Last Friday, Fitzwilliam Geography student, Rosie Rice, was preparing to return to the UK after a month researching age-old eruptions in Tenerife. Instead, she ended up on the neighbouring island of La Palma, watching a volcano erupt in real time.
In August, Rosie was working as a GeoIntern at the Teide National Park in Tenerife to research an eruption dating from 1705 – but towards the end of the month life in Tenerife took a dramatic turn. As the volcano on La Palma erupted, history swiftly moved into a live emergency and, like any geographer, Rosie longed to study the volcano in real-time.
“I was still only three quarters of the way through my summer training programme, so I couldn’t exactly jump straight on a plane to head over there. Studying in the field in Tenerife was enjoyable, but seeing the plume from Cumbre Vieja on the neighbouring island was just so tantalising. I had to make it across to La Palma, whatever happened. I decided to change my flights back to the UK for a later date despite not knowing what the plan was. Everything could change at the drop of a hat and I would have had to adapt to it. I was surprised to see how fast it had entered this phase after only a week of earthquakes."
Going close to the eruption
Rosie's plans changed very quickly. Rather than returning home, she was packing to take a ferry to La Palma.
“What on earth do you pack to take to a live eruption? There was a tense atmosphere on the ferry. The eruption was six days old and showed no signs of letting up. You feel the anticipation of the people on board not knowing what to expect when they stepped off the boat. We were all tangled up in the same anxious atmosphere.”
But on arrival, daily life continued on La Palma, despite a heavy presence of emergency services and media personnel – and a thin layer of ash thrown up by the erupting Cumbre Vieja. “As we speak, I can hear the constant roar of the volcano churning out lava and a thin layer of ash is beginning to fall. My perception of volcanic hazards and relationship to the Earth as a geographer is forever changed after everything I have witnessed."
The explosions of lava in the Cumbre Vieja mountain range have destroyed banana plantations and led to the evacuation of thousands of homes, and could continue until December.
"The sound was something I wasn’t prepared for, it’s like the most intense thunderstorm that doesn’t let up," she said. "As a volcanology enthusiast, seeing it was obviously incredible, it’s such a spectacle. But it’s also incredibly humbling to watch the inside of the Earth get churned out right in front of you. We all stood in silence mesmerised by it, awestruck by an Act of God.
“It is humbling to be here as an observer, witnessing people who have lost everything. It puts things into perspective when locals come up asking to borrow your binoculars to see if their house has been destroyed by the lava flow. They’re not remote figures in an academic essay. The most recent eruption until now, back in 1971, was far smaller and caused less damage."
Rosie was in the preliminary research stage of an undergraduate dissertation on an historical eruption in North Korea. She has now changed her title to studying the changing risk perception of the people of La Palma, based on interviews she is conducting with local people.
We will be featuring a longer piece from Rosie - when she's back in Cambridge - in this term's issue of Optima, but you can hear more from Rosie in this BBC report, and by following her on Twitter @rosie_rice_