Italy's Volcanoes: The Cradle of Volcanology

Etna Decade Volcano, Italy
Eruption update:
27-28 October 1999

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October 1999 lava flows

Sketch map of the upper W flank and the summit area of Etna, showing the approximate directions of lava flows coming from the Bocca Nuvoa as of 25 October, 1900 h. The extent of lava flows emplaced on 22 and 25 October is preliminary. The approximate locations of the eruptive fissure and of the SE vents within the Bocca Nuova are also shown.

WARNING: Access to the summit craters is EXTREMELY DANGEROUS. Activity in the Bocca Nuova and the Voragine is very intense, and bombs are falling over all of the summit area. Access to the craters themselves is absolutely impossible. Besides this, weather conditions are often unstable, even during the summer; summit visitors may be surprised by snowstorms (as occurred on 24 July 1999) or thunderstorms: one man was killed by lightning at about 2000 m elevation near Piano Provenzana on 30 August. Any person who enters the area beyond the Torre del Filosofo mountain hut (2900 m elevation) or the hut of the guides on the northern flank (Baita delle guide, 3000 m elevation) goes at his/her own risk and is not covered by any insurance in case a rescue operation (e.g., with helicopters) is necessary.

28 October 1999 update. On the afternoon of 27 October, a lava flow fed by vigorous activity at the Bocca Nuova since about noon cut the Forestale road on the W flank at about 1750 m elevation and burned a section of a beautiful pine forest. This is the longest flow produced so far by the ongoing summit activity of Etna, and one of the longest flows ever produced by an Etnean summit eruption.

27 October 1999 update. During the past six days (that is, since the 21 October update), eruptive activity from the Bocca Nuova has continued at fluctuating, though generally very high levels, and vigorous Strombolian activity and overflow of lava onto the W flank are occurring as this update is written (1100 h local time=GMT+2). The following provides a summary of the activity between 21 and 26 October; photos and updated maps will be added in the forthcoming days.
After several days of near continuous activity with periods of strong fountaining, powerful Strombolian explosions and milder explosive activity, accompanied by surges of lava overflowing onto the W flank of the volcano, a period of relative quiet ensued on 20 October, permitting a group of volcanologists from the UK to reach the rim of the Bocca Nuova. At this time, Strombolian activity occurred from at least three vents - one in the NW part of the crater, another one in the W and a third one in the SE. All had sizeable pyroclastic cones around them. A small volume of lava traveled through the overflow channel on the W rim of the crater, but active lava did apparently not extend much downslope.
Early the next morning, sometime around 0300 h, an episode of vigorous lava fountaining began, and new lava spilled through the overflow channel; furthermore a broad lava flow spilled over the WSW crater rim over a width of about 100 m, and covered an area to the south of the previously formed lava flow-field, including about 100 m of the dirt road that until 17 October connected the N and S ascent routes on Etna; then the flow ran down the upper WSW flank of the volcano. Although the available information is very sketchy, this activity appears to have lasted until about 0500 that morning. Bad weather precluded visual observation of the volcano throughout the rest of that day, but on the morning of 22 October, the perfectly clear viewing conditions had returned.
Sometime around 0700 on 22 October, Giuseppe Scarpinati (Italian correspondent of the French Association Volcanologique Européenne "L.A.V.E."), from his home in Acireale on the SE flank of Etna, observed mild Strombolian activity (one explosion every 15-20 seconds) at the Bocca Nuova and vigorous lava spattering at the effusive vents that lie on the ESE base of the Southeast Crater cone; lava emission from these vents had apparently increased compared to the previous days. For the next few hours, the activity at the Bocca Nuova gradually increased, and by 1130, another episode of high lava fountaining and lava overflow was in full course. From Catania huge jets of incandescent material to several hundred meters above the crater rim were plainly visible, and a dense, ash-poor column of yellowish gas rose at least 4 km above the summit. Marco Fulle (Astronomical Observartory of Trieste, Italy) witnessed the activity from a distance of a few hundred meters, and reported that the activity apparently occurred from a N-S fissure at least 100 m long in the W part of the Bocca Nuova, ejecting a continuous sheet of very fluid lava. A spectacular torrent of lava ran down the W flank of the main summit cone at a speed of about 50 m per minute, carrying huge incandescent blocks more than 10 m across with it. It seems that this flow covered older lava in the central part of the new lava flow-field, and it extended about half way down the W flank of Etna, much less far than the first large surge of lava on 17-19 October. An overflow may have also occurred on the NNW side of the Bocca Nuova, following a similar path as the lava flow emplaced on 4 September 1999 on the W side of the Voragine.
After climaxing between 1200 and 1230, the activity and the volume of overflowing lava gradually deminished, but sporadic violent explosions threw large bombs hundreds of meters beyond the crater rims in all directions; some bombs fell onto the SE side of the Southeast Crater cone, close to the area of lava effusion. As a precaution, all tourists had been evacuated by the local mountain guides from the summit area and brought down to the Rifugio Sapienza, and the cable car on the S flank of Etna was temporarily stopped. By 1600 h, the activity was limited to a few sporadic expulsions of ash and very rare but powerful explosions which ejected large bombs over the entire main summit cone and as far as the Southeast Crater cone; the last one of these occurred at about 1630. After 1700 the crater remained perfectly quiet.
When Boris Behncke and Giuseppe Scarpinati reached the summit area on that same day, they witnessed the last strong explosion and a few weak ash emissions thereafter; no activity was observed until 2130. Between 2000 and 2100 Behncke and Scarpinati visited the area of effusive activity at the ESE base of the Southeast Crater cone where spattering had ceased several hours earlier, but lava emission from at least 3 vents continued, and incandescent gas was emitted forcefully from two large hornitos that had grown during the activity earlier that day. Flowing lava was seen to a distance of about 500 m from the active vents, both to the NE and E.
Near continuous but rather passive ash emission on the morning of 23 October heralded another episode of high lava fountaining and lava overflow onto the W flank which began at about 1000 h. This activity culminated at about 1045 but was somewhat less intense than the eruptive episode of the previous day; jets of incandescent lava were seen rising up to about 200 m from vents in the W part of the Bocca Nuova. The lava flows emplaced on the W flank during this episode were probably shorter than those produced earlier during the week. There were also unconfirmed reports of activity within the Voragine during this eruptive episode.
Relatively mild Strombolian activity persisted through the evening of 24 October, and minor volumes of lava flowed through the main overflow channel onto the W flank of the main summit cone without extending significantly further. On the evening of 24 October, the activity became more vigorous and offered a spectacular display to a group of mountain guides who ascended tje volcano from N. During the night loud explosions occurred at intervals of several minutes, some of these explosions caused aerial shock waves that rattled windows and doors as far away as Giardini-Naxos and Taormina (24 and 28 km to the NE, respectively).
On the morning of 25 October, ash was emitted sporadically from the Bocca Nuova as Boris Behncke and a group of the Student's Volcano Monitoring Project (Heidberg near Hamburg, Germany) drove towards the volcano from Giardini-Naxos. Powerful explosions which dropped many large bombs to a distance of several hundred meters from the Bocca Nuova were seen while approaching the summit area from Piano Provenzana, and when arriving at Punta Lucia (about 2.5 km NNW of the Bocca Nuova) at about 1130, continuous fountaining was in progress at the crater. Broad jets of lava generally rose 100-200 m above the crater rim, but occasional jets soared to 500 m height, and bombs fell abundantly, mostly in the direction of the Voragine and the N side of the Bocca Nuova. Lava was flowing over the W rim of the crater and descended the W flank of Etna. A large pyroclastic cone stood near the vent that produced most of the fountaining (in the NW part of the Bocca Nuova); the summit of this cone was standing about 30 m above the NW crater rim. Marco Fulle and Roberto Carniel (Stromboli On-line) observed the activity from the SW side of the Bocca Nuova and reported that the activity occurred from a number of vents aligned along a N-S trending fissure in the W part of the Bocca Nuova, and that the main focus of activity shifted from the S end of the fissure to its N end between 1145 and 1300.
The eruptive activity continued to increase gradually between 1200 and 1300, and culminated in the spectacular collapse of a large portion of the WNW rim of the Bocca Nuova. This collapse produced a series of avalanches from which dense, brownish dust plumes rose, rapidly reducing visibility of the Bocca Nuova to a minimum. Large rocks were seen flying down the slope, creating the impression that a new vent had opened there, but later no evidence of such a vent was found, instead a deep notch was formed through which a large torrent of lava ran downslope at a velocity of several tens of meters per minute, carrying boulders up to 20 m in diameter with it. These boulders appeared to be derived in part from the collapsed crater rim and in part from the rapidly disintegrating pyroclastic cone near the erupting main vent.
At the same time of the collapse a portion of the crater rim to the south of the collapse area was pushed upwards from behind by the rising lava within the crater, forming a conspicuous pinnacle 10-20 m higher than the crater rim nearby. Carniel and Fulle observed that this block while being uplifted was also rotated outwards by more than 45°. Minor collapse occurred repeatedly for about 30 minutes while vigorous lava fountaining continued from the erupting vents, mainly the northernmost one. Lava flowing through the newly formed breach was repeatedly covered with debris from the collapse events but continued to flow without any modification. Fallout from the fountain was most intense on the N side of the Bocca Nuova where the rapidly accumulating mass of fluid bombs gradually transformed into a rootless lava flow that advanced along the flow emplaced on 22 October in the same area, but evidently extended further downslope.
At about 1330, bombs reached ever greater distances from the Bocca Nuova, with some impacts as far as the place where a small wooden shack is placed by the guides of Piano Provenzana during the summer (at about 3000 m), and observations at close range became impossible. However, from the SW side of the main summit cone, Carniel and Fulle were able to follow the course of the activity until the paroxysmal episode ended by about 1630. This was followed by a series of powerful but isolated explosions which threw bombs hundreds of meters beyond the Bocca Nuova rim.
The eruptive episode of 25 October thus lasted a total of 6 hours, much longer than the episodes of 22 and 23 October, and it was followed by milder persistent activity which continued for at least 5 hours afterwards. By 1900, the main vent in the Bocca Nuova produced frequent Strombolian bursts, and lava flow through the new breach in the crater rim continued at a reduced rate.
Observations made at nightfall (precisely, between 1730 and 1930) by Behncke and the German group from Bronte on the W flank revealed that a major new lava flow with at least 7 active branches had descended the W flank of Etna, and the farthest flow front had extended as far as the previous longest flow emplaced on 17-18 October, to about 1900 m elevation. By about 1810 the front of the longest branch began to eat through a small patch of forest a few hundred meters above the Forestale road. It was entirely consumed during the following 45 minutes. However, the flow front was still some 9.5 km away from the town of Bronte, and the flow appeared to be slowing.
The new lava flow came down slightly to the N of the flows produced during the preceding week, and the longest branch extended almost 5 km from the Bocca Nuova, thus being one of the longest flows ever produced by a summit eruption.
On the morning of 26 October, the activity consisted mostly of isolated ash-rich explosions which apparently came from the southernmost vent on the fissure in the W part of the Bocca Nuova. Towards the evening the activity became more continuous and instead of single, violent explosions there was mild Strombolian activity. Fulle and Carniel observed the activity from the SW side of the main summit cone and reported that up to 7 vents aligned along the fissure were active, most vigorously at the N and S ends of the fissure. Explosions also occurred from two vents in the SE part of the Bocca Nuova where little activity had been observed (whenever possible) during the last week.
Today (27 October), vigorous Strombolian activity continued as of the late forenoon. Jets of lava were rising tens of meters above two main vents in the W part of the Bocca Nuova. A new large pyroclastic cone has grown around the northernmost vent, and lava continues to overflow on the W side of the crater, with active flow fronts extending to about
2500 m elevation.

The current activity of Etna is among the most spectacular seen in many decades, even though it is not of the magnitude of a large flank eruption. The most striking feature of this activity is its long duration - the summit craters are vigorously active since mid-July, and since 5 October, the Bocca Nuova has been erupting near continously. Even though being similar in some respects, the current activity is more intense and more varied than that of 1964 when lava was emitted from the main summit cone onto the W flank for the last time.

To learn more about the 1964 eruption, visit this page.

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Page set up on 27 May 1997, last modified on 28 October 1999

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