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Reunion Island - a photo blog - Part 2: Volcano blogging

by Bernard Sun Nov 6th, 2011 at 06:44:51 AM EST

The Réunion island really has some impressive scenery and one can understand easily why a large part of its area has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the first part, I've posted pictures of the main three cirques and the piton des Neiges, but we still had to visit the second mountain range: piton de la Fournaise, the active volcano whose last big eruption occurred back in 2007.

We were spending a week-end in a rental house in la Plaine des Cafres, one of the high plains connecting the two main mountain ranges, with family and a couple of friends... Being at 1200m elevation la  Plaine des Cafres is usually a nice resort to escape the heat from the coastal area; but this is spring time and the weather was cold and damp; okay, 'cold' means about 12°C but that's quite cold for the locals. Anyway, it was raining and after a small walk in a nearby forest with plenty of wild flowers, we settled in front of the satellite TV to spend the late Saturday morning watching the French rugby team trouncing England in Eden Park.

After lunch, my brother had a quick discussion with his brother in law: it was still rainy, but it might be possible that the volcano is actually above the clouds. The only way was to drive there and find out for ourselves, so off we went.

Satellite view of the piton de la Fournaise, from NASA (via Wiki). The Dolomieu crater is visible in the middle. On the western side: Plaine des Cafres, Plaine des Sable, Pas de Bellecombe and the caldera rim of Enclos Fouqué. On the eastern side, several lava flows, including the 2007 vintage that wen straight into the ocean.

front-paged by afew

The road from Plaine des Cafres is first climbing along the alpine meadows of Bourg Murat where most of the cattle farms on la Réunion are located. Soon enough, we are indeed above the clouds.

Grand Bénare (left) and piton des Neiges (right) above the clouds

Grand Bénare and a sneak peek of the meadows at Bourg Murat underneath the clouds...

The valley of Rivière des Remparts under a sea of clouds

The landscape is soon changing dramatically: the road to the piton de la Fournaise is first crossing a desert plateau: la Plaine des Sables. A large part of the plain is covered with volcanic scoria and totally devoid of vegetation making you feel like you are on the Moon; a dramatic change from the lush tropical forests and cow pastures we strolled though in the morning...

The Plaine des Sables seen from above; the Piton de la Fournaise main crater is further ahead

The Plaine des Sables really feels like a piece of lunar landscape

We finally arrive at the Pas de Bellecombe, the caldera rim  called  Enclos Fouqué, surrounding the main crater of the volcano: Cratère Dolomieu. The sun is shining and it feels quite hot despite the elevation (2300m).

Dolomieu crater, peaking at 2522m

Enclos Fouqué seen from the  Pas de Bellecombe. The small "anthill" like crater on the enclos floor is called Formica Leo

Enclos Fouqué

Lava flows

The following week, we visited the eastern coast, on the other side of the volcano. The Enclos Fouqué is not entirely "closed": the caldera actually opens to a large section of the coast where the lava flows down the volcano slopes during eruptions.

As volcanoes go, the Piton de la Fournaise is relatively harmless: it doesn't project any rocks or dangerous ash clouds or gases; it only blurts out relatively viscous and therefore slow flowing lava. People have enough time to get out of the way: no fatalities recorded in ages, but some occasional property damage, especially when the lava flows outside of the inhabited "enclos" area, not counting the coastal road that must be periodically rebuilt (insert "why did the lava crossed the road" joke here).

As we are in France, it wouldn't surprise you to find out that each lava flow  is named after its vintage year and marked with roadsigns: "Coulée de lave 1986", "Coulée de lave 2002", etc...

The most recent lava flow dates back from 2007 and went over the road, all the way into the ocean, increasing the French territory by a couple of acres in the process.

The 2007 lava flow ended its course into the Indian ocean

2007 lava flow seen from the road

The lava flow happened four years ago and the thing is still smoking: actually it's no smoke but rain water that gets into the pumice-like lava and is vaporized when it reaches the hot lava underneath: the lava still feels warm to the touch.

Vaporized rain water escaping from a crack in the lava

The 2007 flow being the most recent, there is only sparse vegetation on it; one can see the difference with the 2004 and 2002 flows where small plants and even tree have started to regrow.

On some eruptions, the lava flows sprung out of the "enclos" area: this was the case in March-April 1977 where the lava destroyed part of the village of Piton Sainte-Rose and entered into the village church. I visited the island in the early 80's and I remember the brown lava flow with only a handful of buildings standing in the middle, including that church with the lava blocking the main entrance as seen in these pictures taken a short time after the event. The local people cried miracle because the lava spared the church. Since then, the entrance has been cleared and the church repainted and renamed "Notre Dame des Laves" (litterally: "Our Lady of the Lavas").

Piton Sainte-Rose: Church "Notre Dame des laves" in the middle of the 1977 lava flow; and yes, it's sugarcane harvest season.

But what struck me the most was the difference with the desolated landscape of brown basaltic lava rock that I remembered in the early 80's: 30 years after the event, everything is now covered with vegetation and trees and, wait, isn't that a wind farm I'm seeing over the football field?

Vegetation has recovered on the 1977 lava flow; a wind farm has been installed on the slopes: these are small 2-blade turbines

A good occasion to talk about energy and renewables on the Réunion island: there are a few hydro power plants, but most of the electricity is still generated by fuel or gas fired plants. Since EDF is required by law to sell the electricity at the same price as in mainland France where production costs are much cheaper, it has a strong incentive in promoting power conservation: low-power lamps have been subsidized since the 90s and PV installations are appearing here and there with the help of feed-in tariffs: today about 40 cents per Kwh, but it will decrease in the near future.

The most popular renewable energy equipment however is the omnipresent solar water heater that is present on just about every roof.

And since we are on ET, after talking wind farms and solar panels, how can we not mention the next popular subject: trains. A train line was actually operated along the coast, linking Saint Denis, the capital in the north to Saint-Pierre in the south and Saint Benoit in the east. Only the southeastern part of the coast, along the piton de la Fournaise volcano remained out of reach. The lines were built in the second half of the 19th century and some sections were operated until the late 1950s. The construction of 4-lane highways (and reportedly the unionization of the train employees) pushed the owners to abandon the train operations. At this time, cars and buses are the only way to get around the island, sadly.

Decommissioned railway bridge between Saint Gilles and Saint Leu

I'll bite. Why did the lava cross the road but miss the church?


"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Anas Nin

by Crazy Horse on Sat Nov 5th, 2011 at 03:29:09 PM EST
Why did the lava cross the road? To flow into the ocean (duh!).
The local vehicle code clearly states: All traffic yields to oncoming lava flows, period.

As for the church (and the gendarmerie, the other big building in the village), the lava flow being very slow and viscous, when faced with an obstacle, tends to get around it and rejoin downstream. It didn't exactly miss the church: if you look at the pictures on the Fournaise Info and the ENS-Lyon pages, taken in the immediate aftermath, the lava did clog the main entrances to the buildings, but the bulk essentially went around, following the path of least resistance. When I first visited in the 80s, the place didn't look much different than the pictures from 1977 (it was maybe 5 or 6 years after the eruption); the church has been cleaned up and restored afterward and as you can see, vegetation has fully recovered over the fertile lava.

by Bernard (bernard) on Sat Nov 5th, 2011 at 05:18:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Great diary and wonderful pictures.

sigh, yet another part of the world I'll never get to see (barring lottery win...must check my tickets)

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun Nov 6th, 2011 at 05:29:04 AM EST
Oh, it's not that expensive: return tickets from London to Mauritius can be found around 700 quids.
by Bernard (bernard) on Sun Nov 6th, 2011 at 09:16:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A posting which isn't the death/destruction brought on by politics. Thank you, however brief.

They tried to assimilate me. They failed.
by THE Twank (yatta blah blah @ blah.com) on Sun Nov 6th, 2011 at 10:49:20 AM EST

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