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'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

Living on a Volcano


Shortly after moving to the Costa Blanca, we discovered that in the nineteenth an earthquake had destroyed a small town close to the urbanisation where we had made our home. Nowadays, we live on a volcanic island in an archipelago where there are still several active volcanoes.

One of the very first pieces of advice that we received when we arrived in the Costa Blanca, and one that we quickly learned to be particularly valuable, was “Never believe what you hear from bar gossip; always find out the facts for yourselves.” Bar chat is easy and, like Chinese Whispers, often varies significantly from the truth, and particularly if it is bad or disturbing news. However, many expats, desperate for information and advice in their own language, often readily fall for misleading information.

The current topic in many of the British bars in the Canary Islands is the issue of seismic shocks currently underway in one of our neighbouring islands, El Hierro. This island paradise is quickly becoming the source of overreaction and potentially dangerous gossip causing concern. So what exactly are the issues?

Over the last few weeks, seismic shocks on El Hierro, which the experts call ‘swarms’ have been mostly of low magnitude since they started in early July, and most of the seismic activity has been limited to about 9 to 16 kilometres below the surface. The question on everyone's mind is, “Is El Hierro heading for an eruption and, if not, what is going on beneath the surface?”

We need to remember that the Canary Islands are volcanic in origin and a wide variety of lava has erupted from Canary Island volcanoes over the years. This is what makes the islands what they are, and without the volcanic eruptions in the past there would be no Canary Islands. Experts tell us that they are similar to the volcanoes found in Hawaii, and that they share many similarities in that they can grow very large and that the style of eruption and lava flow are similar.

Should we be surprised by this seismic activity at El Hierro? The answer seems to be: No. Although the islands’ volcanoes are nowhere near as productive as Hawaii or indeed Iceland, the Canary hotspot is one of the more vigorous on the planet. Does this seismic activity automatically lead to an eruption? Not necessarily, and this activity might not even lead to an eruption. However, now that we have many of these volcanic systems so closely monitored, we notice this subtle activity as it happens, rather than waiting until we can feel the seismic activity on the surface, which usually means that an eruption is highly likely. In other words, there are plenty of warning systems and the monitoring of seismic activity is constantly taking place.

These incidents should remind us that El Hierro is an active volcano and that these signals might be a warning of an eruption sometime in the future. However, it could be many years between a seismic swarm that eventually leads to an eruption of the volcano.

It is always a good idea to be prepared, especially when living on a volcanic island. Over 10,000 people live on El Hierro, and emergency planning will tell residents what to do and where to go if El Hierro does decide to erupt. However, most eruptions produce lava flows and ash that are not likely to be a major threat to the island’s residents unless they are caught unaware, which is highly unlikely. People on Hawaii have been living with a constantly erupting volcano for over 30 years, Mount Etna in Sicily performs a regular firework display, as do the volcanoes in Iceland; so any activity on El Hierro should be impressive to watch, but not a catastrophe for the residents of the island, nor indeed for the rest of the Canary Islands. So back to your gin and tonics and the sun beds; you now have the facts and not just the bar gossip. Cheers!

© Barrie Mahoney

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724

Click here to find out more

"The Stars Smile Down on You”


Those who have easy access to BBC television may have seen the series, ‘The Wonders of the Solar System’, hosted by Professor Brian Cox, which has inspired me to take much more notice of the night sky. After all, the Canary Islands are very well placed for stargazing. During these programmes, I also wished that I had been taught by such a passionate and enthusiastic teacher as Brian Cox during those interminably boring physics lessons when I was a pupil at school. Apart from one memorable experience, my studies were a very boring diet of what seemed like useless information and regurgitated facts that had no relevance to the world that I lived in. Why were we not told more about the wonders of the universe and information that related to our very being? No, the highlight of my career in physics was a pinhole camera that I made after one lesson about light, when I was suddenly and surprisingly inspired. This happened to be the beginning of my interest in photography and so possibly those boring physics lessons were not completely wasted on me after all.

My pinhole camera experiment was a revelation in more ways than one, because in the process of testing the quality of focus, a friend and I decided to photograph the rear of a teacher’s car in the staff car park thinking that we could use the vehicle’s number plate as a test card. It was after we had spotted that the parked car was swaying gently from side to side that we realised that we had discovered a passionate relationship between a member of staff and the pretty French language exchange student in the back of the Morris Minor that we were photographing. Needless to say, for two curious eleven-year-olds, the whole experience was an interesting revelation into the ways of the world and made for an interesting physics lesson after all.

Returning to the television programme and the wonders of the Solar System where our own small planet Earth was both celebrated, as well as placed into the much wider context of the solar system and beyond. From this programme, I began to understand one of the sayings about the Canary Islands, possibly used far too much by travel agencies, as a place where “The stars smile down on you”. Physics now, at last, began to make some sense.

Sky watching is at its best in the Canary Islands where the night skies are mostly crystal clear thanks to the efforts of successive islands’ Governments over the years to reduce light pollution. The location of the Canary Islands also means that we can see all the constellations of the northern hemisphere throughout the year and mostly without the help of a telescope. As our eyes become accustomed to the night sky, we can get a flavour of the vastness of the universe and suddenly thousands of stars seem to appear and form a glittering blanket; if we are really fortunate we can sometimes see shooting stars as well. A high position away from the main centre of population gives the best view or, in my case, a quick stroll to the seashore is usually good enough for a spectacular viewing.

It is wonderful how new information and earlier gained knowledge sometimes just falls into place when inspired or we are somehow reminded at a much later time. For me, stargazing has been a revelation, although I do still wonder how two grown adults managed to do anything of significance in such a small car! Mind you, they may just have been conjugating verbs!

© Barrie Mahoney

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724

Click here to find out more

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