Will La Palma Volcanic Eruption Cause Mega-Tsunami on U.S. East Coast? No, Officials Say

A volcano has erupted on the Spanish Canary Island of La Palma, prompting unfounded fears that a so-called mega-tsunami could be headed to the East Coast of the United States.

The Cumbre Vieja volcano began erupting at around 3.12 p.m. local time (10:12 a.m. EDT) on Sunday, according to officials. It forced the evacuation of around 5,000 people from their homes in villages in the area, Canary Islands president, Angel Victor Torres, said in a press conference on Sunday. It marked the volcano's first eruption since 1971.

The threat level was raised to red at 5 p.m. local time on Sunday, with 35,000 residents in Tazacorte, El Paso, Fuencaliente, Mazo, and Los Llanos de Aridane placed on alert.

The eruption is believed to have been triggered by low-magnitude earthquakes, with a volcanic tremor signal recorded at all seismic stations, the Canary Islands government said on its website.

The volcanic eruption sparked a number of headlines and social media inquiries into the possibility of a "mega-tsunami" affecting the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. The term "tsunami" was trending on Twitter on Monday morning EDT, and Google searches for "tsunami" and "mega-tsunami" had spiked according to Google Trends data.

The National Tsunami Warning dismissed fears, stating on its Facebook page: "There is NO tsunami danger for the U.S. East Coast at this time, following the eruption of Cumbre Vieja volcano, La Palma, Canary Islands.

"The National Tsunami Warning Center is monitoring this situation and based on all available data, including nearby water level observations, there is no tsunami hazard for the U.S. East Coast."

Log into Facebook to start sharing and connecting with your friends, family, and people you know.

The link between the eruption of Cumbre Vieja and a mega-tsunami that could strike the U.S. may stem from a 2001 scientific study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

After investigating the effect of the volcano's eruptions in 1971 and 1949, the authors believed that the entire structure of the volcano could be comprised in the event of a further eruption.

The authors believed that what they termed as the "catastrophic failure of its west flank" would drop between 150 and 500 km³ of rock into the sea, which could result in tsunami waves that could transit the entire Atlantic ocean. They said that these waves could arrive at the Eastern Coast of the U.S. with a height of between around 33 and 82 feet.

Subsequent studies published after the 2001 research diminished the threat expressed in the paper or dismissed it entirely. In a study published the following year, George Pararas-Carayannis, editor of the journal Science of Tsunami Hazards: wrote: "The threat of mega tsunami generation from collapses of oceanic island stratovolcanoes has been greatly overstated. No mega-tsunamis can be expected."

In the 2002 paper, Pararas-Carayannis suggested that several incorrect assumptions in the modeling of volcano eruptions and slope failures and their link to tsunamis led to overestimates of the "far-field effects" of the natural disasters.

Janine Krippner, a volcanologist at the Global Volcanism Program, highlighted that the fear surrounding the idea of a "mega-tsunami" hitting the East Coast is an example of a wider problem.

"This scenario has been discredited by researchers but it is rampant right now. Why? Because we are drawn to what scares us even when it is not real," she told Newsweek. "Headlines take the smallest hint of truth and turn it into an irresistible boogeyman, causing real stress and harm around the world.

"Experts are lost in the noise and people cannot access, or trust, the facts," said Krippner. "We look at extreme scenarios in science to understand the entire spectrum of events, out to what may not be possible. Communicating that is so difficult."

Cumbre Vieja Erupts
Cumbre Vieja pictured erupting on September 19. While the volcano presents a threat to the residents of La Palma, fears it could threaten the East Coast of the U.S. with a "mega-tsunami" are unfounded. DESIREE MARTIN/Getty