The Azores: fire and water

Located in the middle of the Southern Atlantic Ocean, the seven islands that comprise the Azores are a natural haven reminiscent of a bygone era. When we arrived Ponta Delgada it was a beautiful mellow evening in August, surprisingly temperate given the location, and we were struck by the laid back feel of the people, the vivid azure of the ocean and the skies that bathed the coastline in a beautiful ozone rich light. All of a sudden, the wind seemed to blow up from nowhere and the abrupt arrival of a storm swept in curtains of thick grey cloud laden with rain.   Now driving to our accommodation in the midst of a downpour, I pondered how this island climate is dictated by two large ocean-atmosphere teleconnections that oscillate over the Atlantic Ocean and influence weather well beyond the Azores.

As moist air rises over the tropics, it then sinks back down over the subtropical latitudes bringing high pressure and dry air. This region of high pressure is usually located close to the Azores and is therefore known as the Azores High. This is coupled with the Icelandic Low situated at the other end of the North Atlantic, where cold wet air rises over Iceland. Together these two atmospheric weather systems are known as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) and govern the direction of the westerly winds and storms across the Atlantic. When the NAO is positive, the high and low weather systems are more intense than usual resulting in stronger westerlies, eastward driven Atlantic storms, wet conditions to Northern Europe and warmer conditions to West Africa. When the NAO index is negative, the pressure systems are less intense with less influence over Europe, less rainfall and lower temperatures. At present time of writing, the NOA index is in a positive phase.

In addition to climate, the geology of the islands is also unique by virtue of their location. Situated right on the Mid-Atlantic spreading ridge, basaltic magma wells up permanently from the depths in a maelstrom of activity forming massive underwater mountains of which the Azores is one. Black chunky rocks to the west of the island bear witness to this relentless activity, and it is a wonderful experience to watch the sun set over the vast expanse of Atlantic swell and hear the hiss and boom of the massive waves pummelling the basalt.

Driving round the island is easy, the roads good and the people and villages laid back and sleepy. But Sao Miguel embodies a secret beneath this calm and laid-back exterior. Out at sea, the mighty African, Eurasian and North American plates meet to form a T shaped junction called the Terceira Rift. The force of this zig zags through the island, twisting and tugging with huge and relentless force as these vast tectonic plates meet and rift apart.  I could sense the interplay of these undercurrents as we travelled round, nothing tangible just a sense of tension. Furthermore, it struck me that the Azores are located mid-way between the African and American continents and bear these influences in terms of culture, climate and weather conditions, another aspect that makes them so fascinating.

As you would expect with all this relentless Earth activity, the islands are also subject to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, though not nearly as violent as those of Iceland at the other end of the Atlantic Ocean. Today the topography of the island is dominated by the remains of three stratovolcanoes that erupted to form calderas now filled with lakes. There is a spectacular crater rim walk round the Sete Cicadas volcano to the west of the island and you can drive along a ridge with spectacular drops on either side, though sadly we tried twice to do this and were thwarted each time by thick grey cloud. At the fire lake Lagos do Fogo in the middle of the island, you can watch clouds get sucked in and out of the crater by a combination of winds and pressure differences, and bathe beneath a waterfall made warm by the mild volcanic activity.

My favourite however was Furnas lake. We stayed in the delightful boat house here and could cycle round to the bubbling fumeroles and sulphurous mud pools where people come to cook food. In Furnas village itself, hot springs and healing waters have been used for centuries for therapy and bathing. Warm and nutrient rich, these waters also host a multitude of unique bacteria that give rise to a stunning natural array of colour and chemistry. At the Furnas Monitoring and Research Centre they are studying these bacteria, seeing how they give us insights into the beginnings of life on Earth and exploring potential uses for them.

Of all it’s many gifts, one of the most special is the nutrient rich waters that upwell round the islands attracting and nourishing a host of marine life including massive dolphin pods and migrating whales on their way to the Poles. Now a major source of revenue for the tourist industry, these magnificent creatures are now protected and fin whales, sperm, humpbacks and sei whales can be seen in large numbers all over the Azores. Curious, these creatures come close to tourist boats amazing and delighting us when once we just saw them as a source of blubber and oil. Swimming with dolphins one late afternoon was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The waters were rough and grey, our boat bounced all over the waves and the threat of a coming storm also ensured that we were alone. Being surrounded in the sea by hundreds of dolphins, mothers, babies, some swimming, some jumping was a huge privilege, but I also felt the imprint of the trauma and blood that must have once coloured these azure waters a deep crimson.

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