British and American scientists are warning that an eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano in the Canary Islands could lead to one of history's worst natural disasters.
The study says an eruption could slice off a huge chunk of La Palma, part of the Spanish island chain in the North Atlantic Ocean off West Africa.
In the worst-case, the avalanche could trigger an enormous tsunami. a giant ocean wave that could travel at 800 kilometers an hour. As the wave crashed into land, it could sweep 15 kilometers inland and demolish virtually everything in its path.
One of the authors of the study is Simon Day, an expert on geological hazards at University College London. He says such a mighty wave could wreak mayhem across a huge area, stretching from northwest Africa to the west coast of Europe and across the Atlantic to the United States and Brazil.
Mr. Day told British radio that while the effects can be predicted, there is no way to forecast when such devastation might occur. "What you have to remember about this event is it is not a serious risk [simply] because it is imminent. It may not be caused by the next eruption of the volcano; it may not be caused by many eruptions hence," he said, "but potentially, as we show in the paper to be published this week, it is an event with very large consequences."
Mr. Day and his colleague Steve Ward at the University of California write about the dangers of Cumbre Vieja in the upcoming issue of Geophysical Research Letters, an academic journal.
Cumbre Vieja last erupted in 1971. Over its history, there have been intervals between eruptions as short as 22 years, and as long as 237 years. Mr. Day says the volcano is currently dormant and he calls the short-term or medium-term risks "negligible."