If you travel to Italy, try to extend the trip southerly to visit Sicily, pronounced (See-chel-ia) in Italian. Sicily is located at the ‘tip of the boot’ of Italy and is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, with several much smaller islands surrounding it that are also considered part of it.
If you do decide to visit Sicily you will fly into Catania Airport, the busiest airport on the island (and one of the busiest in all of Italy). As you descend from the plane into the airport, the majestic Mount Etna is glorioiusly displayed on the east coast against the blue waters of the Mediterranean. It is a breathtaking site that you never tire of no matter how many times you arrive there. Mount Etna is almost two miles high.
Mt. Etna, the highest mountain in Italy south of the Alps, is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and is in an almost constant state of activity and the second largest active volcano in Europe. Etna covers an area of 460 sq mi and is the largest of the three active volcanoes in Italy, being about two and a half times the height of the next largest, Mount Vesuvius. Only Mount Teide in Tenerife surpasses it in the whole of the European region.
Located at the foot of the active volcano, Catania is the second-largest city in Sicily. There is a cable car to get to the top, but we drove up the winding roads as did the bikers and motorbikers. As we ascended, you could see the fertile volcanic soils that support extensive agriculture, with vineyards and orchards spread across the lower slopes of the mountain. From the busyness of Catania, as we drove up, up, and up, we could see the end of plant life where it had once flourished and spots of new reshooting by different plants that grow in ash. It became almost surreal as black mountains of still smouldering ash was on either side of us, all the while viewing the top of the volcano, with spouts of white smoke erupting from it.
The feeling is one of isolation; so different from the bustling, busy city we left behind. There were ruins of a house that was destroyed in an eruption. The higher we went up, it was somewhat unsettling to realize that the volcano is still active.
And there have been eruptions, some of them devastating. There was an an eruption back in 1928 which led to the first and only destruction of a population center since the 1669 eruption. A village was obliterated in just two days, with the lava destroying nearly every building. Only a church and a few surrounding buildings survived.
The year we drove up to Mt. Etna was in 2003. Just before we visited there, that same year, a much larger eruption threw up a huge column of ash that could easily be seen from space and fell as far away as Libya. Many houses on the flanks of the volcano experienced structural damage. The eruption also completely destroyed the tourist station Piano Provenzana.
Another eruption happened in May 2008 immediately to the east of Etna’s summit craters, was accompanied by a swarm of more than 200 earthquakes and significant ground deformation in the summit area.
Are Sicilians warned before an eruption? Bill McGuire, director of the Benfield Hazard Research Centre at University College London, says seismic monitoring is standard. “There are lots of different methods of monitoring volcanos now but the two ways that unequivocally tell us that a volcano’s getting ready for eruption are still the old ones – earthquake activity and ground deformation,” he says.
Before a volcano erupts, magma (molten rock) rises towards the surface, breaking rock en route. As more pushes up, the rocks around it vibrate. This results in earthquakes that can sometimes cause damage to buildings. Any sudden change in quake activity around an active volcano will, hopefully, give scientists enough time to sound warnings.
David Rothery, a researcher in the volcano dynamics group at the Open University, uses another method of detecting potential eruptions. Many volcanos have craters at the summit but it is usually too dangerous to put instruments there. He peers at craters from space using satellites that measure infrared radiation, and looks for any sudden changes in heat activity. He says that, depending on the volcano, scientists will get anything from several months to a few days notice of an eruption.
In theory, then, eruptions shouldn’t cause casualties. But this always depends on the evacuation plans for danger areas. Before Vesuvius erupts again, for example, 600,000 people will have to be evacuated, possibly at only a couple of weeks’ notice.
Marie Coppola February 2014