Italy's Volcanoes: The Cradle of Volcanology

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Frequently asked questions about Etna
Are my relatives living near Etna in danger?


Many people, mostly Americans, are concerned about their relatives (personnel of the military base at Sigonella, some 15 km south of Catania) who live near Etna, after receiving news about Etna via television news and newspapers that are often exaggerated or contain false information. This was particularly the case during the July-August 2001 eruption, and as a result many people cancelled their holidays in Sicily.

There is absolutely no danger to the lives and health of anyone living near Etna, even in the case of a major explosive summit eruption. The worst effects in that case would be falls of tephra (that is, dust to sand-sized particles called "ash", and small fragments of highly porous scoriae) that can disrupt traffic, and leave a dirty cover on roads, buildings, and any other free surface. In recent decades, the most distant places affected by tephra falls were the town of Siracusa, some 80 km south of Etna, in August 1979, the southernmost of the Aeolian Islands, some 100 km north of Etna, in January 1990, and the northern coast of Africa, in July 2001. Catania received its most recent significant tephra falls during the July-August 2001 eruption. During these and various previous eruptions, the airport of Catania had to be closed because of the ash falls.
The most hazardous eruptive phenomenon (that is, the most likely to produce damage) on Etna is lava flows. Lava flows from numerous eruptions in the past have invaded inhabited areas and/or buried cultivated land. However, the Sigonella air base is far from the area covered by Etna's lava flows and is not at risk from any future eruption. Many of the military personnel are living in towns around Etna that can be, in an extreme case, threatened or damaged by lava flows, but these flows are moving very slowly on the lower flanks of the volcano, leaving enough time for inhabitants to leave their homes and to carry away the most important of their belongings. Lava flows rarely kill, and the only known incident on Etna when people died near a lava flow occurred in 1843 near the town of Bronte. This was caused by a sudden explosion at a lava flow front, probably a water body had been trapped under the lava, and its rapid evaporation caused the explosion that killed 59 men who watched the advance of the lava flow.
In the case of an imminent flank eruption there will be premonitory seismicity or other phenomena that may help recognize the location of the eruption. Once the event is foreseeable, local authorities will take measures to evacuate the population of any threatened area, if necessary.

In the case of a major eruption of Etna, do not trust too much the information spread by the mass media. Contact your relatives directly, or check this site to see the Etna News Page which will give you frequent updates during an eruption of Etna.

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Copyright © Boris Behncke, "Italy's Volcanoes: The Cradle of Volcanology"

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