OBSERVER: Copernicus’ eyes on the La Palma eruption

OBSERVER: Copernicus’ eyes on the La Palma eruption

OBSERVER: Copernicus’ eyes on the La Palma eruption

Thu, 20/01/2022 – 11:12

It had been 50 years since a volcano erupted on the island of La Palma, in the Canary Islands, Spain. Yet, a major eruption took place at the Cumbre Vieja volcano from mid-September to mid-December, making it the longest eruption ever recorded on the island. The eruption has changed the morphology of the island, leaving a permanent scar on the environment and communities of the southwestern coast of La Palma.

As one of the six Copernicus services, the Copernicus Emergency Management Service (CEMS) was largely involved in monitoring this eruption event on behalf and at the request of the Spanish national and regional authorities. CEMS offers all actors involved in the management of disasters, man-made emergency situations, and humanitarian crises timely and accurate geospatial information. With worldwide coverage, the mapping component of the service supports all phases of the emergency management cycle: preparedness, prevention, disaster risk reduction, emergency response and recovery. In addition to the lava extent and built-up destroyed, air quality parameters and in particular SO2 emissions into the atmosphere were also monitored during the eruption by another Copernicus service, the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), as explained in this previous article

On 19 September, after eight days of an intense seismic swarm, more than 6,000 earthquakes had been recorded and two eruptive fissures opened around the Montaña Rajada hills, in the municipality of El Paso. Four hours later, the Spanish Directorate-General for the Civil Protection and Emergencies (CENEM) activated the Copernicus EMS Rapid Mapping Team on behalf of the Autonomous Region of Canarias. Over the three months of the eruption, the CEMS Rapid Mapping Team’s products and data were produced and delivered to inform the global public, institutions, responders, media, and experts to analyse the eruption’s impact on the communities of La Palma.

 Some statistics

Thanks to its mapping products, CEMS documented the evolution and the extent of the lava flow, as well as the destruction of built-up infrastructure. Fortunately, due to the effective measures implemented by local authorities, no direct casualties were reported. Nonetheless, some of the CEMS statistics regarding its activities over the longest eruption ever on the Island of La Palma truly demonstrate the magnitude of this event.

546 – All CEMS activations receive a progressive code to identify them. The event in La Palma was the 546th activation of the Rapid Mapping module. Consequently, the official name of the activation was EMSR546, which later became viral on social networks along with the hashtags #LaPalma and #CumbreVieja.
64 – The record-breaking number of damage Grading products that the Rapid Mapping Team delivered in 90 days.
1,241 ha – The area of La Palma’s landscape that was covered by lava flow (as retrieved from the satellite imagery data analysed by the Copernicus EMS Rapid Mapping Team).
2,988 – The number of built-up structures that were destroyed (ibid).
92 km – The total length of road infrastructure that was destroyed (ibid).
+7,000 – The number of people that were forced to evacuate from their homes.
~20m – The of height of ash deposits in some areas of the island.
€900 million – The value of the damage estimated by local authorities.

Lava extent and destroyed built-up infrastructure over time according to Copernicus EMS data.


Data visualisation showing the evolution of the lava flow, produced from superimposing the vector data of the various damage Grading Monitoring Products delivered by the CEMS Rapid Mapping Team.


Copernicus highlights in the media

The importance of this historic event attracted significant media attention in Spain and abroad. The CEMS Rapid Mapping Team’s products and data were used extensively across international, national, and local media to inform the general public. This was often through media outlets and social media networks to highlight the status of lava flows, the consequential damages to infrastructure and the impact on the communities.

Sentinel-2 open satellite data was also widely used by Earth Observation experts and citizen scientists alike to illustrate the unravelling events, as its short-wave infrared channel adequately captures the heat from lava flows and their extent. Below are some examples of Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite imagery used by Euronews and two CEMS data visualisations used by Spanish national newspapers.


Below are three examples of CEMS data visualisations broadcasted by Spanish national television channels to explain the situation resulting from the eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano.


Likewise, the European Commission directed its attention and consideration to the communities affected by the eruption by using the products and visualisations produced by the CEMS Rapid Mapping Team. Below, are tweets published by the European Commission’s corporate account. The left image uses the first Grading Product delivered by the CEMS Rapid Mapping Team on 21 September 2021. The right one includes a 3D visualisation of the lava extent produced using a Sentinel-2 image acquired on 3 January 2022.


The GIS community reaped the benefits of Copernicus’ full, free and open data access

An intriguing outcome from the use of Copernicus imagery and products during the record-breaking eruption is that it demonstrated the significant benefits of the full, free and open access to the data produced by the Copernicus Component of the EU Space Programme. As a matter of fact, many Geographic Information System (GIS) and Earth Observation enthusiasts engaged in visualising what was occurring on the island using the data gathered by Copernicus Sentinels and the products delivered by CEMS. Here are examples of some of the most interesting visualisations produced by the community during the CEMS activation.

Data visualisation of Celso J. Coco Megia, Forestry Engineer and Professor at the Almázcara Integrated Vocational Training Centre, in Congosto, Castilla y León, Spain, and member of the Copernicus Academy


Data visualisation using IGN, Catastro, Copernicus EMS data, produced by Pedro Suárez, Freelance Developer and Programmer.


Data visualisation by Mario G, civil engineer, aeronautical chart., LiDAR data analyst expert, GIS manager at UNAH Honduras


The eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano shocked the world, let alone hugely impacted the lives of the Palmeros and the environment around them. Yet, CEMS remained ready and available to provide the local authorities and the world with products and data to allow a myriad of entities to track and monitor the event as it happened. CEMS outputs were used by institutions, emergency responders, media and the general public alike to ensure that communication and analyses of the eruption were practical and effective. It goes to show how in a globalised and connected world, the full, free and open data that Copernicus provides serves to aid people of the world in times of substantial emergency and disruption.



Other relevant articles in which Copernicus products and/or imagery are highlighted.

El Confidencial:
20 Minutos:  
The Guardian:

Thu, 20/01/2022 – 12:00

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