María José Blanco is already like family in many homes on La Palma. The director of the National Geographic Institute (IGN) in the Canary Islands appears almost every day at the same time on the televisions of thousands of people to explain the evolution of the eruption with her close and reassuring character. The IGN center in Tajuya, from where you can see the indefatigable volcano, has already become your second home, and when you walk through the streets of the island, people stop to thank you. She and many other women have become the eyes of this volcanic emergency, and little by little they fight the masculinization of science. “Society has always ignored the role of women. Now it is important not only that it be visible, but that it be made visible and that the girls have references in any field ”, says Blanco.
He seldom says no to an interview. He considers it part of his job. She also tends to accompany the media on visits to the exclusion zone and makes those who share a bus with her lucky. “That is also pouring, but not from now”, “that whirlwind that forms next to the volcano is due to the change in air temperature,” he explains as the convoy advances towards Todoque. And while he teaches, he learns too.
His direct reference was his mother, who is now 97 years old and graduated in Chemistry. “She was a pioneer,” he emphasized during the interview after a morning of meetings and an afternoon of fieldwork. His mother went from living on an isolated farm in the deepest Salamanca to being a university student. “She is the only one in her family who studied a degree,” admits Blanco. The director of the IGN in the Canary Islands studied Physics, and had the opportunity to have a research grant that allowed her to obtain a PhD in Geophysics, her specialty. In 1990 he arrived in the Canary Islands thinking of staying for just one year, but since then he has not returned to live in the Peninsula.
The legacy of María José Blanco
The first thing he did when he got to the Archipelago was to ask for the Faculty of Geology, but there was none. “The Canary Islands lived with their backs to Geology, despite being islands where volcanoes are incorporated into their landscape,” he says. In the field of science, people thought above all about the sky, “but nothing was investigated in the sea or on land.” In 2004, a seismic crisis took place in Tenerife that did not cause damage. Then, the public administration gave the lGN the responsibility of volcanic surveillance. The opportunity to create something and leave a legacy, as well as the quality of life, have meant that Blanco has been in the Islands for more than thirty years.
When he arrived in the Canary Islands, María José Blanco was responsible for seismology. After two years in this position, she became director of the center. “Not only was I the first director, but there have not been any more,” he says. In the meetings with the rest of the team there was a “shocking” atmosphere, since all his teammates were men. “I had several grades that were different: I was a woman, I was the youngest by far and I was a doctor. It had an investigative side that many of them did not have. They were not interested. It did surprise me to sit at a table where there was no other woman and where, to this day, there is still no other woman, ”she recalls.
Although the generations that are entering the IGN are “more even”, the weight is male. In the Canary Islands, of the 18 people who work at the Institute, five are women. In the General Directorate of the IGN in Madrid there has never been a director or a deputy director. “The general secretary who manages the administrative management of the Institute is a woman, and the first person who has a relevant position in the technical field is Carmen López, my boss. We have a pyramid that is pushing upwards ”, celebrates Blanco.
For María José Blanco, the incorporation of women in the management of emergencies favors group work and “without the desire to take center stage”. “We are ants that, together, we make things move.” “I do not know if it is because there are more women involved or because things are different, but in this emergency there is more collaboration than in El Hierro and there are no discrepancies”, the scientist values.
From the Barcelona attacks on the La Palma volcano
At a table full of men, Montse Román, the director of the Advanced Command Post (PMA) that manages the La Palma emergency, makes her way every morning. And the only woman at the meeting table. Catalan by birth, she has lived in the Canary Islands for a year and nine months and “never would have imagined” that she would participate in the management of a volcanic crisis before moving to the Islands. Román is a criminologist, an expert in prevention and public safety and has 20 years of experience. Now she is in charge of the General Directorate of Security and Emergencies of the Government of the Canary Islands.
In the summer of 2017 he was on duty when a van ran over people who were walking along Las Ramblas in Barcelona and in the early morning of the next day, on August 18, a Mossos d’Esquadra operation in Cambrils (Tarragona). The events were considered a terrorist attack after Daesh claimed responsibility. At that time, Román coordinated the operation with all the groups involved. Now, he chairs the daily meetings in which the operations are organized and the progress of the eruption is analyzed.
In his different experiences in crisis management, the emergencies were “shorter” than the one that now affects La Palma. It has been 48 days since the volcano erupted and 54 days since the scientific committee sits down each morning to weigh the situation. It is not always headed by the same people, but alternates weekly with colleagues. When it’s their turn to be at the foot of the canyon, Montse Román spends an average of twelve hours a day in the center that has settled in El Paso. At night he tries to sleep for a matter of “optimization of resources”, but he is available for any unforeseen event. His colleagues have the same routine when they work in the field.
From the brain of the performance on the island, concentration is a fundamental point because a failure could cause the loss of a life. “You have to be very concentrated all day, you can’t miss anything,” confesses Montse Román. “It is to be continuously aware of everything that is in the territory and who can affect the consequences of what is happening with the advance of the wastes.” Despite the stress caused by this management, the joint coordination of the Volcanic Emergency Plan of the Canary Islands has clear priorities: “That there are no people affected, starting with the population but also for the intervening parties themselves.”
The power of drones
The WFP controls everything that affects the island’s population during the eruption. Not only the possible confinements or evictions, but the air quality and the actions in the educational centers. “We have helped create a protocol for action during the eruption for schools.” This plan now coexists with that of the prevention of COVID. In addition, the Command Post tries to ensure that the population can communicate. The current scenario forces us to avoid “at all costs” not having basic supply infrastructures, reveals Román.
“We are very aware of the front of the streams to know if they reach the sea, since in that case a preventive confinement zone of the population is established and we have to coordinate and articulate it so that the message arrives automatically.” The progress of the flows is measured, in large part, thanks to the drones. The drone pilots of the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain (IGME) or the Emergency and Rescue Group (GES) of the Canary Islands Government provide videos that help to know where the lava is moving, which buildings it has destroyed, which ones it has not and if it follows the path of old washings.
Juana María Medina works there, flying over the rivers of lava, the ash emissions and the advance of the lava flows. Leaning on a bar at the headquarters of the Advanced Command Post (PMA), she waits for her companions to go to eat at chef José Andrés’ bus. He has just returned from a drone flight over the northernmost area of the volcano. She is a GES technical services assistant.
Medina is the only woman who drives drones in the palm tree eruption. “Those images from above that appear on social networks and have the GES signature are recorded by us,” she confesses excitedly. His work is the gaze of scientists from the sky and is essential to detect active streams, hot spots, areas where to take samples and so that many evicted palm trees know if their house has already been engulfed by lava or not.
Referents for young women
Wrapped in a red vest with the IGN seal, Laura García returns from doing field work and jokes with her colleagues in a space reserved for the scientific committee, just below the Mirador de Tajuya, which is filled with tourists and onlookers every day. A panorama of the unnamed volcano can be seen near the windows. On the wall, some numbered papers mark the passing of the days. “This calendar has an anecdote, it is the same one that we used ten years ago in the El Hierro eruption, a colleague had it saved and decided to bring it.” As he tells the story, two IGN scientists come in and hesitate about what to have for dinner. Inside, three screens reflect the last earthquakes registered on the island, a plasma television has a live connection of the volcano filmed by Televisión Canaria and on another the website of the National Geographic Institute.
Laura García Cañada has a degree in Mathematics, a specialty in Geodesy and is part of the volcanic surveillance team of the National Geographic Institute (IGN) that works on the ground in La Palma. In his Faculty he met more women who had a vocation for the science of Pythagoras, but when he decided to specialize in Geodesy the presence of women began to decline. “Few people usually know what Geodesy is, it is a discipline that studies the shape and dimension of the Earth,” he explains. In the case of volcanic surveillance, it studies in particular the deformation of the terrain.
He fell in love with this discipline, but in volcanology he fell almost by chance. After the eruption, “my lifelong friends see me on television and tell me how cool my job is and they ask me a lot. But they are my friends forever and I have always dedicated myself to this and I tell them, but didn’t you already know? ”
Laura García arrived two weeks after the eruption began and this is the second time she has worked fully on one. “Our work is only in Spain, but we study and analyze eruptions from other parts of the world to be able to apply them in our work here,” he explains. He had been on La Palma before the eruption, looking for a location to install GPS stations, also for the maintenance of others. García works in the Madrid office, but it was not the first time that he met his colleagues from the Santa Cruz de Tenerife headquarters. “We agreed to do field work on other islands, also on El Hierro, but it is true that now we spend more time living together,” he says.
“In certain areas there are women, I can’t say there aren’t,” he reflects. At the IGN headquarters in Madrid, the presence of women and men is more equal, but in Tenerife, they are still the majority. “It is important that any person, man or woman, especially those young women who are attracted to a field, feel free to study and practice the profession they want. Without thinking that they will not be able to do it because they are a woman, of course ”.