Mount Etna Eruption Information

By JacobS
Mount Etna rises above the Sicilian landscape.
Sicile Etna image by Hervé Dupraz from

In ancient Greek mythology, the monster Typhon was imprisoned beneath Mount Etna by Zeus. The Greeks interpreted the volcano's wild tantrums as the epic clash between two titanic forces. In other stories, it was the workshop of Hephaestus or the Cyclops. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Mount Etna has been identified as one of 16 "Decade Volcanoes"; these are large volcanoes subject to nearly constant activity, and the program is intended to teach people about the danger and severity of eruptions.


etna image by Jean-Marc Angelini from

Mount Etna, in Sicily, Italy, is the largest volcano in Europe. It stands at about 3,320 m and has an area of over 1,600 square km. However, Mount Etna is constantly changing. In the past 150 years alone, the mountain has shrunk by 52 m. The country of Italy also harbors massive volcanoes like Mount Vesuvius and the Campi Flegrei, but Mount Etna is a part of the Calabrian volcanic arc, not the Campanian, and is affected by the subduction of the African tectonic plate beneath the Eurasian plate. A quarter of Sicily's population lives on the slopes of Etna, flouting the dangers for the advantages of the rich volcanic soul and the tourism.


etna 0481 image by Tanguy de Saint Cyr from

At the summit there are four craters: the Northeast Crater, Bocca Nuova Crater, Southeast Crater and Voragine Crater. There are also more than 260 smaller craters and vents along the flanks of the mountain that range from the size of a small hole to craters hundreds of meters across. Summit explosions create a lot of heat and fury, but it is these vent eruptions that are close enough to populated areas to threaten the inhabitants.

Prehistoric Activity

etna 0002 image by Tanguy de Saint Cyr from

Like any mountain, volcanoes are constantly shifting due to the movement of tectonic plates, but they are also more volatile than mountains and may be subject to sudden and radical changes. Mount Etna began as an actively erupting, slightly sloping shield volcano just off the Sicilian coastline half a million years ago, and Etna's volcanic center moved to its present position around 170,000 years ago. Starting from about 35,000 years ago, a series of violent eruptions led to massive pyroclastic flows, which is the flow of hot gas and rock that can reach 700 km per hour, and helped to form a steeper stratovolcano. Around the end of this period, at about 15,000 years ago, the Ellittico Caldera (a crater made by the collapse of a volcanic cone) was formed. Ash from these explosions has been found in Rome.

Ancient and Modern Activity

etna 0280 image by Tanguy de Saint Cyr from

An eruption in 396 B.C. kept the Carthaginians from reaching the town of Catania. The Aeneid, written between 29 and 19 B.C. by the Roman poet Virgil, describes an account of an Etna eruption. Between March 11 and July 15, 1669 A.D., the most violent recorded eruption occurred. 830 million cubic meters of lava destroyed a dozen villages and submerged part of Catania. The eruption was caused when a fissure that opened above the town of Nicolosi widened into a chasm that formed a double cone named Monti Rossi, more than 46 m high.

20th Century Activity

etna 0496 image by Tanguy de Saint Cyr from

In 1928, an eruption buried most of the town of Mascali; in 2008, the 80th anniversary was commemorated by a few still-living witnesses to the eruption. Eruptions also occurred in 1949, 1971 (which buried the Etna Observatory), 1981, 1983 and 1991-1993. This last eruption nearly destroyed the town of Zafferana, but explosives were used by townspeople to divert much of the lava.

21st Century Activity

etna 0012 image by Tanguy de Saint Cyr from

Several more eruptions have continued into the 21st century. In 2001, seven fissures opened on the south and northeast slopes of the mountain. This occurred at the height of tourist season and received media attention because of the G8 summit in nearby Genoa. Between 2002-2003, an eruption caused the eastern flank to slip by 2 meters, damaging tourist stations and buildings around the Rifugio Sapienza area. Ash could be seen from space and ended up 600 km away in Libya. Eruptions in 2008 and 2009 spewed lava into the Valle del Bove and caused massive ground deformations from earthquakes.