11 August 2004
By Gwynne Dyer
The western flank of Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma
in the Canaries is going to slide into the Atlantic one of these days: a
diagonal fracture has already separated it from the main body of the
volcano, and only friction still keeps it attached. "When it goes, it will
likely collapse in about 90 seconds," said Professor Bill McGuire, director
of the Benfield Grieg Hazard Research Centre at University College London.
And when it goes, probably during an eruption, the splash will create a
mega-tsunami that races across the Atlantic and drowns the facing
Fortunately the nearest coast to the Canary Islands, where the
waves will be around 300 feet (100 metres) high when they hit, is lightly
populated Western Sahara. Few people living in the coastal plains of
Morocco, south-western Spain and Portugal will survive either, but the
waves will drop in height as they travel. The coasts of southern Ireland
and south-western England will also take a beating, but by then the wave
height will be down to about 30 feet (10 metres).
The real carnage will be on the western side of the Atlantic, from
Newfoundland all the way down the east coast of Canada and the United
States to Cuba, Hispaniola, the Lesser Antilles and north-eastern Brazil.
With a clear run across the Atlantic, the wall of water will still be
between 60 and 150 feet (20 and 50 metres) high when it hits the eastern
seaboard of North America, and it will keep coming for ten to fifteen
Worst hit will be harbours and estuaries that funnel the waves
inland: goodbye Halifax, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and
Washington, DC. Miami and Havana go under almost entirely, as do low-lying
islands like the Bahamas and Barbados. Likely death toll, if there is no
mass evacuation beforehand? A hundred million people, give or take fifty
The last time the volcano erupted, in 1949, its whole western side
slid 13 feet (4 metres) down towards the sea, and even now it is still
slipping very slowly downwards. Given the scale of the catastrophe if the
next eruption sends this mountain crashing into the water, Dr. McGuire is
angry that there is so little monitoring equipment on La Palma to give
advance warning: "The US government must be aware of the La Palma threat.
They should certainly be worried, and so should the island states in the
Caribbean that will really bear the brunt of a collapse."
"They're not taking it seriously," McGuire concluded. "Governments
change every four or five years and generally they're not interested in
these things." It was a classic scene, revisited in every natural disaster
movie: crusading scientist calls feckless governments to account, squalid
politicos ignore the call. The science journalists couldn't wait to get
their pieces into print.
But hold on a minute. Haven't we heard about this threat before?
What's new this time? Nothing, except that there hasn't been a stampede to
cover La Palma with seismometers. Now, why do you think that is?
Suppose that the governments whose coastlines are at risk, from
Morocco to the US, did get a warning that Cumbre Vieja was waking up again.
What would they do with the warning? Evacuate one or two hundred million
people from the low-lying lands indefinitely?
They don't know if there is really going to be an eruption
(seismology is not that precise), or how big it will be, or whether this
will be the one that finally shakes the side of the mountain loose. It
could happen in the next eruption, but it might not happen for a thousand
No national leader wants to evacuate the entire coast for an
indefinite period of time, causing an economic and refugee crisis on the
scale of a world war, for what might be a false alarm. But nobody wants to
ignore a warning, and perhaps be responsible for tens of millions of
deaths. From a political standpoint, it's better not to have the warning
Natural disasters that can affect the whole planet are known to
scientists as "global geophysical events" -- gee-gees, for short -- and
they come in two kinds: ones you might be able to do something useful
about, and ones you can't. When governments are faced with the first kind,
they can respond quite sensibly.
Since we first realised two decades ago that asteroids and comets
smashing into the earth have caused a number of mass extinctions, a US
government project has identified and started to track 3,000 "near-earth
objects" whose orbits make them potentially dangerous. In another
generation, we may even be able to divert ones that are on a collision
course -- and if there's one gee-gee that you would want to prevent above
all others, that's the one. But there's no similar remedy on the horizon
for volcanos or earthquakes, or the tsunamis they might cause. On this
one, we just have to keep our fingers crossed.