By Wacho Tapia, Director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative.
Midday on September 4, thanks to social networks, I learned that La Cumbre volcano on Fernandina Island was erupting. The initial images captured and shared by naturalist guides who were near the island showed pyroclastic flows — currents of hot gas and ash — on the south side of the volcano. This continued into the night of September 5.
Due to contradictory reports, the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) invited me to participate as a member of a small technical team of three people in an overflight on September 7, to evaluate the eruptive process.
We took off from Baltra airport at 10:30 AM in the GNPD’s small seaplane. After 25 minutes of flying, crossing Isabela Island at the Perry Isthmus, we could see Fernandina. The skies were clear, and in contrast to what we’d seen in past eruptions over the last 20 years, we could see no flowing lava, not even a column of volcanic smoke. This caught our attention. Taking advantage of the good conditions, we continued to where we saw burning vegetation. We found several small fires, two of them with very high flames due to the dense vegetation present, including Scalesia microcephala trees. These fires will all go out once all the vegetation has burned, as the patches of vegetation are surrounded by solid lava flows.
It is likely that a few land iguanas and perhaps some birds, especially finches, were incinerated. However, in pristine places like Fernandina, we cannot call these events impacts on the biodiversity but rather part of the normal ecological processes on a volcanic island still in formation.
The hardest thing was to determine the location of the eruptive vent, as the eruption had ended by the time we arrived and the few clouds combined with an accumulation of smoke produced by the fires hindered our observation. Thanks to the skill of the pilot, we were able to fly at 300 feet above the rim of the crater in the south-southwest part and note that the vent was primarily located where the eruption of 2005 took place. This time, no further evidence of the eruption remained except for the new black and quickly solidified lava flows and, of course, the small fires lower down.
The most impressive thing was the beauty of the caldera and the lagoon in the bottom. No recent volcanic activity or any landslides were seen inside the caldera, which reconfirmed that this fleeting eruption will be restricted to an area not more than the 15 km2, between the area covered by the new lava and the area where the vegetation was burning. The flows did not reach the sea, therefore changes in the ecosystem of the island will be restricted to that limited area.
Thanks to the invitation from the GNPD, I was once again lucky to be one of the few eyewitnesses of nature in action — recalling that the Galapagos Islands are the product of multiple eruptions that occurred in the past and will continue to occur in the future.