Happening Now: La Cumbre Erupts on Fernandina Island (Updated)

As of Sunday, January 12, 2020, La Cumbre, the shield volcano located on Fernandina Island, is currently erupting. Fernandina is third largest of the Galápagos Islands and the youngest of the archipelago at less than a million years old.

Update (1/15): According to the Galápagos National Park (PNG), an overhead flight yesterday evening confirmed that this eruptive phase has concluded. That does not exclude the possibility of subsequent seismic or volcanic activity, but does indicate that this current eruption is over. The last time that La Cumbre erupted in 2018, Sierra Negra subsequently erupted 11 days later, so we will keep an eye on reports from the national park.

Good news – the lava flows appear to all be in areas with pre-existing lava flow damage from recent eruptions and do not appear to have had an effect on the existing flora and fauna. The PNG does not believe that this eruption will stop their existing plans to relocatethe recently discovered giant tortoise individuals found on Fernandina, previously thought to be extinct. Check back for additional updates as they reach us from the Galápagos in real time.

Lava flows from the eruption can be seen from the Bolivar Channel. The picture below was taken by the PNG and has been circulated on social media and in news outlets:

There have been three earthquakes associated with this eruption since Sunday afternoon. The fissure formed following the first earthquake at 21:42 UTC (3:42 PM CST), a magnitude M4.7. The earthquake’s epicenter was 91.05 kilometer from Puerto Villamil, the main port town of the inhabited island of Isabela nearby.

Two subsequent earthquakes of lesser magnitude followed – a M3.9 on Sunday January 12 at 23:39 UTC (5:39 CST) and a M3.0 on Sun/Mon January 12/13 at 01:18 UTC (7:18 CST). The epicenter of these earthquakes were 83.81km and 76.69km away from Puerto Villamil, respectively. So far, there are not reports that the eruption was felt in Isabela. More information on the earthquakes can be found at Volcano Discovery. The following picture of the current eruption was provided by a user on Volcano Discovery:

Where is Fernandina Island?

Located at the westernmost edge of the archipelago, Fernandina is located approximately 55 miles west of Isabela Island, one of the four inhabited islands within the island chain. Luckily, there are no human residents to evacuate from Fernandina during this eruption, but unfortunately numerous species of the island’s iconic residents may be at risk during the eruption.

Many quintessential documentaries depicting the Galápagos Islands are filmed on Fernandina, considered one of the most pristine and untouched of the islands. Fernandina is also one of the few islands that has not been plagued with problems caused by invasive species as almost all of the other islands have been. Due to the island’s remote location and the national park’s strict regulation of the visitor sites, the endemic populations on and near Fernandina flourish – terrestrial and marine species alike. In fact, Fernandina and Genovesa are the only large islands in the archipelago that never had introduced mammals.

The cold waters of the Cromwell Current push a diverse, rich array of species to the surface through its upwelling, including health populations of flightless cormorants, marine iguanas and Galápagos penguins.

Past Eruptions of La Cumbre

La Cumbre is the shield volcano located on Fernandina Island and is the youngest volcano on the youngest island in the archipelago. Given this status, it is not at all surprising that the volcano is still active and is the most active volcano of the islands. Its peak is 1,476 meters, or 4,843 feet, high. The volcano has had several collapses of its caldera floor, as can be seen in this image of La Cumbre from the ISS:

The most recent eruption was in 2018, following a period of heavy seismic activity and an eruption of Sierra Negra, the largest volcano on Isabela Island, located adjacent to Fernandina. The gas clouds were up to several kilometers high, but the effects were luckily minimal due to a low ash concentration during this eruption.

Numerous eruptions have been documented in the past, including further back in the historical record. An early famous account of a violent 1825 eruption on Fernandina was recorded by Benjamin Morrell, the captain of the New York-based schooner Tartar.

It looks like there won’t be visits to Fernandina anytime soon! Trips such as hikes to Sierra Negra may be limited in offering in the coming weeks and seismic activity should be monitored closely if you plan to engage in these higher-risk activities in the area during this period of activity.

We will post any updates on the eruption to the blog here, but images of the eruption are only beginning to be circulated and reports are still forthcoming. We would also keep an eye out for other seismic and volcanic activity in the Galápagos in the weeks to come – these events tend to come in clusters, as we saw in 2018. In the end, this eruption is just another reason why the Galápagos are such an incredible paradise – the natural power on display here is truly wild and untamed.

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