Italy's Volcanoes - The Cradle of Volcanology

"Editorial", 10 December 2002


The ongoing eruption of Mount Etna, which began on 27 October 2002, has thrown much of Sicily into deep crisis. This is the case not only in the region immediately around the volcano, but the near-permanent closure of the airport of Catania and the news about destruction and threat by lava flows, the incessant rain of ash and earthquakes have led to a significant drop in the number of tourists visiting Sicily, the most important business sector on the island. Many towns and villages near Etna, including Catania, are suffering from periodic ash falls, which, along with the frequent earthquakes, are a permanent cause of distress to the affected population. The economic impact of this eruption is almost certainly the gravest ever caused by an eruption of Etna in modern times. And still the eruption is not over. While lava emission temporarily ceased in early December, ash emission is virtually continuous, and it seems likely that the activity will continue for a time difficult to determine, possibly with new lava flows and certainly with more ash raining onto nearby population centers.
On 10 December, after many weeks of hesitating, the Italian government decided to give the stricken areas some kind of economic relief. Payment of taxes due at the end of 2002 has been postponed to next spring. To obtain this, a re-definition of the kind of emergency was necessary: the falls of ash and consequent business crisis is not a "calamity" but a "calamitous event".
Since the beginning of the eruption, Sicilian news media (most of all, the Catania-based newspaper "La Sicilia") are lamenting the destruction, the ash falls and their consequences on everyday life and business, the earthquakes, the tourism crisis, and (until 10 December) the lack of government support. The front page headline of "La Sicilia" on 9 December reads "Prisoners of Etna", alluding to the forced closure of the Catania airport, which renders travelling to and from Sicily a painstaking affair. Most of the people living around the erupting volcano are indeed deeply impressed, and a certain number traumatized, by the realization of living in a geodynamically very active area. But what is most impressing is that this has not been recognized by the public before. It seems that only now public consciousness has become aware that Etna is the second most active volcano on Earth (after Kilauea, Hawaii), and what this implies. Past eruptions that have shown similar or even higher degrees of explosivity, caused more destruction and/or lasted much longer, have been systematically cancelled from collective memory or never entered there. This is a classical psychological mechanism (who of you who drives to work by car every day thinks of the thousands of deaths in car accidents each year in each country?), but it has prevented the Etnean population from being prepared, and from knowing how to handle this situation.
Sicily is not the only region in a developed country, and Catania not the only modern city, that has to coexist with an active volcano. Take Kagoshima, on the Japanese island of Kyushu, a city with half a million inhabitants lying only 10 km from Sakurajima, a volcano that is in continuous explosive eruption since 1955. Ever heard in the news that Kagoshima is suffering economic crisis, a volcano psychosis, or lack of visitors? It seems that the Kagoshima people have found an efficient way of coexisting with their unquiet (and potentially very dangerous) neighbor, and of gaining as much profit from it as possible (see this page to get an impression). Yet the volcano is in eruption and over the past nearly 50 years has dropped considerable quantities of ash onto the city and its surroundings. Kagoshima also has an airport, and it seems that it is essentially working, nonwithstanding the volcano and its activity. How come? Why does Catania fail where Kagoshima succeeds?
One reason is certainly that the Sicilian and Japanese mentalities are not exactly the same. But the main reasons are probably two: Japan is a country that has suffered much more from volcanism than Italy due to a larger number of active volcanoes, and volcanism (as well as earthquakes) play a much more important role in everyday Japanese life, culture and education than in Italy. In Japan, volcanism and seismicity and their effects are profoundly anchored in collective memory and consciousness. In Italy, unfortunately and surprisingly, this is not the case. This is why this country is much more prone to suffer from "natural" disasters, disasters that become such only because the population and authorities are caught unaware, and because it is only now that the public is beginning to realize the need for hazard mitigation and disaster prevention. For many decades virtually all criteria of mitigation and prevention have been neglected, and thus, for example, relatively modest earthquakes can cause tragedies as recently in the region of Molise in southern-central Italy. Italy, and with it Sicily, is not prepared, even though many scientists (not only geologists) are doing their best to inform and educate the concerned public.
And then, Sicily does not only need financial aid from the Italian government. It needs the will of the Sicilians to cope with the crisis. My personal impression is that most people here do have that will, and much less are paralyzed by despair and psychosis than reported by the news media. While the eruption and its more or less direct effects seriously affect, and at times disrupt, everyday life and business in the Etna region, it also holds various potential benefits. One is purely pedagogic. This eruption has finally woken people up. World's second most active volcano lies in our backyards, and it is astonishingly late that this is finally recognized. Until recently, life has gone on as though that volcano over there was only some kind of scenic background, a saturday evening show, or something like a somewhat capricous member of the family. No folks. It's an active volcano. That means, it makes eruptions, and it does so frequently. Volcanic eruptions are potentially dangerous, especially if there are lots of man-made structures and infrastructures close to it, which is the case at Etna.
The eruption could well be used as a tourist attraction. Rather than simply restricting all access to the eruption area and crying out loud, it would be wise to create an efficient system of letting visitors in, offering guided excursions to spots where the eruption (or once it ends, its very evident traces) can be observed safely. Such a system would necessarily have to be flexible, depending, among others, on the character of the activity and the weather conditions. Tourism could be stimulated by well-designed and intelligently worded campaigns, rather than public lamenting about how bad life is under these conditions. Life can be bad in many ways and anywhere, close to or very far from active volcanoes, but it can also be very good in all these circumstances. It depends on where one prefers to put emphasis. I do live in the shadow of Etna, I do have to sweep my balconies every few days, and a lot of ash is entering my home each time there is a little bit of wind (and there's a lot of wind in Catania), but I am not in a state of despair - and this is not only because I am a volcanologist and fascinated by Etna and its eruptions. Without Etna's ash, wouldn't we regularly sweep the balconies and clean our homes anyway?
There is an urgent need to let the world know that Sicily is not due to become another Pompeii, that Catania is not the only city at risk from volcanic eruptions and earthquakes (what about Seattle in the U.S. state of Washington? What about Tokyo? What about Auckland, New Zealand?), and the Sicilians in general are not mafiosi and/or victims of Etna's fury. Sicily is a marvellous spot on this planet, most Sicilians I know are great people, and Etna is a world of miracles. Destruction by eruptions has always characterized part of its history, but the same eruptions have created - and continue to create - a unique landscape, or a wide range of landscapes, covering all climatic and vegetation zones from subtropical to subarctic. All this can be exploited in a manner that safeguards the environment and at the same time makes one of the most fascinating volcanoes of Earth accessible to many visitors. For this, the will and organizational skills of the local people, the expertise of travel agencies, potential visitors, and most of all, the intention and capacity to collaborate and communicate are necessary. In spite of the eruption and its effects, there is much that can be done, and that's exactly what Sicily needs

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

Page set up on 10 December 2002

Hosted by VolcanoDiscovery