The Tsunami Risk

The Threat

You may remember the fuss in 2001 when two geologists, Steven Ward and Simon Day, announced their theory that the west side of the island of La Palma would collapse one day, creating a mega-tsunami that would cross the entire Atlantic and still be anything up to 25 metres high when it hit New York, and indeed everything from Newfoundland in Canada to Recife in Brazil.

You can see more in this video: La Palma Tsunami

Just about all the geologists on the planet seem to disagree.

Why it isn’t a Threat

Certainly there is a fault line, and some movement has been detected, but the fault appears to be 4 km long, not 25 km. There is no evidence that it’s 2 km deep, so any landslide would be superficial and might not happen all at once. There’s a volcano, but it’s comparatively small. And there’s a lot of water inside the island, but if the volcano erupts and turns it to steam, it has lots and lots of escape routes through the porous lava. Therefore it won’t push the rock into a landslide.
The tsunami that did such awful damage in December 2004 was caused by an earthquake along 1,000 km of sea bed. If a landslide does happen on La Palma, it couldn’t possibly be longer than 25 km, so the tsunami will weaken as it spreads out. You’d hardly get a splash the other side of the Atlantic.

By the way, the research was paid for by an American insurance company. And it wasn’t published in a peer-reviewed journal, which means that other scientists didn’t get chance to give opinions before it was broadcast.

On the other hand, Dutch researchers have found that La Palma isn’t likely to collapse for another 10,000 years. It’s actually quite stable and will need to grow a lot before it collapses. See http://www.physorg.com/news77977989.html.

My opinion? It’s a load of hype.

You can read more at: http://www.lapalma-tsunami.com/tsunami.html. I particularly like the detailed take down here

And here’s a You Tube video I recommend, called “The Baloney Detection Kit”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQbQRYAdGtI

This article has 18 Comments

  1. What you omit is that the BBC, Germans, French and Spaniards have all replicated the possibility of Day’s scenario- potential is there. That may not be ‘formal’ peer review, but its good enough for me to consider the prospect he presents.

    BTW- you didnt say what you do at the observatory? Wash windows? Waitress in the cafeteria?
    Maybe you can find out about the Spanish scientists’ press release concerning the CO2 monitors stolen from Cumbre Vieja area in September? 600 of them missing after being there undisturbed for 15 yrs. Were they abducted by aliens??

  2. The only Spanish research I’m aware of totally rubbished Day’s “research”. Eg, Day has a 25 km long, deep fault, and all the Spanish researchers could find was a 4 km, shallow fault.

    The BBC did not “replicate” Day’s scenario, they swallowed it whole with no attempt at independent research. I’ve trusted the BBC a lot less since then.

    I’m not aware of any German or French research. Do you have any references? I’d be interested to see what they have to say.

    On the other hand, Dutch researchers have found that La Palma isn’t likely to collapse for another 10,000 years. It’s actually quite stable and will need to grow a lot before it collapses. See http://www.physorg.com/news77977989.html.

    I have no idea who stole the CO2 monitors, but the computing equipment must have had a pretty good resale value. Isn’t that why things usually get stolen?

    Since you ask, I was a software engineer for the Royal Greenwich Observatory for 11 years. The hours were too long to fit with my family, so now I’m a tour guide, translator and writer.

    Are you always this defensive when somebody produces data you don’t like?

  3. I have been discussing this topic on many websites, especially now with the eruptions near El Hierro. But I have given up, people seem to want a disaster. Many of them would like to be “the prophet” that predicted it. A lot of US blogs, 2012 apocalypse minded, seem to want to scare off the entire Eastern coast. Several even said they moved form the coast, out of fear.
    Nobody answered me on the investigation of the Dutch university, they rather believe the dramatic BBC video. Now I am the one putting his head in the volcanic sand, and all Canarians are stupid and ignorant. I would say let´s wait which disaster is going to take place, my guess is a human caused, based on facts. Internet has great benefits but is also causing the world losing common sense.
    @Mistraola very childish respond, what are you trying to insinuate?

  4. Any news of how a possible eruption on El Hierro will affect La Palma ? I will be there in 2 weeks and worry about airport shutting etc due to ash clouds

  5. The El Hierro eruption is underwater, so no dust clouds, just a smell of sulphur for a few km around the vent. It’s almost 80 miles from the eruption site to La Palma airport, so I don’t think you’ll have any trouble here. Even if a second eruption stars, that’s likely to be underwater too. Relax!

  6. Hi Sheila!

    Just wanted to add some thoughts. As a tour guide I get extremely tired of the question “is this the island that…”. Thank God this is loosing its novelty value.

    First, I believe that the risk for any future vulcanic eruptions on La Palma is extraordinally small, as we lie on a tectonic plate that is drifting away eastwards from the hot spot that formed the Canaries in first place.

    Second, as far as I know there is virtually no water in the southern section of la Palma, this is why we have the canal that takes down water all the way from Barlovento on the northern coast. So even if there was an eruption there would hardly be a question of the water boiling and expanding to the extent it would crack up the island.

    Third, we´ve had 7 eruptions in the last 500 years, all of them on the southern side, and God knows how many before (no records before the Conquest). So why did nothing happen then?

    Fourth, even if there was an eruption, and even if there was a huge landslide, you simply can´t know if it would be a gradual or a sudden collapse. In fact, somewhere in the Hawaiis (which are considered to be very similar in their geology to the Canaries) this is exactly what is happening – a slope sliding down into the sea at a rate of a couple of millimeters each year, since about forever.

    Fifth, first time this theory was launched no one took any particular interest. But then we had that tragic tsunami in South East Asia, and then it was promtly re-launched, getting, of course, an inmediate and worldwide reaction. To use a great humanitarian tragedy as a basis to launch a personal theory is not serious science, period.

    Simon Day evidently choose the wrong career, he would make a fortune as a Hollywood screenwriter.

    BTW, love your site, should be the official web site of La Palma!

  7. “…Nec defuerunt qui fictis mentionisque terroribus vera pericula augerunt…”
    Pliny the younger writing to his uncle Tacitus, after the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius

    I am a volcanologist and work on the Canary Islands – in particular Tenerife, La Palma and El Hierro.

    Some facts for those who refuse to accept what the original author has written about a potential collapse of the Cumbre Vieja.

    From 24th June to 30th July 1949, an eruption occurred at three sites San Juan, Duraznero and Hoyo Negro all located close to the summit axis of the Cumbre Vieja. During the eruption on 1st and 2nd July, two powerful earthquakes occurred with an intensity NOT magnitude, estimated at VIII on the Mercalli Scale. The calculated hyper centre was to the north of the village of Jedey. Seismic activity had started in 1936 and occurred at various times preceding and during the eruption.

    The eruption was monitored by several geologists and other scientist, amongst them was Juan Bonelli-Rubio who recorded in his field notes that a fissure approx 1.5 km long with a downward throw of between 2 and 4 m and about 1 m wide had opened. Later post eruption mapping showed that the fissure extends to about 2.5 km – about 1 km longer than Bonelli recorded.

    Since then the fissure is in parts slowly filling but otherwise still retains the dimensions recorded in 1949. There is no evidence that the flank is moving even at slow rates – (see Moss et al; 1999 – Ground deformation
    monitoring of a potential landslide at La Palma, Canary Islands.
    The Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research. Vol. 94, pages 251–265). During 2009 to 2011 I was involved in a survey using a Dual Frequency Differential GPS system. We met a person who claimed that the flank had moved 4 m in a week! She took a lot of convincing that the result from her hand held GPS receiver was at fault and if it was correct where was the evidence, why had there been no reports of an earthquake etc. This is typical of many people who come along using a handheld GPS receiver and claim that the flank has moved! Ignorance really is bliss!!!

    Yes La Palma is moving – but then so is El Hierro, Tenerife, La Gomera, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote along with Africa – the BIG land mass to the east of the archipelago. The archipelago is located on the African Tectonic plate and is moving in an approximately westward direction as Africa rotates anti-clockwise – to those who don’t understand the term Africa is slowly rotating towards the sunset, but is also being pushed eastwards by the activities of the Mid Atlantic Ridge which pushes it towards the Sunrise.

    In 1990, Day et al published a paper entitled “Recent structural evolution of the Cumbre Vieja volcano, La Palma, Canary Islands,” in The Journal is the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, Vol. 94 pages 135 to 167. The possibility of flank failure is discussed BUT NO CLAIM of a tsunami, mega or otherwise was made.

    In 2001 Stephen Ward and Simon Day published a paper which has been grabbed by the media and since then it has been misrepresented. The paper was entitled “Cumbre Vieja Volcano; potential collapse and tsunami at La Palma, Canary Islands.” Geophysical Research Letters. 28-17, 3397-3400. In that paper the authors discuss the possibility of what may happen during a future eruption:- “…during a future eruption, Cumbre Vieja Volcano on the Island of La Palma may experience a catastrophic flank collapse…” NOTE they use the word “MAY” and not “Will!” Also “Potential” means precisely that there is a possibility however remote that something might – just might happen. It does not – as the media imply, meant that it will.

    What is certain is that eruptions will occur in the future on the Cumbre Vieja, the question is when – my crystal ball is smashed so sorry I cannot enlighten you. Whether a future eruption MIGHT cause or contribute to the collapse of the western flank of the volcano either in part or en-mass is debated by volcanologists, but if the media along with the multitudes of pseudo-scientists are to be believed the collapse is imminent.

    I discovered one blog where someone living in a country west of the common sense meridian heard on the radio about the eruption off the south coast of El Hierro in 2011 and said “…The Lord directed me to listen carefully as this could be the beginning of the long awaited collapse of the Cumbre Vieja. I trembled in great fear at the news and I could not sleep for many days…” They proved in their own words how ignorant they are.

    El Hierro is about 80 km south of La Palma, rises as a separate edifice from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean – as indeed do all the Canary Islands. Any activity on any of the other islands is almost certainly not going to impact on the others.

    La Palma is not any imminent danger of collapse either in part or whole of the Cumbre Vieja and whether any failure is small or large no-one can predict whether the resultant entry in to the ocean will result in a splash, tsunami or even a mega-tsunami.

    However if someone has a crystal ball that works please let me know and I shall purchase it.

    In case you wonder what the quote says:-

    “There are those people who added to the real perils by inventing fictitious dangers”

    In other words scientists observe objectively whilst journalist hype the risk beyond reality – has anything changed? Have fun, The Geologist.

  8. I don’t understand to much about volcanos but started to enjoy all the theory surrounding this small island. I’m half Portuguese and half Spanish so I’m attached to the severe happenings in Lisbon back in 1755. Despiste that and after reading a lot about El Hierro, I’m among those who sustain the theory that it might not happen anything in particular during a long period of time. Instead I believe that some small islands will born through the lastests events and, if El Hierro decides to wake up in the southern area of he island, it will be a gradual activity. The terrain composition, as said before, is porous which is unlikely to produce high water pressures. Even the land slide, if it happens, doesn’t seem to be so catastrophic. Once again, the underground composition is not made of solid rock so it’s impossible to have huge blocks of rock falling into the sea. This is my opinion, which is not from a expert but, despite the fact that I enjoy BBC (I Iive in London), It’s dificult to “swallow” such documentary produced. So, I will never pay for any kind of insurance regarding Tsunami threats and If I can, in the future, will have a nice house builted in one of this Islands. Congratulations to all of you which can clarify both sides of the question. I promise I will make some effort to get into the Volcanos understanding.

  9. I agree and live in New Jersey if a collapse does happen I think it would be huge.I know this because tsunamis get large at shore.So I disagree with the article above because I studied on the canary islands and I had a dream of the canary island collapse.

  10. Es que solo investigasteis 1 sola vez La Palma se desprende poco a poco y yo soy español estoy informado de las ultimas noticias y si esa investigacion se pone encontra de k La Palma no se va a desprender solo puedo decir que no sabeis a que os enfrentais eso no es un juego puede pasar en pocos años de hecho tengo 1 videos o 2 que lo demuestra que si se desprende si lo que haceis es no alertar a los estadounidense estais poniendo en riesgo muchas vidas inocentes

    link de los videos:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXIinCkjzF0&list=PLx9BHLUtOH28ok7tyYF0yGi8BOA2r_nbJ&index=7
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQ_nT9ofCMY&list=PLx9BHLUtOH28ok7tyYF0yGi8BOA2r_nbJ&index=13

  11. I agree and live in New Jersey if a collapse does happen I think it would be huge.I know this because tsunamis get large at shore.So I disagree with the article above because I studied on the canary islands and I had a dream of the canary island collapse.

    Abba had a dream too!

    Scientists do not work according to their dreams, but base their work upon the observable phenomena, the repeatable experiment.

    No one except those financed by insurance companies are claiming that the flank will not collapse, – whether it will depends upon many more factors than “Disasterman et al” claim.

    I suggest you need to read and study science NOT rely upon your dreams. I once dreamt I walked on the Moon before Apollo XI landed – alas I didn’t, but what I see with my own eyes is what I base my work on. I am not financed by insurance companies or anyone else who has a vested interest in raising the issues.

    As I say in my original post

    “…Nec defuerunt qui fictis mentionisque terroribus vera pericula augerunt…”

    Pliny the younger writing to his uncle Tacitus, after the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius, which means:

    “There are those people who added to the real perils by inventing fictitious dangers”

    QED.

  12. Edgar Casey’s readings got me thinking about where the inundation of water on the east coast would come from. The Tsunami threat made sense but without better conclusions from many scientists-geologists etc., that hapenstance is just that. Yet I find myself entranced by that very idea. I then looked up La tuyoya bay Alaska 1958. As you can imagine my senses went balistic. I have since feared what was reported in the BBC report.
    Casey also mentioned the Gulf states as well, being much sooner. That could have already happened.
    Question, would the Tsunami wrap around Florida and slam into the Gulf states?
    Cascadia, San Andreas seem to be the west coast’s disaster in the making.
    Question, if the two major faults around 1500 miles long, broke one leading into the other, could CA be severed and parts break into the Ocean?
    New Madrid is 20 times larger than the San Andreas and covers 5-6 states. 4 quakes caused much damage even changed the direction of the Mississippi.
    All are found to be “Overdue.” In Geological time that’s tomorrow. A lot to think about yet these scenarios are but a few of what our Earth has in store. Sensationalism is not a good thing, it does get to me at times. What happens when those who could warn, do not? The experts are really only as good as their last conclusions. But that is all we non-scientists have to go by. A 10 earthquake is said to be almost impossible. I find that statement dangerous. 9.2 Alaska quake, to me was a warning that something bigger is brewing. 1906 S. F. found the section between the south and north to have been cleared, opening the possibility of a 10+…

  13. The Earth’s processes do not work to a timetable. There is not one volcano anywhere that thinks “Hmmm time I erupted as I haven’t done so for a hundred years.” People assume that because someone presents information such as “Yellowstone erupts every 600,000 years” that it must be fact – it isn’t. Yellowstone appears to have a 600,000 year eruptive cycle but examination of the data shows that it is in fact closer to 1 million years and that is subject to phenomena that we still do not understand! According to the I know better than the scientists Teide on Tenerife erupts EVERY 100 years and since the last one was in 1909 the next one will be in ???? Analyse the dates and the next one could be anytime from 1910 to 2134 BUT who knows?

    What is fact is that a certain professor receives much funding from insurance companies based in the USA who are selling insurance on the basis that a tsunami originating from La Palma will devastate their homes etc. What he and they forget to say is that the threat is in the far distant future – if it exists at all and that none of those paying their premiums will have much possibility of collecting the payment.

    The same person has convinced such august bodies as the BBC in the UK to make a docu-drama entitled and in that he makes erroneous claims – the fissure is NOT 4 km long it did NOT drop 4 m in 1949! IT IS 2.5 kilometres long about 1 metre wide and depending upon where you measure the drop varies between a few millimetres and about 3 – only at the vents of the Hoyo Negro and the Duraznero does it reach 4 metres.

    In my opinion the author of the item does science no favours and this in turn leads to people disbelieving scientists. A famous photograph shows a citizen of Hawaii on the breakwater at Hilo watching an approaching tsunami because he did not believe that it would be as big as was predicted. His stupidity and ignorance cost him his life, his family the bread winner and his children their father, but then he knew better than the scientists!

    No scientist worthy of the name would ever conceal information that could result in the loss of life. We inform governments and it is up to them to inform the population – on Montserrat we informed the authorities that an exclusion zone was needed and they implemented one, yet the shamans / religious leaders told the people we did not know what we were talking about. Result on 25th June 1997, 19 people died inside the exclusion zone and the badly burned survivors told us that they didn’t believe it when the government said that the danger existed!

    Let me reiterate the Cumbre Vieja is NOT unstable, it is not moving it is not in imminent danger of collapse, the part that was affected in 1949 measures from the southern end at Duraznero to Llano del Banco 4 kilometres, there is debate as to whether the crack actually extends deep in to the flank and it HAS NOT been seen in the water galleries.

    The Cumbre Vieja extends subaerially for about 25 kilometres and continues as a submarine feature south of Punta de Fuencaliente. In 1949 there was no seismic network on the island, there is now – though if a certain scientist is to be believed there is only a solitary seismographic sensor. Strange that because I can show you where almost 100 are located all over the island along with tiltmeters and other instruments and as of about 10 minutes ago it was all still nice and quiet!

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  15. Paper after paper show Day & Ward was right, but Spain live on its tourists, so others with shady backgrounds dispute all evidence. I wish it wasnt so since we love Canarias and Spain, so any risk may balance a nice climate and any risks we have in othe areas.

    Folks take a risk being to much in sunshine and flying down etc.

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