Galapagos visitors got an unexpected bonus this week: The La Cumbre Galapagos Volcano, dormant since 2005, erupted spectacularly on Saturday, April 11. La Cumbre is located on Fernandina Island, the westernmost of the major Galapagos Islands as well as one of the most volcanically active. Volcanic activity is nothing new in Galapagos: the Galapagos Islands themselves were all formed by volcanoes over the last five million years or so.
This latest Galapagos eruption is not a major one by Galapagos standards; nevertheless, it makes for thrilling viewing and a one-in-a-million chance for Galapagos visitors and Galapagos guides to witness geologic history being made. Anyone touring Galapagos this week is fortunate indeed!
The Galapagos Islands were formed by what is known to geologists as a “hot spot:” a place in the Earth’s mantle which is extra hot, causing the crust to melt and volcanoes to appear. In Galapagos, the crust is moving from west to east, forming volcanoes as it goes. Older islands, in the eastern part of Galapagos, have passed over the hot spot and are no longer a threat to erupt: Española Island is a good example. Western Islands such as Fernandina are still “sitting in the hot seat” and can erupt any time!
The lava did not bubble over the rim of the crater, but rather punched a hole in the southeast side of the volcano. Geologists estimate the tunnel to be about 200 meters long and ten meters wide. Lava is flowing out of the tube, down the side of the volcano and into the ocean. The great plume of smoke, steam and gas created by the eruption is fortunately currently headed out to sea to the southwest, away from settlements on Isabela Island.
Fernandina has one visitor site: Punta Espinoza, always a favorite among guests. Many ships, including the Nina, visit Punta Espinoza to see flightless cormorants, sea lions and marine iguanas every week. Fortunately, the site has been deemed safe from the eruption and visitors are still allowed. How lucky they are, to be walking on one side of the island, while the other is erupting! The Park Service is closely monitoring the situation and is sending out updates: if safety on Punta Espinoza becomes an issue, visits may be temporarily restricted.
The eruption will no doubt kill many Galapagos plants and animals, and as Fernandina does not have a problem with introduced species, all of the wildlife killed will unfortunately be native or endemic to the Enchanted Islands. Geologists expect the eruption to affect populations of land and marine iguanas as well as sea lions which will see their habitat destroyed. It will affect hardy pioneer species which only recently began to colonize lava flows from previous eruptions.
While this is tragic, it is important to remember that Galapagos is nature’s evolution laboratory. Although the eruption will destroy habitats, it will also create new ones. Plants and animals will return to the affected areas just as they always have. As the new land cools, it will present a new set of challenges for the local wildlife, which will certainly adapt in order to live there, thus continuing the process first identified by naturalist Charles Darwin over a century ago. It is appropriate that a volcano should erupt in 2009, the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. What a fitting birthday present from the Galapagos Islands to the man who made them famous!
Check out the pictures of the Galapagos Volcano.