to have started with the Teneguía eruption and now end with an eruption in 2021 ″, he says. “I hope I still have more time to enjoy the volcanoes,” he says looking at his leviathan. “I have 50 years to spare,” he adds, smiling.

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