Saturday 5 December 2015

Spectacular eruption on Mount Etna.

Italy's Mount Etna volcano underwent a spectacular eruptive episode on the morning of Thursday 3 December 2015, producing an ash column over 3 km in height and lava fountains that reached about 1600 m above the summit, in an eruptive episode that lasted about an hour. This is the largest eruption on Etna this year, and came from the Voragine Crater, which has been inactive for some years, most recent eruptions having originated from the Southeast Crater. Ash falls were recorded in several areas in Sicily and south Italy.

Eruption on Mount Etna on 3 December 2015. Marco Restivo/Barcroft Media.

Etna first erupted about half a million years ago, beneath the sea off the east coast of Sicily, and has been going strong ever since. It now stands 3330 m above sea level, and covers 1200 km³. It is responsible for fertile soils across eastern Sicily. Records of eruptions on Etna go back to 1500 BC. It is Europe's second largest volcano, after Teide in the Canary Islands, and is one of the most active volcanoes in the world.

 Ash column over Mount Etna on 3 December 2015, seen from Taormina on the east coast of Sicily. Giovani Isolino/AFP.

Despite all this Etna has only ever caused 77 recorded deaths (the most recent being two tourists caught in a summit explosion in 1987) and relatively little destruction. In 1928 it destroyed the village of Mascali on its northeastern flank, though there were no reported casualties, the village being slowly overrun by a lava flow. In 1669 a much larger lava flow destroyed at least 10 villages, reaching the walls of the city of Catania, 40 km to the south, but again without loss of life. In 122 BC a heavy ash fall covered much of the region, causing several buildings to collapse in Catania. The destruction was deemed so severe by the Roman authorities that they granted the city a 10 year tax holiday. In about 6000 BC a landslide on the eastern flank of the volcano is thought to have caused a tsunami that caused destruction around much of the eastern Mediterranean.  

Ash column over Mount Etna on 3 December 2015, seen from Catania on the east coast of Sicily. Davide Caudullo/EPA.

Etna is located on the border of the African and European Plates, specifically where Africa is being subducted beneath the European Plate. As it is drawn into the Earth's interior material from the African Plate melts, and the lighter portions rise up through the overlying European Plate, causing a number of volcanoes including Etna and Vesuvius. 

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