Italy's Volcanoes: The Cradle of Volcanology

Etna Decade Volcano, Italy
Eruption update:
2-24 December 2002
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New vent at 2800 m elevation, 25 November 2002
First day of activity at a small vent to the north of the large pyroclastic cone formed during first month of eruption (its base is visible at the extreme right). This vent, which had been active briefly at the beginning of the eruption became active again on 25 November 2002 and since then is building a second new cone. Photo taken by Parinello and published in the 26 November 2002 issue of "La Sicilia"

1 December 2002
Spectacular view from southwest of the eruption on 1 December 2002, with a dense eruption column rising from the vent at 2800 m elevation and a less vigorous ash plume issuing from the summit of the main pyroclastic cone (at right). Other features visible in the photograph are: Monte Frumento Supino (center), a prehistoric pyroclastic cone, the inactive cone of the Southeast Crater in left center, and the main summit cone with a white gas plume issuing from the Bocca Nuova (at left). Photo was published in the 2 December 2002 issue of "La Sicilia"

WARNING: After the explosion near the Rifugio Sapienza on the evening of 16 December it is uncertain whether access to the eruption area has been reopened. Information will be posted once it is known what decisions have been made.
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, and two buildings of the tourist complex around the Rifugio Sapienza have been destroyed by lava on 16-17 December 2002.

The latest update is below this line

24 December 2002 update. NOTE: This will be the last update on this page for the year 2002. Updating will be resumed around 7 January 2003. Updates are provided nearly continuously on the INGV-Catania web site and by Charles Rivière.
Eruptive activity on the southern flank continues, 60 days after the beginning of the 2002 eruption. The past few days have seen the common alternations between Strombolian activity and ash emissions; on the evening of 23 December a northerly wind caused renewed light ash falls in the area between Catania and Acireale. Lava issues from a vent on the southwestern base of the pyroclastic cone and forms a flow to the southwest, which at this moment does not represent a threat to man-made structures. Although during the past week the activity has been relatively modest, there are currently no signs that it will stop soon, and the 2002 eruption of Mount Etna may well become the 2002-2003 eruption.

21 December 2002 update. The past few days at Mount Etna have been characterized by a relatively regular prosecution of the eruptive activity on the upper southern flank. The main focus of activity is the enormous pyroclastic cone that stands now more than 150 m above the pre-eruption surface at 2750 m; explosive activity has occurred from up to two vents at the summit of this cone and alternated between largely ash-free Strombolian bursts and more copious ash emissions with intermittent lava fountains. Lava has continued to issue from a vent on the southern base of the cone and during the past three days fed three main flows, the longest of which has advanced along the western margin of the late-November southwestern lava flow. The other two flows were moving south-southwest and south; the latter being the shortest of the three active flows. Detailed descriptions of the activity and maps of the extent of the lava flows are available on the INGV-Catania web site.
On 21 December, the activity on the southern flank continued much in the same manner as during the previous days, although explosive activity was very weak for several hours before and at daybreak. More vigorous ash emissions started again sometime between 0700 and 0800 h (local time=GMT+1), feeding a moderately dense plume that rose vertically to about 1000 m height due to the absence of wind. At the same time, there seems to be a slight intensification of the activity at the Bocca Nuova, the westernmost of the four summit craters. Intermittent ash puffs alternating with dense gas emissions are visible this morning, feeding a plume that appears much more significant than the plume of the southern flank vent in images transmitted by the live-cam at Riposto, which is maintained by The significance of this observation is not clear; however it is possible that the central conduit system, which has been drained during the first days of the 2002 eruption via the Northeast Rift, is recharging. This system seems to be largely independent of the second system that continues to feed the activity on the southern flank and thus might well enter into a phase of renewed activity in the not-too-distant future, no matter whether the eccentric activity on the southern flank continues or ends.

19 December 2002 update. After the dramatic days at the beginning of this week, the situation on Mount Etna has somewhat relaxed. Eruptive activity continues at the cone at 2750 m elevation. Explosive activity shows frequent shifts from lava fountaining and ash emissions to Strombolian explosions and vice versa, but on a general level, ash emission is less continuous and voluminous than in previous weeks. Lava effusion has shifted to a vent on the southern flank of the cone and is now feeding a flow to the southwest, while feeding of the previous southward flow seems to have ceased, or in any case diminished significantly. As a result lava is no longer menacing the tourist complex around the Rifugio Sapienza, at least for the time being.
The causes of the explosion on the late evening of 16 December are still subject to some incertainty, although more light has been shed on the event and its consequences. A report in the 18 December issue of "La Sicilia" states that the explosion occurred when lava entered in contact with the electric transformator system in the cellar of the Provincial Tourism Agency building. The system was cooled with a special type of oil, whose evaporation when enclosed by the lava, caused the explosion. However, there was also a cistern nearby that was used to spray water on the advancing lava, which many speculated to have been the source of the explosion. Flying debris (much of this being incandescent clots of lava) set the restaurant "Esagonal" ablaze, which itself was not touched by the lava, and would be still there hadn't there been the explosion.
The main lava lobe cut across the Provincial Road 92, following an artificial channel created during the days before, and extended some 200 m further downslope before stopping. A secondary lobe, which had overtopped the protective wall on the western side of the main lobe, stopped short of the row of souvenir shops. As usual, more detailed information and maps are available on the INGV-Catania web site.
Meanwhile there is a feeling of general relief in the Catania area as all airlines which had boycotted the airport of the city have returned to full service. Ash falls have not arrived at the airport since 8 December, and the volume of ash emitted by the eruption on a whole seems to have decreased, or at least ash emission has been intermittent in recent days. Furthermore the Italian Government seems now to be willing to grant financial and logistic aid to the region affected by the ongoing eruption.

Lava, 16 December 2002
A broad river of lava is seen issuing from the base of the active pyroclastic cone at 2750 m elevation on the southern flank of Mount Etna in this photograph taken by Fabrizio Villa on the evening of 16 December 2002 and published in the 17 December 2002 issue of "La Sicilia"

Esagonal burning
Damaged car
Two images of the night of 16-17 December 2002, showing the burning restaurant "Esagonal", Civil Protection staff watching the destruction and a car badly damaged by the explosion caused by lava getting in contact with a cistern or fuel reservoir. Note protective suits put on after the explosion in left photo. Both images are from the web site of "La Sicilia"

17 December 2002 update. The situation in the eruption area on the southern flank of Mount Etna has become more complex since the afternoon of 16 December. New surges of lava descending the steep slope above the tourist complex commonly associated with the Rifugio Sapienza has destroyed at least two buildings, cut the Provincial Road 92, and an explosion possibly caused by invasion of a cistern by lava has injured 32 persons. Information is preliminary and based on press reports, mostly "La Sicilia".
The first building to be destroyed was the Tourism Agency of the Province of Catana (APT), the most easterly of the structures of the Rifugio Sapienza tourism complex except two restaurants located near the Monti Silvestri. Later that evening lava approached the nearby restaurant "Esagonal", which was set ablaze (some of the souvenir shops below that building are also reported to have been consumed by the lava during the night). Sometime between 2330 and 2345 h (local time=GMT+1) a powerful explosion shook the area, which was heard in nearby villages and initially caused fears that new eruptive vents had opened at lower elevation. From press reports it seems that lava invaded a cistern at the "Esagonal", which had been emptied as a precaution, but possibly there was still water remaining which instantaneously evaporated at the contact with the lava. Another possibility is that a kerosene reservoir - which had also been emptied before - exploded.
The latest figures given in news reports (such as at the Italian News Agency ANSA) are 32 injured, three of them had to remain in hospital for treatment while in the other cases injury seems to have been minor. Two of the injured are policemen (carabinieri), two firemen, two voluntaries, the President of the local association of mountaineers (Club Alpino Italiano, CAI), a local politician, and ten "civilians" who were watching the course of events. Injuries include burns, lacerations and escoriations caused by flying debris, which arrived to a distance of at least 800 m to the west (Hotel Corsaro). At least one person was injured when a powerful pressure wave made her fall. A number of cars were damaged by falling debris.
A similar though much more serious accident occurred during the eruption of 1843 on the western flank of Etna. In that case it is assumed that lava entered a cistern or covered marshy ground, which resulted in a powerful explosion. Debris was showered over a large group of spectators, of which about sixty were killed and many others injured. That disaster actually marks the highest death toll ever associated with a historically documented eruption of Etna.
Also during the night of 16-17 December, explosive activity changed from lava and ash fountaining to discrete, ash-poor Strombolian explosions, as plainly seen from surrounding towns. The ash content in the eruption plume increased again somewhat during the forenoon of 17 December. Lava continues to be supplied from two vents at the southern base of the active pyroclastic cone. Television footage and photographs in the "La Sicilia" newspaper show impressive lava rivers indicating an increased effusion rate during the past few days as compared to previous episodes of effusive activity on the southern flank during the past five weeks.

16 December 2002 evening update. According to a report in the on-line version of the Catania newspaper "La Sicilia", lava flowing from the still-active cone on the southern flank of Mount Etna has overwhelmed and buried a building of the Provincial Tourism Agency, located close to the surviving base station of the cable-car. Another lava lobe seems to be moving slowly toward the cable-car station. This information has so far not been confirmed by the INGV-Catania web site, where the latest update was posted on 1530 h (local time=GMT+1). The "La Sicilia" report further states that another lobe of lava is heading in the direction of the cable-car station, but gives no data on the speed of this lobe. "For this flow there are no possibilities of intervention by means of containment dikes", says the report. Still another lobe of lava is reported to move toward the remains of the arrival station of the cable-car, located at approximately 2500 m on the western flank of the Montagnola. That station had been burned but not buried by lava during the 2001 eruption. Its impressive ruin, which had attracted many visitors prior to the 2002 eruption, had been dismantled sometime in September or October 2002 as a first step toward reconstruction of the cable-car.
As a reaction to the continued lack of support from the Italian government, the (center-right) administration of the city of Catania has decided unanimously to symbolically abandon their duties "unless appropriate financial contributions are guaranteed to alleviate damage caused by the Etna emergency". This decision has received support also from politicians of the center-left opposition, where it is described as "a gesture of pride in a city which first has been neglected and then been abandoned to its fate". The airport of Catania is fully functioning during daylight, but virtually all Italian air companies have decided to serve only the Palermo and Reggio Calabria airports. A few foreign companies such as Air Malta and Lufthansa are flying to Catania, which received the most recent ash falls on 8 December.

16 December 2002 update. Eruptive activity on the upper southern flank of Mount Etna is continuing with explosive ash emission and lava flows, which descend toward the touristic area around the Rifugio Sapienza and threaten to interrupt the Provincial Road 92. As of 15 December, the most advanced flow front was less than 100 m from that road and advancing slowly, while numerous superposed but generally slow lobes of active lava were advancing higher upslope. Containment dikes (earth barriers) were built around and below the active flows to prevent them from reaching buildings and force any eventual flow crossing the road into a very narrow bed. On 16 December, a dense ash plume periodically rises from the growing pyroclastic cone at (originally) 2750 m elevation, and is being blown southeastward by prevailing winds. More information on the progress of the lava flows and the activity in general can be found at the INGV-Catania web site.
A good bit of news is that excursion groups can now visit the eruption area if accompanied by expert mountain guides. Excursions are possible wherever eruption and weather conditions allow, but once again, only with mountain guides accompanying the groups. No one is allowed to enter the restricted area (above about 1700 m elevation) without being accompanied by guides. The decision to allow guided excursions might help tourism in the Etna area return to life.

13 December 2002 update. No big surprise, the eruption on the southern flank of Mount Etna is continuing. Ash is being emitted from the pyroclastic cone at 2750 m elevation and blown eastward by a strong wind, and lava continues to issue from two vents at the southeastern base of the cone. The more vigorous of the two flows has advanced to 1950 m elevation and is close to the Provincial Road 92, which connects the tourist facilities around the Rifugio Sapienza with the town of Zafferana Etnea. Since its course is more easterly than that of the previous flow in the area in late November, it does not immediately threaten the buildings and infrastructures of the tourist complex except for the road, but the latest update on the INGV-Catania web site indicates that advance of the flow has slowed significantly. The extent of the lava flows emitted until 12 December is shown in the map of the INGV web site as usual new updates are posted during the late afternoon (local time). It has also to be noted that the INGV Catania is now posting images from a second live-cam (besides the one at Milo, on the eastern flank of Etna), which is located at the Institute's data acquisition center (CUAD) in the northwestern part of Catania, nearly 27 km from the summit.
Meanwhile the Etna region continues to suffer enormously from the secondary effects of the eruption, especially from the collapse of tourism and the near-constant blockage of the Fontanarossa International Airport. As a matter of fact many airlines are now essentially boycotting the airport although the latest ash falls around Catania occurred during the night of 7-8 December and the airport is fully operational since then. Damage caused by the direct and indirect effects of the eruption up to now amounts to 831 million Euro (which is about 850 million US$), according to a report in the 13 December issue of the newspaper "La Sicilia". This figure does not include, among others, losses to tourism business at Taormina, where reservations for the Christmas-New Year period are down by 70% as compared to last year and few bookings have so far been made for the year 2003. Tourism on Etna itself has been virtually cancelled since the portion of the mountain above 1900 m on the southern and 1500 m on the northern flank has been rendered practically inaccessible by the eruption (see also the 10 December 2002 "editorial": Sicily - "the prisoners of Etna"?).

12 December 2002 update. Lava flowing from the still-active cone at 2750 m elevation on the southern flank of Mount Etna is rapidly descending the steep slope above the tourist facilities around the Rifugio Sapienza. In the latest update (12 December 2002, 1300 h) on the web site of the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (Catania section) the velocity of the flow front is given as 3 meters per minute, and at 0900 h the flow front was at 2120 m elevation, 200 m above the Rifugio Sapienza, and 2.9 km from its source. The area is hermetically closed to access by non-authorized persons. This situation seems to be a neat repetition of the last weekend of November, when lava followed the same path and passed at a distance of a few meters from the surviving departure station of the cable car before stopping short of the Provincial Road 92. A map of the active lava flows as of 11 December is available at the INGV web site; the updated extent of the lava flows is likely to be posted later today.
Ash emission from the 2750 m cone is continuing intermittently, while explosive activity at its neighbor at 2800 m seems to have stopped. This, however, is too late for the "Torre del Filosofo" mountain hut, which has been completely buried by pyroclastics from the 2800 cone. A report with impressive photographs (in PDF format) has been posted at the INGV web site. "Torre del Filosofo" was a popular observation point of activity of the Southeast Crater in the past and narrowly escaped destruction by lava flows from that crater in 1989 and 2000. A few months before the 2002 eruption reconstruction of the building was initiated, which had never been officially inaugurated as a mountain refuge and was in a bad shape at that time. With this, another "outpost" of human civilization (both in the positive and negative sense of the word) on Mount Etna has gone, adding to the tourist structures of Piano Provenzana, the arrival station of the cable car and several more or less ruined buildings (stations of earlier generations of the cable car and the "Piccolo Rifugio" mountain hut) that were destroyed during the 2001 and 2002 eruptions. It seems that there are now no intact man-made structures remaining above 2000 m elevation on Etna.

11 December 2002 update. Eruptive activity is continuing at the cluster of vents between 2800 and 2700 m elevation on the southern flank of Mount Etna. At daybreak on 11 December, both pyroclastic cones emitted dense columns of ash, but later during the forenoon ash emission apparently changed to ash-free Strombolian activity, as plainly visible on images transmitted by the Albacom live cam at Riposto, east-northeast of Etna. Lava that began to issue from the southeastern side of the lower of the two cones has divided into several branches, one of which is slowly advancing toward the Rifugio Sapienza area (see the INGV and "La Sicilia" web sites for more information).

Eruptive activity on
10 December 2002

Aerial views of the sites of eruptive activity at 2700-2800 m elevation on Etna's southern flank, 10 December 2002. Both photos show mild eruptive activity from several vents within the crater of the upper (2800 m) cone at left, and stronger explosive activity at the 2750 m cone at center right. Whitish gas is seen rising from the new lava flows at right. The upper photo furthermore shows the crater of the prehistoric (and snow-covered) cone Monte Frumento Supino in lower left corner.

Upper photo is from the web site of "La Sicilia", lower one from the 11 December 2002 issue of the same newspaper

10 December 2002 update. The 2002 eruption of Mount Etna is continuing on its 45th day without showing any signs of abating; today it rather seems to be once more gaining vigor. During the first 10 days of the eruption, activity occurred simultaneously at two systems of eruptive fissures, on the northeastern and southern flanks of the volcano. The northeastern fissures ceased erupting around 5 November, but on the southern flank activity has continued without interruptions to the present day. For several weeks the activity in this place was purely explosive, leading to the growth of a huge pyroclastic cone, whose summit eventually grew to about 150 m above the original (pre-eruption) surface at 2750 m. Starting on 13 November, lava began to flow from a vent on the southern side of the cone, extending about 4 km to the southwest, and another flow from the southeastern side of the cone extended southward to a similar distance a week later. Yet another flow advanced about 4 km southwest in late November and stopped during the first days of December. Meanwhile, on 25 November, explosive activity extended to several vents on the main pyroclastic cone and at its northern base, at about 2800 m elevation. The vent at 2800 m was the most active, leading to the rapid growth of a new cone and heavy tephra falls nearly buried the "Torre del Filosofo" mountain hut. During the first week of December, explosive activity was essentially limited to this vent, and there was no lava outflow.
On 8 December, ash emission and lava fountaining from the 2800 m vent changed to violent Strombolian explosions, and volcanologists of the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (INGV) expressed their concern about a possible resumption of lava emission. One day later ash emissions resumed, and sometime before the early morning of 10 December, explosive activity once more shifted to the main pyroclastic cone, while the 2800 m cone became less active, and lava emission began at about the same time, feeding a flow to the south. As of noon on 10 December, this flow is reported to be vigorously advancing, with its front at about 2650 m (source: "La Sicilia", probably citing INGV volcanologists). If this flow undergoes the same evolution as its predecessors, it might extend about 4 km from its source and once more theaten the tourist facilities around the Rifugio Sapienza. It is expected that access to the area will be severely restricted, only a few days after roadblocks at about 1500 m had been removed to allow access to the Rifugio Sapienza area.

5 December 2002 update. Explosive activity continues at one vent, in the northernmost portion of the fissure opened on the upper southern flank of Mount Etna on 27 October 2002. This vent became active on 25 November and lies on the northern side of a large pyroclastic cone formed during the previous four weeks, which is inactive since several days. A new cone is actively growing at the still-active vent; its summit is now higher (more than 2900 m) than that of the previously active cone (about 2900 m). Ash emission and lava fountaining are vigorous, and continuous tephra falls, the hallmark of the 2002 eruption, have affected areas to the northeast and east during the past few days. Lava emission seems to have (temporarily?) ceased after about three weeks of near continuous effusive activity from vents on the flanks of the pyroclastic cone complex formed during this eruption. Intermittent seismic activity at and around the volcano is a continuing cause of apprehension to the population, and has repeatedly led to near-fatal accidents, as in the case of the partial collapse of a school building at Giarre (east-northeast of Etna) on 2 December. The students and teachers could leave the building in time, having been averted by a smaller earthquake a few minutes earlier.
All geoscientists studying Etna and its ongoing eruption unanimously agree that this eruption might go on quite for some time to come - weeks, if not months. Interviews published in the local press are strongly focused on the continuing nuisance from tephra falls and seismic activity. The main message to the people living around Etna is: get used to the activity of the volcano and its effects. One of the most serious of these effects is the recurrent closure of the International Airport of Catania (even the much more distant airport of Reggio Calabria had to be temporarily closed in these days due to ash from Etna).

2 December 2002 update. A new rain of ash over Catania and surrounding areas occurred on the afternoon of 1 December 2002, forcing the renewed closure of the Fontanarossa International Airport of Catania. Meanwhile, explosive activity continued at two vents on the upper southern flank of Mount Etna, and lava issued from a third vent on the southwestern base of the large pyroclastic cone formed during the first five weeks of activity. However, the most advanced front of the latest lava flow that had devoured a part of a forest on the southwestern flank seems to have essentially stopped.

A summary of the 2002 eruption (up to 11 December)

Piano Provenzana - a requiem

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)

Like in 2001, Lisetta Giacomelli and Roberto Scandone of the University of Roma 3 have created an incredibly informative and well-illustrated web page, which unfortunately is only available in Italian:

Eruzione dell'Etna 2002

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

Two further web cams, located at Riposto (east-northeast of Etna) show a wide-angle view and a close-up of the volcano; these are provided by:

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:

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): 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 Marco Busetta

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

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

La Sicilia


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