Italy's Volcanoes: The Cradle of Volcanology

Etna Decade Volcano, Italy
Eruption update:
5-15 November 2002
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ERUPTIVE ACTIVITY CONTINUES AT NEW CONE
AT 2750 M ON SOUTH FLANK, LAVA FLOW TO SW

New cone at 2750 m elevation on the southern flank of Mount Etna, 12 November 2002
Close-up view of the growing new cone at 2750 m elevation on the southern flank of Mount Etna after the change in activity on 12 November 2002. Note dilute ash plume rising above lava fountain. Peak to the left is the summit of the Southeast Crater cone, which has remained completely inactive during the current eruption. Photo taken from the 13 November 2002 issue of "La Sicilia"

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WARNING: Although the 2002 eruption is continuing at only one single vent on the upper southern flank of Etna (about 2750 m), and all activity on the Northeast Rift has ended, access to the upper portions of the volcano (above 1900 m on the southern flank, currently unknown on the northern flank) is forbidden. In fact, it IS dangerous to get close to the vent that is still erupting, since bombs are sometimes thrown to a distance of 1 km in all directions, and frequently shifting wind directions may carry the dense tephra plume overhead.
There are currently no guided excursions offered at Etna, and most tourist facilities have been severely damaged or destroyed during both the 2001 and 2002 eruptions. Piano Provenzana, on the northern flank, has been virtually deleted from the face of Earth on the first day of the 2002 eruption. With the onset of the winter season, visits to the summit area of Etna and the sites of the 2002 eruption will be close to impossible until next spring and reconstruction of access roads.


The latest update is near the bottom of this page

2002 eruption map
Preliminary map of eruptive fissures and lava flows produced by the 2002 eruption of Etna draped on a digital elevation model (DEM) of the volcano. Location of fissures and lava flows is based on maps posted on the web site of the Catania section of the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (INGV-CT)

15 November 2002 update. Eruptive activity at the active cone at 2750 m elevation on the southern flank of Mount Etna is continuing on its 20th day. Explosive activity is alternating between ash-rich emissions and "dry" (ash-poor) Strombolian bursts, and lava continues to flow from the fissure at the southern base of the cone. An updated map of the new lava flow is available at the INGV-CT web site. A 15 November update on the same site gives an effusion rate of 6.7 cubic meters per second. If that rate has been stable since the onset of lava emission, about one million cubic meters of lava have been emitted during the past two days so far.

Piano Provenzana - a requiem

14 November 2002 update. Lava emission and explosive activity continue at the new cone on the upper southern flank of Mount Etna. After one day of relatively ash-free activity, the ash content in the plume from the active cone has increased substantially during the afternoon of 13 November and on 14 November, a westerly wind is blowing the plume to the Giarre area.
Renewed lava emission started during the afternoon of 13 November from a fissure on the southern slope of the new cone, coinciding with the second largest new cone formed during the first days of the eruption on the fracture on the upper southern flank. The crater of this cone (extinct since early November) was filled with lava before an overflow spilled over its western rim to form a flow directed southwestward. By noon on 14 November, this flow had reached a length of about 1.2 km (information from the web site of "La Sicilia") and continued to advance on top of the lava flow emplaced in late October 2002. A second overflow occurred to the south, feeding a sluggish flow that advanced in the direction of Monte Josemaria Escrivà, formed during the July-August 2001 eruption. This flow was reported stagnant by noon on 14 November.
The eruption is now continuing on its 19th day. While all activity on the northeastern flank (where devastation has been greatest) ended on 5 November (information via Volcano Listserver by Sonia Calvari, INGV), the main vent on the eruptive fissure on the upper southern flank has remained continuously active. During the days after 5 November, the activity there seemed to diminish, but since about 8 November it has remained more or less stable. Much of the ash emissions from the cone may have been caused by magma-water interaction at a shallow aquifer (although this awaits further analysis), and a rise of the magma column above this aquifer may have led to the change to purely magmatic (Strombolian) activity. A similar evolution, though at a different time scale, has been observed during the 2001 eruption at the cone on the former Piano del Lago (officially named "Monte Josemaria Escrivà", although most Etnean mountain guides continue to call it the "cono del laghetto").
According to a report in the Catania-based journal "La Sicilia" on 12 November, the eruption produced 10-11 million cubic meters of lava (mostly on the northeastern flank) and more 20 million cubic meters of tephra through 11 November. The lava volume is thus only about half the volume of lava emitted during the 2001 eruption, but the volume of tephra is at least twice that emitted in 2001, and the greatest emitted during any flank eruption of Etna since 1879.

Strombolian activity and emission of a lava flow at the pyroclastic cone at 2750 m elevation on the southern flank of Etna, 13 November 2002
Volcanologists and Civil Protection staff watching explosive and effusive activity at the new cone at 2750 m elevation on the southern flank of Etna on the evening of 13 November 2002. New lava flow is visible as incandescent ribbon below the explosion at the main vent of the cone. Photo taken from the 14 November 2002 issue of "La Sicilia"

13 November 2002 update. There has been a change in the style of activity at the remaining active vent on the upper southern flank of Mount Etna on 12 November. On the afternoon of that day the ash plume which had risen into the sky since the morning of 27 October, suddenly vanished, although explosive activity continued with powerful Strombolian explosions. As reported by numerous of the sources listed at the bottom of this page, this change in the eruptive style coincided with a strong increase in volcanic tremor, indicating an uprise of the magmatic column within the conduit of the cone. On 13 November, Giuseppe Scarpinati of Acireale estimated the frequency of explosions at one every second. During the late afternoon of that day, the ash content in the plume emitted from the new cone increased slightly. At the same time, Charles Rivière reported the appearance of a new lava flow at 2600 m elevation on the southern flank, which had been noted by the head of the Forest Guards.

11 November 2002 update. Explosive eruptive activity is continuing without signs of diminishing at the single still-active vent on the upper southern flank of Mount Etna. This vent has built a sizeable pyroclastic cone with a height of nearly 100 m above its southern base (its northern and western flanks are less high due to the fact that the cone is growing on a steep slope), whose crater is at least 100 m wide (see the spectacular photos on the web sites of Charles Rivière and Thorsten Boeckel). The emissions occur as jets of bombs, lapilli, scoriae and ash that are dark during daylight (except in a few rare cases when incandescence is visible in the rising jets) but spectacularly incandescent at night. There are sometimes significant variations in the intensity and frequency of these jets; at sunset on 10 November there were sometimes pauses of up to 2 minutes while at about 0530 h (local time) on 11 November the activity was continuous.
Shifting wind directions during the past few days have resulted in complicated patterns of tephra distribution, although the most commonly affected sectors vary from south to east. Light ash falls occurred repeatedly in the Catania area, forcing the renewed closure of the Fontanarossa International Airport.

5 November 2002 update. On the early morning of 27 October, a new flank eruption began at Etna after only few hours of premonitory seismicity. This eruption was more violent and more devastating than the previous flank eruption in July-August 2001 and once more occurred from fissures on two sides of the volcano: at about 2750 m on the southern flank, and at elevations between 2500 and 2200 m on the northeastern flank, in an area known as the Northeast Rift. After its extremely vigorous start, the eruption showed a declining trend which continues as of 5 November.
The tourist complex and skiing areas of Piano Provenzana were nearly completely devastated by the lava flows that issued from the NE Rift vents on the first day of the eruption. Heavy tephra falls occurred mostly in areas to the south of the volcano and nearly paralyzed public life in Catania and nearby towns. Strong seismicity and ground deformation accompanied the eruption; a particularly strong shock (magnitude 4.4) on 29 October destroyed and damaged numerous buildings on the lower southeastern flank, in the area of Santa Venerina.
The following is a summary of the events since the last update on this site (2 June 2002) and a preliminary analysis of the significance of this eruption in the framework of Etna's recent activity. Rather than "Etna News", this report tempts to provide an overview of the eruption in English language and in a comprehensive manner; please note that some of the information is preliminary and thus subject to possible change.
Prelude. Was there a prelude to the 2002 eruption of Etna? Compared to the vigorous and spectacular summit eruptions that had preceded the 2001 eruption, the 2002 eruption had very few precursors, and in any case these did not permit to foresee or predict the event. First, there was a relatively brief period of mild summit activity, which started in mid-June with explosions at the Bocca Nuova, and soon after the activity extended to the Northeast Crater. Between early July and mid-September the Northeast Crater was the site of Strombolian activity which led to a rapid shallowing of its central pit, and at times bombs fell onto the outer flanks of the Northeast Crater cone.
On 22 September, a magnitude 3.6 earthquake occurred on the northeastern flank of Etna, in an area known as Piano Pernicana. This event was accompanied by extensive ground fracturing, which was especially notable on the "Mareneve" road, which connected the town of Linguaglossa and Piano Provenzana. At the time the event was not interpreted as being directly related to the eruptive activity of the volcano, but a few days later, all activity at the summit craters ceased, except for a few minor phreatomagmatic explosions at the Northeast Crater. In hindsight, it might be speculated that the earthquake signalled the opening of the Northeast Rift, and magma drained from the central conduit system into the flank of the volcano, causing the abrupt cessation of the summit activity.
For the following weeks the summit craters showed no activity except quiet degassing. Mountain guides who visited the craters on Saturday 26 October noted nothing unusual, but late on that day magma began to move within the volcano.
Precursory seismicity. An intense earthquake swarm at shallow depth within the volcano began at approximately 2230 h (local time=GMT+2; note that the eruption beginning coincided with the return from the Middle European Summer Time to the normal Middle European Time), and this was the first clear indicator of the impending eruption. A group of hikers staying at the Hotel "Le Betulle" at Piano Provenzana, at about 1800 m elevation on the northeastern flank of Etna, was awakened by the tremors and had to abandon the building which was seriously damaged by the seismicity. The seismic activity was caused by the rapid uprise of magma and associated fracturing of the flanks of the volcano.
Eruption begins. At approximately 0200 h a few persons watching the summit of Etna noted the sudden onset of high lava fountaining from the Northeast Crater, which lasted only a few minutes. Less than two hours later, lava fountaining began at a new eruptive fissure at about 2700 m elevation on the southern flank. This fissure lay about 1 km to the northwest of the largest cone formed during the 2001 eruption (which a few weeks earlier had been officially named "Monte Josemaria Escrivà"). The activity was accompanied by loud detonations and led to the rapid growth of a large pyroclastic column, which was driven by the wind to the south.
Shortly thereafter a second eruptive fissure became active in the central portion of the Northeast Rift, in the area of a fissure that was active in 1809. Eyewitnesses who stayed at Piano Provenzana, only about 1.5 km downslope, stated that the opening of each new vent was accompanied by strong seismicity, which destroyed or damaged most of the structures at the tourist complex, and intense ground fracturing. Lava began to issue from the new vents and to spill down the slope above Piano Provenzana, destroying part of the ski lifts in the area. The fissure gradually propagated downslopes, generating more lava flows that came closer and closer to the buildings at Piano Provenzana.
At dawn on 27 October, an enormous black cloud rose several kilometers above the vents on the upper southern flank, while smaller ash columns rose from the vents on the Northeast Rift. The plume was driven southward over the densely populated areas around Catania, causing heavy ash falls were to paralyze public life and traffic for several days. The eruption was well visible even at great distance, such as the Aeolian Islands, more than 100 km to the north. For many hours the summit area of the volcano was completely veiled by the ash clouds, and it was difficult to obtain a clear idea of what was happening in the eruption area.
At noon on the same day, the first lava flow began to invade Piano Provenzana, and a few hours later, the once verdant plain with its touristic structures had been virtually obliterated by the lava.
Eruption progress, earthquakes and displacements. By the afternoon of 27 October, the main lava flow which had buried Piano Provenzana was rapidly advancing across the beautiful pine forest of Linguaglossa (locally known as "Ragabo", a word derived from the Arabian, which means "great forest"). Portions of the forest were set ablaze and helicopters and canadair were busy in dousing the fires. At the fissure on the southern flank, the activity was purely explosive (that is, no lava was emitted from these vents), and the immediate surroundings of the fissure were buried under a thick blanket of pyroclastics, transforming much of the 2001 lava flows into a gray desert of scoriae and ash.
During the night of 27-28 October, the fissure on the Northeast Rift propagated further downslope to an elevation of approximately 2200 m, and new lava flows began to advance along the lower portion of the rift, passing on the eastern side of the large cone of Monte Nero (formed during an eruption in 1646-1647). At the same time, lava flowed for the first time from the lowermost vent on the southern flank and formed a flow that advanced southwestward. This flow did not threaten the tourist complex around the Rifugio Sapienza, which had been seriously threatened by the 2001 eruption.
On 28 October it became clear that the eruption onset had been accompanied by significant displacements along the Pernicana Fault on the northeastern flank of Etna. The "Mareneve" road had been fractured in numerous places, and displacements were observed in an area lying between the lower portion of the Northeast Rift to the west and the village of Vena to the east. Evidently a portion of the eastern flank of the volcano had moved sideward, toward the sea. Continuing movement was indicated by the continuing seismic activity, with hundreds of minor earthquakes distributed in several areas on the northeastern and eastern flanks. During the forenoon of 29 October, these earthquakes became stronger and more frequent and culminated in a magnitude 4.4 event, whose epicenter lay near the village of Santa Venerina on the lower southeastern flank of Etna. Numerous buildings in a portion of the village were damaged or destroyed, and more than 1000 people left homeless; fortunately there were no reports of serious injuries among the population. The earthquakes dramatically increased the nervosism prevailing in the area since the beginning of the eruption. One day later, a magnitude 5.4 earthquake occurred several hundred kilometers to the north, in the region of Molise (central-southern Italy), destroying buildings and causing 29 fatalities; this event was not related to the geodynamic activity at Etna.
During the first days of the eruption, three of the four summit craters were active as well. The Northeast Crater showed intermittent Strombolian activity, indiating that magma was still at high levels in the central conduit system, and ash was emitted periodically from the Bocca Nuova and the Voragine. The Southeast Crater, which had actively participated in the 2001 eruption (and the prelude to that eruption) was entirely quiet.
Eruption wanes. On the third day of the eruption, a distinct decrease of the intensity of the activity was evident. The lava flows emitted from the Northeast Rift vents slowed; the longest of these had reached a length of about 5.5 km and was still far from the nearest town (Linguaglossa). A decrease in the effusion rate was also noted at the fissure on the southern flank, but lava fountaining accompanied by voluminous tephra generation continued, and ash continued to fall onto Catania and neighboring areas, forcing the continued closure of the Fontanarossa International Airport.
During the following days the eruptive activity continued at a consistently decreasing trend. On the evening of 1 November the main lava flow on the northeastern flank advanced at a speed of less than 1 m per hour and 24 hours later it was nearly stagnant. Explosive activity at the vents on the Northeast Rift decreased likewise. On 3 November, only a very small portion of the lava flow near the eruptive vents was active; on the southern flank all effusive activity had already ceased by 1 November. The only site of continued vigorous eruptive activity was the largest of the new vents on the southern flank, where a large cone had grown. When observed on the evening of 3 November, this cone had more or less the same dimensions of its one-year-old neighbor, Monte Josemaria Escrivà, being about 100 m high. Intermittent lava fountaining and abundant ash emission continue as of 5 November, but it seems at this point that the eruption is essentially over.
Volcanological features. The 2002 eruption has been described in many reports as a highly unusual event for Etna, and it seems that this is true. Firstly, this is one of the most explosive eruptions of this volcano in recent times. Probably half of the total volume of erupted products is pyroclastics, contrasting with most recent eruptions of Etna which produced mainly (or nearly exclusively) lava. Secondly, the 2002 eruption was actually two eruptions in one, with two different types of magma being erupted on the southern and northeastern flanks. The fissures on the Northeast Rift produced the "common" Etna magma that has been produced by all eruptions in the past few centuries, while the vents on the southern flank produced a magma rich in amphibole, a water-bearing mineral that has been relatively rare in recent products of Etna until the 2001 eruption. In this sense the 2002 eruption is a repetition of the events of July-August 2001, when the same two magma types were erupted simultaneously from the different systems of eruptive fissures. Thirdly, the invasion of Piano Provenzana and the "Ragabo" forest by lava flows marks the end of a long, quiet period in that area; no lava flows had occurred in these places in historic time. The most recent major eruption on the Northeast Rift, in 1923, had occurred a few hundred meters further west on the rift, so that the lava flows traveled along-rift, in the direction of Linguaglossa, while in 2002 most of the lava took a more easterly course.
The eruption produced a number of small scoria cones along the fissure on the Northeast Rift and a cluster of huge cones at the vents on the southern flank. These latter have once more completely changed the topography of what was once known as the "Piano del Lago" (the plain of the lake). Until 27 October 2002 this area bore the scars of the 2001 eruption, most of it being covered with virtually inaccessible lava flows and smaller and larger pyroclastic cones. Now the formerly rugged surface has been transformed in a rolling plain of ash, which will render future excursions on foot much more easy. The abandoned station of the old cable car of Etna (partially destroyed by an eruption in 1983) has been replaced by the lowermost of the new cones, this will give a peculiar taste of thrill to those who until shortly before the eruption used that building as a shelter at night. The new souvenir shop and bar erected by the mountain guides early in 2002 at 2760 m elevation has vanished under the cover of pyroclastics, while the Torre del Filosofo mountain hut at 2900 m elevation is still standing. Those who in the past arrived at the Piano del Lago enjoyed a splendid panorama of the summit cone complex; this will now be largely concealed by the new cones at the fissure at 2700 m elevation.
The precise volumes of lava and pyroclastics emitted during the 2002 eruption is currently not known, but it seems that the eruption produced somewhat less lava and much more pyroclastics than the 2001 eruption. In terms of magma volume, this is not a particularly large eruption for Etna.
Outlook. The 2002 eruption came exactly 1 year, 3 months and 10 days after the beginning of the 2001 eruption. This is a fairly short interval, even considering that between 1971 and 1993 flank eruptions occurred at a mean interval of 1.7 years. Yet, in spite of the very brief period of precursory symptoms, this is no surprise. After the 2001 eruption, several scientists knowing Etna had assumed that the next eruption would occur within one to two years, and in fact the eruption fell exactly into this time window. The assumption is based on the historical behavior of the volcano, which has undergone significant fluctuations during the 400 years of reasonably complete documentation since 1600. It seems that flank eruptions tend to occur in series, and the 2001 eruption was interpreted as the first in a new series, similar to the striking series of 13 flank eruptions between 1971 and 1993. It thus seemed probable that more such eruptions would occur at relatively brief intervals over a period of 10-20 years. The 2002 eruption is the second in the new series, and it is well possible that the third one is not too distant in the future, especially in the light of the relatively modest volumes of both the 2001 and 2002 eruptions. Furthermore, the volcano was extensively fractured during both eruptions, which in the future might allow magma much more easily to rise under the flanks of the edifice. Last but least, Etna has grown progressively more active during the past 50 years. This means, it is erupting more frequently and more vigorously than during the 280 years before 1950, and its productivity, or output, is increasing. There is no reason to believe that this trend will invert in the near future. Flank eruptions must thus be expected to occur at intervals ranging from 1-3 years, and some of them might be much more voluminous and potentially hazardous than the latest two eruptions.

Download this report in PDF version (updated 7 November 2002)
- sorry for the typos, will be corrected soon -

The 2002 eruption of Mount Etna is now featured on more and more web sites. The two principal sources of information (updates, photographs, and other graphic material) are:

The "official" Etna 2002 eruption web site at the Catania section of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) (in Italian)

Charles Rivière's Etna home page, with frequent updates and photos (in French)

Furthermore there are two web cams pointed on the southern flank of Etna, which can be accessed at the web site of:

Davide Corsaro, of the Hotel Corsaro, located at nearly 2000 m elevation on the southern flank of Etna

Alain Melchior presents interesting digital models of the lava flows of the 2002 eruption and has numerous captures from Italian television news of the eruption

Eruption 2002 de l'Etna (du 26/10/2002 au ?)

One could expect some high-quality photography of the eruption at "Stromboli On-Line", and Marco Fulle's photos do fulfill all expectations...

The 2002 eruption of Etna at Stromboli On-Line

The same is true for Tom Pfeiffer's photos, which are among the most spectacular of the 2002 eruption so far available - Tom was lucky to be at Etna on the evening of 27 October and photograph the most spectacular phases of activity on the Northeast Rift:

www.decadevolcano.com

This is a relatively poorly known site, created in 2000, which has photos and spectacular video clips of the 2002 eruption (and of the activity in 2000 and 2001 as well):

Etna2000.com by Simone Genovese

Another web site that has escaped attention thus far, but deserves to be visited (good photos and movie clips, including one of the spectacular explosive eruption at the Voragine on 22 July 1998):

Malosito/Geoarchive by Giovanni Pappalardo

Very spectacular photos of the still-erupting crater at 2750 m elevation on the southern flank (seen from the Torre del Filosofo area) plus a nice map of the upper southern flank of Etna are available on

Thorsten Boeckel's web site

No less spectacular, the view of the eruption from the International Space Station (NASA):

The eruption seen from space on 30 October 2002

...and, of course, there are photos, updates and video clips at

www.vulcanoetna.com

Much information (in Italian) is offered by the Catania-based newspaper

La Sicilia

 



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