The Fire Mountains of Lanzarote

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     With its rubble-strewn landscape, arid climate and sparse vegetation, Lanzarote looks like an island under construction, which indeed it is. While the landmass was created by volcanic activity over the past 17 million years, about a quarter of its present area grew out of a series of eruptions that occurred from 1730 to 1736. Much of the south-western end of the island owes its appearance to this period of volcanism, together with a smaller eruption that occurred in 1824.

So recent was this activity that the colonisation of the lava by plants, and its conversion into soil, are at an early stage, and the land is still centuries away from a steady state. This makes it an ideal natural laboratory for the scientific study of land evolution. At the same time, the dramatic scenery gives it a unique potential for tourism.

Interest in the tourist possibilities of the Timanfaya Massif began in 1950, when General Franco opened the first access road. Following a decade of slow development, more roads were built and viewpoints created. By the 1970s, increasing visitor numbers necessitated improvements in the infrastructure and the building of a restaurant and car park.

In 1974, 5107 hectares (19.7 square miles) of the most pristine land around Timanfaya was declared a National Park, one of four in the Canary Islands. Spain as a whole has ten National Parks. In three of these, including Timanfaya the interest is primarily geological. In 1993, UNESCO declared it a Biosphere Reserve, and the following year, the European Community made it a Special Protection Area for Birds.

Because of the fragility and importance of the landscape, 96% of the National Park area is reserved for scientific use, and visitors are restricted to the remainder. Building is forbidden within the park boundary, as are camping, open air sports and the collecting of plants and rocks. Hunting, fishing and entering unauthorised zones are also prohibited. Farming is confined to small areas in the park, comprising 3.5% of the total.

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    Management of the facilities and services within Timanfaya National Park is divided among local authorities.

The Municipal Authority of Yaiza, the town that lies 4 km to the south, holds the concession for the first attraction that greets the traveller approaching from that direction. At Echadero de los Camellos are the dromedary rides that follow a track across the lower slopes of Timanfaya Mountain. Dromedaries were introduced into the island in the 16th century for use in agriculture and transport. Today they are bred on Lanzarote exclusively for tourist use.

A glance uphill from the dromedary track may reveal a coach inching precariously along the summit skyline. This and the attendant facilities are the responsibility of the Lanzarote Cabildo (Island Government Council), also as a concession from Central Government. Motorists entering the park from the main through road must leave their vehicles at the car park of the Islote de Hilario. Only by coach on the 12-kilometre road designed by Lanzarote artist, Jesus Soto, can they see the real glories of the Montanas del Fuego – the Fire Mountains.

At the car park itself is the ‘El Diablo’ restaurant and souvenir shop, built to a design by Eduardo Caceres and his colleagues Jesus Soto and Cesar Manrique. The highest temperature in the National Park has been recorded at 610oC, 13 metres beneath the surface rocks of the Islote de Hilario. Because of the intense heat of these underlying rocks, special foundations had to be laid to avoid overheating in the buildings.

A 5-metre-deep pit, inside the restaurant, is used as an oven. The temperature at the mouth of the pit reaches 200oC, while hot air entering from the side walls can rise to 350oC. Just outside the restaurant is a set of underground metal pipes into which water can be poured to create an artificial geyser. A further demonstration of geothermal energy is seen nearby, in the burning of gorse cuttings in a 1.5-metre-deep pit, where temperatures, at the bottom, have been measured at 245oC.

The bulk of the work at Timanfaya is carried out by the National Park Authority. The full-time staff of 31, led by Chief Administrator, Aurelio Centellas Bodas, consists of civil servants, guides, rangers and conservation and maintenance workers. The most visible fruits of their labours are the Museum and Information Centre at Echadero de los Camellos, and the Mancha Blanca Visitors’ Centre, which stands outside the park itself, 4 km north of the boundary.

The museum displays many geological specimens, as well as examples of farming equipment formerly used when dromedaries were employed in agriculture.

The true size of the Visitors’ Centre is camouflaged by its being three-quarters submerged in the surrounding lava field. This building contains offices and an exhibition of the volcanology, flora and fauna of the area, explained with the aid of impressive video and interactive displays, with spoken and written text in Spanish, German and English. It has won several National prizes for its architecture.

“Our biggest problem,” says Aurelio Centellas Bodas, “lies in the management of visitor numbers. These have now risen to more than 1.5 million each year, and continue to increase. To resolve this problem, we want to regulate the flow of visitors by building two new car parking areas outside the National Park, and a new Visitors’ Centre at Yaiza.”

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    A service offering guided walking trails was introduced in the Park in 1990 to give visitors a more intimate view of the geology and biology of Timanfaya. The shorter walk follows a 3.5-kilometre trail at the southern edge of the park, and is suitable for school or family parties. A more demanding 9-kilometre walk takes a coastal path, where the lava meets the sea, and rapid colonisation by marine life is taking place.

The most important work in the Timanfaya National Park occurs out of sight of the tourist. In the late 1980s, a laboratory for scientific research was established at an old dromedary shed in the centre of the park. This is concerned largely with a study of volcanology and seismic processes, together with monitoring and the assessment of risks from possible future eruptions. In 1993, the first gravimeter, for measuring gravity variations was installed. This was followed by other instruments to study seismic events, land deformation and changes in the tilt of the land.

An important project, funded by the European Union as part of investigations into a long-term energy strategy, has involved a study of the geothermal fields to measure the rate of heat transfer from the underlying rocks to the surface.

A meteorological station holds complete weather data on the sub-Saharan climate of Lanzarote going back to 1990.

In the Mancha Blanca Visitors’ Centre is a small library, which is open to the public. This contains reference books, both of a popular and scientific nature, as well as many research papers concerning the volcanology, ecology, botany and zoology of Timanfaya.

The lack of human activity in this new landscape, together with its warm, dry climate, make Timanfaya ideal for the study, not only of volcanic phenomena, but of the natural processes of biological colonisation.

A recent research project by scientists from Oxford University compared the breakdown of lava by lichens with the physical weathering caused by wind and rain. The work is important because these processes bring about the first stage in the creation of soil from igneous material. The soils thus formed will, in a few more centuries, be necessary for the colonisation of the land by higher plants.

These particular investigations are also of significance as they can be compared with similar research carried out in the much wetter, but otherwise analogous environment of Hawaii.

The dominant plant forms on the lava fields are the lichens. 71 species have been catalogued, but the full population has been estimated at around 200. The aridity has led to only slow invasion by higher plants. Those that do survive here depend on dew and on water vapour rising through cracks from the hot rocks. These plants have evolved specialised root systems as well as hairy and globular leaves to conserve water.

There are 120 species of invertebrate, but the only terrestrial vertebrate animals are the Haria’s lizard, the gecko, the Canary shrew, the rabbit and the hedgehog. 17 species of birds nest in the Park. These include Bulwer’s petrel, Cory’s shearwater, Leach’s petrel and the Barbary partridge. One of the birds of prey is the Egyptian vulture, of which only a few pairs remain. Kestrel and peregrine falcon are also found here.

The inevitable increase, over the coming years, in the tourism on which Lanzarote depends for its prosperity, will put severe pressures on Timanfaya National Park. The present system of management appears to be working well. Not only does it allow the tourist to enjoy the spectacle of a landform that is unique in Europe, but it preserves that landform in its pristine purity.

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