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The 5 things you need to know before the Capelinhos volcano disappears

The Capelinhos volcano is the only place in the archipelago where we can get a closer idea of what the islands looked like when they emerged from the bottom of the Atlantic after “violent and nonsensical” eruptions. It may be hard to believe, but in less than 65 years of life, this volcano has lost more than ¾ of its original size, thanks to the effects of erosion. This living laboratory allows us to study and thus better understand the various processes of erosion and the colonisation of living organisms.

This ever-changing landscape is an inhospitable but beautiful area, a true geological monument.

What you need to know about the Capelinhos volcano before it disappears:

1. This volcano was for a long time a submarine volcano. This means that the lava tunnels were underwater, causing explosions that released ash that settled in different layers. This ash compressed the lower layers until it formed a rock with yellowish and brownish tones, known as tuff. This rock takes a long time to solidify, which is why erosion is more effective in the years after the eruption.

2. Its exposed geographical location on the western tip of the island of Faial means that this volcano is unprotected from the winds and waves coming from the north, west, and south quadrants. Waves are the erosive force that most affects this volcano, carrying sediment back to the seabed. On very windy days, we can feel and see the volcano’s dust being carried away in large dark clouds. The heavy rainfall in the winter months also helps to erode the volcano, forming rivers of sediment towards the sea. Sometimes a small lagoon forms, which seagulls use for bathing.

3. One of the few positive aspects usually associated with this eruption is the production of life in the sea. Several factors needed to be present in the “same place at the same time”: sun, nutrients and minerals… and of course, water, which is where it all happens! With just these four elements, the spring boom takes place, which is so important for the trophic chain of marine animals. Volcanoes, along with rivers and deserts, are an extremely important source of minerals for the environment. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the Capelinhos area is considered a hot spot for sperm whales, as it is an area very rich in food.

4. The Capelinhos Volcano was the first volcano in history to be studied from its first to its last day of eruption. The reason for this is simple! Unlike other eruptions in remote locations, that happened at the back of a lighthouse, which was also home to four families, next to a temporary whaling village. They say that the first people to spot the eruption were the walling watchmen. That day, instead of whales, they encountered Faial’s second historic eruption. In the months that followed, many of the people who lived there left, while other curious people, particularly geologists, moved in to follow the eruption. RTP (Portuguese Radio and Television) made its first major report with the newly arrived colour cameras. Unfortunately for the viewers, the colours of the eruption were very sober and the images seemed reminiscent of a black-and-white fiction film.

5. One witness was always present; Tomás Pacheco da Rosa, the lighthouse keeper who stayed behind while everyone else fled, and who kept watch over the eruption of the Capelinhos volcano during the 13 months of his activity. “Pacheco’s role as lookout consisted mainly of two functions. The first was to guide and accompany all those scientists, volcanologists and specialists who came to the volcano to study the phenomenon. Tomás was one of the most knowledgeable people on that piece of land because, as well as being a lighthouse keeper at the Ponta dos Capelinhos Lighthouse, he was a native of the parish of Capelo, the closest to the eruption, and since he was a child he had always been familiar with those lands and the sea around them. Pacheco’s second job was to photograph, record and document the phenomenon and its most visible consequences daily for the Geological Services of Portugal. He was given this task not only because he knew the volcano, but also because he knew photographic techniques” (Mar Navarro Llombart).

Come and hear these and other stories as we explore this unique place in the Azores. Don’t waste too much time deciding because a new volcano could appear and cover the existing one! This could take thousands of years or it could never happen.

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