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Etna’s pyrotechnics over Italy

The volcano’s recent activity stuns scientists and residents alike

Mt. Etna is seen over Pedara, Sicily, on Feb. 24. Associated Press/Photo by Salvatore Allegra

Etna’s pyrotechnics over Italy

Even for something nicknamed Europe’s most active volcano, Italy’s Mount Etna has been putting on quite a show. A recent period of increased activity has attracted photographers and intrigued scientists who devote their lives to studying the volcano.

The nearly 11,000-foot peak just north of the Sicilian city of Catania has erupted routinely throughout most of recorded history. Since Feb. 15, Mount Etna has belched out thick columns of black smoke and nearly mile-high lava fountains, sending rivers of lava flowing down its side.

Many of the most explosive moments during the two-week series of eruptions have happened at night, dazzling nervous Catania residents. Italian authorities have reported no injuries or deaths. But ash and small volcanic rocks falling from the sky persuaded local officials to temporarily close the city’s airport.

Scientists have taken up residence at the base of the mountain to gather data and study the causes of volcanic activity. “Etna is an amazing volcano, especially in this period,” Boris Behncke, a German-born volcanologist working for the Italian government at the Etna Observatory, tweeted. “But the technology we have now to measure everything she does, and everything that she produces, is equally awesome. This is a fabulous time for being a volcanologist.”

Long after the cameramen go home, scientists like Behncke will pour over gigabytes of data collected by an array of sensors around the area. Volcanologists sometimes call Mount Etna the most closely watched volcano in the world. Italian scientists have trained a bevy of scientific instruments on the mountain in an attempt to predict eruptions. Seismometers track any ground vibrations that emanate from the mountain. Instruments measure the contents and intensity of gas emissions. Magnetic field sensors surround Etna. A team of scientists at Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology will analyze the reams of data.

In particular, scientists studying Mount Etna want to refine techniques for predicting the timing and magnitude of volcanic activity. Nearly two decades ago, British scientist John Murray, who spent more than 50 years studying Etna, published a method for predicting the volcano’s total lava output over the course of a number of years. Better and more extensive data from this most recent series of eruptions could give scientists a leg up in that effort.

John Dawson

John is a correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin, and he previously wrote for The Birmingham News. John resides in Dallas, Texas.


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