Mount Etna illuminates night sky with 1,500-metre lava fountain

Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Salvatore Allegra/AP</span>
Photograph: Salvatore Allegra/AP

Mount Etna’s spectacular eruptions reached a peak on Monday when the volcano’s lava fountains soared to 1,500 metres – a display described by one expert as “one of the most striking in the last few decades”.

Europe’s most active volcano has been on explosive form in recent weeks, spewing incandescent magma and a copious shower of ash, reaching as far as Catania.

According to experts, the fireworks show is part of a Strombolian eruption that is among the normal activities of the more than 3,300-metre-high volcano.

“Etna is putting on a show these days,” said Marco Neri, an expert in volcanology and a member of INGV, the Italian national institute for geophysics and volcanology.

Lava flows from Etna, near Catania.
Lava flows from Etna, near Catania. Photograph: Salvatore Allegra/AP

“This is certainly the strongest explosion in the southern crater that was discovered in 1971. We have not seen such high explosions for years but at the moment there is no risk to the population, apart from the smoke that can create breathing problems for a few hours, and the ash that covers buildings and streets.”

On Monday, at about 11pm, the lava fountains, surrounded by gigantic clouds of smoke, exceeded 1,500 metres (4,900ft) in height, while thousands of rock fragments were thrown from the crater into the sky for several kilometres.

“It was certainly one of the most spectacular eruptions of recent decades,” Boris Behncke, volcanologist at the National Institute of Geophysics in Catania, said. “But this falls within the ordinary activity of this volcano. Etna is doing very normal things, even if each time everything seems bigger, stronger, more colourful and more threatening.”

Lava fountains put on a spectacular display.
Lava fountains put on a spectacular display. Photograph: Getty Images

According to volcanologists, Etna is spewing primitive magma, a term that refers to types of magma whose composition has changed little, compared with that of the Earth’s mantle where they formed. It is a deeper magma that comes from the bowels of the mountain and carries a greater charge of gas. For this reason, it is capable of producing strikingly tall lava fountains.

“This sort of fresh magma has been seen before and this is what produces these very high lava fountains,” Behncke said. “Bear in mind that in 1789 the lava fountains reached 3,000 metres. It is said the lava lit up the sky so much that it was possible to read even at night.”

Etna’s frequent eruptions have sometimes profoundly changed the landscape of south-east Sicily and, on many occasions, constituted a threat to the settlements on its slopes.

Etna&#x002019;s south-east crater, photographed from Catania.
Etna’s south-east crater, photographed from Catania. Photograph: Davide Anastasi/Rex/Shutterstock

The longest eruption on record occurred in July 1614, when the explosive activities lasted 10 years and the volcano emitted more than 1bn cubic metres of lava, covering 21 sq km.

The best known and most destructive eruption occurred in 1669, when lava, accompanied by earthquakes, buried dozens of towns and even reached the sea.