By Joe Brock
SAINT-DENIS, Reunion (Reuters) - As experts on the Indian Ocean island Reunion studied plane debris for clues in the search for missing flight MH370, scientist Nicolas Villeneuve was making his own discovery: the island's volcano was about to erupt.
Reunion, a part of France that lies in the Indian Ocean around 370 miles east of Madagascar, gained newfound notoriety last week when a beach cleaner stumbled across a barnacled piece of an airplane wing known as a flaperon.
The wreckage was flown on Friday to mainland France where experts hope forensic analysis will uncover if it was part of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which vanished without trace in March 2014 along with 239 passengers and crew.
Hopes that the piece of debris could help solve one of the biggest mysteries in aviation history and end 16 months of painful uncertainty for relatives has briefly turned the global media spotlight on Reunion.
Many of the 800,000 residents have been overwhelmed by the attention placed on their island, where big local stories are usually about shark attacks and volcanic eruptions.
"Before, the only people who knew about this island were scientists and surfers," Villeneuve, 43, told Reuters from the island's volcano observatory, where he is studying the after effects of the latest eruption.
The Piton de la Fournaise, one of the world's most active volcanoes, erupted at 10:00 a.m. local time (0600 GMT) on Friday, opening up a 800-metre-long crack in its crater and sending hot jets of molten lava spewing up from the peak.
"We heard about the plane but we have our own investigation here," Villeneuve added, pointing at images of glowing lava and thick plumes of smoke.
It could end up being one of the biggest eruptions since 2007 when tremors in the crater lasted weeks and magma reaching temperatures above 1,000 centigrade flowed all the way into the Indian Ocean.
The volcano poses little danger to visitors or residents because the area is evacuated when early warning signs appear and no one lives on the path where lava flows.
Reunion's tourist board and residents hope the island's unexpected role in the MH370 mystery will have a positive impact on visitor numbers, as images of the dramatic volcano, sandy beaches and crystal blue waters are aired around the world.
Reunion, roughly half the size of Indonesia's tourist island of Bali, attracts a fraction of the millions of tourists who flock to other Indian Ocean islands, like Mauritius and the Maldives.
"The island is so beautiful and mysterious. It's like Hawaii," said Fadila Hammachi, 55, a French businesswoman who comes to Reunion on holiday every year.
"I hope more people come but not too many. I like it for myself," she adds, pointing toward the lush, mountainous interior where sugar cane, ginger and pineapples are grown.
Reunion's reputation suffered in 2005 during an epidemic of Chikungunya, a virus that causes a heavy fever. More recently the swarms of bull and tiger sharks lurking in the island's waters have been doing their best to scare people away.
The tropical island was once considered a surfer's paradise, but 18 shark attacks in four years, seven of them fatal, have deterred most top surfers from riding its waves.
Since 2013 the local government has banned swimming outside monitored areas, but even this has not halted attacks.
After a 13-year-old boy was killed while surfing by a 2.5 meter (8 foot) long bull shark in April, hundreds of islanders protested in an effort to get the government to provide more protection.
With the MH370 investigation now on mainland France, Reunion's part in discovering the secrets behind the plane's disappearance is coming to a close. Residents hope the island's brief spell in the spotlight will leave an enduring legacy.
"I hope our little island will be better known now and people will come to visit," Johny Begue, the beach cleaner who found the wing flap, told Reuters.
"I hope we are remembered for helping to bring peace to the families of the people who disappeared on that plane."
(Editing by Peter Graff)