Italy's Volcanoes: The Cradle of Volcanology

Etna Decade Volcano, Italy
Eruption update:
26 March - 27 April 2001
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The Etna telecamera is maintained by the "Sistema Poseidon" and there is no relationship of any kind with this site and its author. The Poseidon web site is in Italian, and the link to the telecamera is changed frequently, so that it is not indicated here (click on "Etna live cam" on the Poseidon home page). Please note also that all information provided on the present page (and the archived Etna news pages) is informal, based on personal observations, and is not intended to substitute, or compete with, the news bulletins now issued regularly at the Poseidon web site.

WARNING: Access to the summit area is DANGEROUS. Explosive activity is occurring at the Bocca Nuova, and at times bombs are thrown beyond the crater rims. Lava is also flowing from a vent on the NNE flank of the Southeast Crater cone, but this vent is virtually inaccessible due to its remote location and the hostile terrain around it. Guided excursions on the south flank that end at the Torre del Filosofo, at about 2900 m elevation, have resumed in mid-March. Tourists should make excursions only with the mountain guides, even though this will not satisfy the wish to see what's going on at close range. Besides this, weather conditions are often unstable: strong wind, snow or rain and clouds are occuring frequently in the summit area, and one can get easily lost. The mountain guides can be contacted at the cable car (near the Rifugio Sapienza) on the southern side of Etna (phone: 095-914141), or (during the summer) at the hotel "Le Betulle" at Piano Provenzana, on the northern side (phone: 095-643430).

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26 March 2001 update. On 25 March, Boris Behncke (Dipartimento di Scienze Geologiche of the University of Catania) and Giuseppe Scarpinati (Italian delegate of the "Association Volcanologique Européenne" based in Paris, France) visited the summit craters of Etna for the first time since 25 October 2000. It was a welcome escape from the unusual heat of the Catanese lowlands (on 24 and 25 March, the thermometer struck 37° C) and a long-awaited return to the "fiery lover", which had remained, in Behncke's case, a distant landmark throughout the period of PhD completion. The volcano greeted them with splendid, though relatively modest, activity at the Bocca Nuova and the effusive vents low on the NNE flank of the Southeast Crater cone.
The Bocca Nuova, from a morphological point of view, was very much like last autumn, with two large pits in its NW and E parts. Both pits were erupting, but in quite different manner. The E pit, about 100 m wide and no more than 25 m deep, had four closely spaced vents on its floor, of which one was the site of continuous Strombolian activity. This activity varied from relatively weak spattering to fairly strong bursts which produced jets densely charged with incandescent fragments rising at times up to 100 m above the lip of the pit. The fragments fell mostly on the SE and E sides of the pit, and so it was possible to peer into the pit from its S and SW rims. The active vent, located in the NW part of the pit's floor, was 5-10 m across, the other (inactive) vents had similar diameters and were mildly fuming. The activity in this pit was purely magmatic, with virtually no vapor generation.
The NW pit, which has a diameter of about 150 m, showed a strikingly different, and far more dangerous, behavior. During a brief glimpse into that pit from its SW side it was possible to ascertain that it was quite shallow as well - 30 m or so below the lowest point of its (S) rim. Its floor was occupied by a broad, low pyroclastic cone with an active vent in its SE part. This vent would produce low pitched hissing noises every few seconds, and for certain periods it emitted dense, white steam plumes indicative of a high degree of humidity within the conduit (relative air humidity was exceptionally low at that time). Then, a dull, muffled, roaring noise would come from the vent, accompanied by the rapid ascent of a jet of grayish-brown ash. Through the rising puff of ash thousands of dark rock fragments would shoot considerably higher, and these often fell outside the pit in all directions. After dodging some falling fragments, Behncke and Scarpinati noted that some of these were fresh scoriae, up to 10 cm long, while others were dense lithic blocks which were quite hot to the touch and emitting wisps of vapor. One block which fell about 8 m from Behncke was about 6 cm across. Dense projectiles of this size can cause serious injury if falling on a person's head.
Most ejecta, however, fell back into the vent and onto the adjacent walls of the pit, triggering rockslides into the vent. This seems to have been the principal mechanism of the activity in this pit: the sliding material clogged the vent until a new burst would temporarily clear its throat. Evidently much of this material was moist, causing abundant evaporation once it had slid into the hot conduit. The activity was phreatomagmatic, but fortunately it was mild - in 1979 a significantly larger phreatic explosion in the Bocca Nuova caused the death of 9 people and injured more than 20 others.
The Bocca Nuova floor surrounding the two active pits was littered both with scoriaceous and dense bombs. The largest among them (up to 3 m in diameter) were clearly older, probably from the period of intense activity in October-November 2000, but some fresh clasts lying as far as 50 m from the NW pit were up to 0.5 m across.
The second target of the visit was the active lava flow issuing from a vent (or to say more precisely, a cluster of vents) low on the NNE flank of the Southeast Crater cone. Of all places on Etna where an effusive vent could be located, this is probably one of the least accessible, and it lies in a precarious position near the Southeast Crater whose violently explosive potential has been unleashed 66 times in 2000. To say it in a few clear words, getting to that vent is a BIG pain in the neck. Either descending from the E side of the main summit cone or struggling one's way across the lower E side of the Southeast Crater cone, one encounters a highly hostile environment, and above this looms, with its tantalizing steepness, the Southeast Crater cone, presently quiet but who knows for how long.
In return for the tremendous struggle to reach the effusive vents, the place where the lava reaches the surface is a relatively bland affair. On 25 March, from the top of a wmall knob (or tumulus) there oozed two narrow rivers of lava, one to the E, the other to the W, the latter turning N at 2-3 m from the source. There was no kind of explosive activity at the source of the two flows, neither could any high-pressure degassing be observed.
The most striking thing about this effusive activity was how similar it was to the lava emission on the SE side of the Southeast Crater cone two years earlier, especially in its quieter moments. Both flows issued at a combined effusion rate of less than 1 cubic meter per second, but smaller flows issued from a few points on the lower W and N flanks of the tumulus, so that the overall effusion rate may have been as much as one cubic meter per second. Several active flows were seen moving NE and E to a distance of 250-300 m from the summit of the tumulus, amidst stagnant older lobes of lava. A fan-shaped compound lava field spanning a sector from NNE to ESE and consisting of numerous leveed flow lobes had formed during the preceding more than 2 months of effusive activity.
Surely enough any visitor to Etna should decline from the idea to visit the flowing lava on the NNE side of the Southeast Crater cone. Exept to experienced conoisseurs of Etna, it is virtually inaccessible. A dense, sulfur dioxide-rich plume from the Bocca Nuova frequently passes directly over the area, making breathing difficult. The terrain immediately around the tumulus consists of sharply edged, loose, unstably placed blocks, and the risk of stumbling and falling on this material is high. The (rather inexistent) path around the E side of the Southeast Crater cone is covered with countless blocks, with diameters of tens of centimeters, which have fallen down the oversteepened E face of the cone. Rockfalls were frequent during Behncke's and Scarpinati's return passage through that area. Furthermore, in the case of a sudden reactivation of the Southeast Crater or of an intensification of activity at the effusive vents, there is hardly any escape route.
Last week local newspapers and television reported on the lava flow for the first time since its initiation (20 January), and surprisingly it was this media coverage which finally aroused the interest of locals. Due to its modest extension, and because it frequently hides behind the ridge formed in 2000 at the lower end of the eruptive fracture on the NNE side of the Southeast Crater cone, the flowing lava has been almost invisible for the naked eye from the larger populated centers on the lower E, SE and S flanks of Etna.

6 April 2001 update. Fine weather has returned to Sicily earlier this week, and Etna has been visible most of the time. Snow that had fallen over the weekend rapidly melted, and the mountain, as viewed from south, is practically snow-free, unusually early this year. During a two day-long excursion with students from Bern, Switzerland, Etna was observed over long periods, and it seems that the activity at its summit craters has somewhat decreased lately. There is still lava flowing from a vent low on the NNE flank of the Southeast Crater cone, much the same way it has done since about 20 January, but the Bocca Nuova has calmed down to produce only sporadic ash emissions. No night glow has been seen at that crater throughout this week.
Yet the excursion was a great event to everyone who participated. We first got up to about 2500 m elevation with the cable-car on the southern flank and then climbed to the summit of the Montagnola, a large cinder cone formed during an eruption in 1763, from where there is a marvellous view over the summit area of the volcano, and eastwards into the spectacular Valle del Bove, a huge depression (caldera) formed when the eastern flank of the volcano collapsed about 8000 years ago.
The second part of the escursion led to an area about 2 km to the west of the Rifugio Sapienza, at about 1800 m elevation on the south-southwestern flank, which has beautiful forests, cut by various generations of lava flows (1537, 1780, and 1985, all of which have a thin cover of scoriaceous lapilly erupted in 2000). On the second day the group was guided to the Monti Rossi, one of Etna's largest flank craters, which erupted in 1669 and produced a lava flow which eventually reached the outskirts of Catania, after annihilating 15 villages. This crater lies about half way between the summit and the city of Catania, and a visit to this site gives an impression of the sheer dimensions of Etna. The final stop was the area where the 1669 lava flow reached the sea south of Catania. Outcrops of the lava are present in a few locations at what at the time were the western and southern margins of the city.

27 April 2001 update. During the three weeks since the previous update, activity at the summit craters of Etna has continued, at a decreased rate first, but in a progressively increasing manner since about 20 April. Lava effusion from a vent on the lower NNE flank of the Southeast Crater cone has continued unabated, and an increase in the effusion rate has become evident on 26 April. Descriptions of summit visits by Charles Rivière and others can be found (in French language) on the web site "Etna volcan sicilien". Seismic activity in the Etna area, more vigorous than in previous months, is reported in detail in the 16-22 April bulletin of the Poseidon monitoring network (now part of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology INGV). The following is based on direct observations made by Behncke and Scarpinati on 25-27 April.
When returning from a visit to Lipari on 25 April, Behncke noted ash emissions from the Bocca Nuova and light gas emissions from the effusive vent on the NNE flank of the Southeast Crater cone. The following day at nightfall, Scarpinati noted that the active lava flow from that vent had lengthened significantly and was well visible with the naked eye. Scarpinati estimated the length of the incandescent flow at at least 600 m.
During daylight on 27 April, dense gas emissions (not forceful, though) were visible at the summit vent of the Southeast Crater. These emissions were considerably denser than during recent weeks and their concomitance with the increased lava output at the effusive vent might indicate a higher magma flux towards that crater, which last erupted vigorously in late August 2000. Increased activity at that same vent in February 2001 culminated in a brief episode of Strombolian activity, but was not followed by paroxysmal lava fountaining, tephra emission and production of voluminous lava flows.

Several other web pages covering the recent and ongoing eruptions of the Southeast Crater are now available; these contain photos and movie clips of some of the most spectacular moments of that period.

Etna in 2000 - a list of all paroxysms at the SE Crater since 26 January and photos (this site)

Etna in 2000 - various pages at Stromboli On-line with photos and movie clips of SE Crater paroxysms and Bocca Nuova gas rings: most photos are of Marco Fulle, the artist photographer among us

Extremely spectacular video clips, taken by British cameraman and film maker David Bryant on 15 February 2000
At "Italy's Volcanoes" -
At Stromboli On-line

An interview with Boris Behncke, made in late February 2000 by a BBC team and a video clip (RealPlayer)

Photos of the eruptive activity, 15-23 February 2000, by Tom Pfeiffer (University of Arhus, Denmark) - scroll to bottom of page

Photos of an eruptive episode on 13 February 2000, posted on the web site of the Association Volcanologique Européenne, Paris, France

Thorsten Boeckel's web site (Germany) with photos and movie clips of several paroxysm of the SE Crater in February, April and June 2000

A small web page reporting on Etna's current activity - and check what happens to your cursor on that page...

Charles Rivière's Etna home page, with many photos and video clips (the most recent of the paroxysm of 5 May 2000), frequent updates, and other, highly interesting items (in French and English)

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

Page set up on 27 May 1997, last modified on 27 April 2001

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