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Volcanic fireworks

Catania, IT (View on map)

 

Living next to a volcano sounds like a rather risky project. Inhabitants of Catania know all about it. They live on the lower slopes of Mount Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe. Etna is in constant state of eruption, but the last time its lava streams touched the city dates back more than 400 years.

For Catanians, Etna is more of a characteristic landmark than a direct threat. Situated less than 50 kilometers away from the sea, Etna stands out more than 3000 metres above the land and water it surrounds. Its slopes are covered in snow for several months each year. Etna can be seen from all over Eastern Sicily and it serves as an ideal point of reference in navigation. Etna produces its own clouds, but also has the power to break existing ones that happen to float by. Its moonlike landscape draws many tourists to Sicily, even during periods with low volcanic activity.

Predictable
Despite the constant volcanic activity, the volcano is locally known as Mother Etna. According to Giovanni (26), living next to Etna is not much different from living next to any other mountain – most of the time: `We are happy that Etna is a relatively predictable volcano, unlike Vesuvius, next to Naples. Contrary to Etna, Vesuvius is an old volcano and its crater is choked with solid lava. Chances of an eruption at Vesuvius are small, but if one occurred, it could cause the entire mountain to explode.`

`Etna`s main craters are constantly open and the mountain is under continuous surveillance of scientists. As we also know from the past, it would take lava streams at least several weeks to reach the city of Catania.`

Giovanni continues: `The treat of lava is not the most urgent problem Etna causes. Major eruptions roughly take place once every two years. Most of those cause minor earthquakes but at the same time huge ash rains. When that happens, the city turns dark during day time and everything gets covered by a thick layer of black powder. Breathing becomes very difficult and people wear small mouth caps to avoid inhaling dust. Beside making everything dirty, such ash rains also force the local airport to close down.`

Higher up
Carmelo (21, photo) works on the higher slopes of Mount Etna. He is not particularly worried about the impact a major eruption may have. `Lava streams from Etna are slow and predictable. Once every so many years, some buildings on the slopes of the mountain are destroyed, but there is very little danger for individuals. I did see people getting taken to hospital, but that was because they had inhaled too much gas. In 2003, one Spanish girl jumped into the main crater, but that is not something you can blame the volcano for.`

It is not easy for individuals or companies to get a construction permit for the area surrounding Etna. Many people illegally pull up buildings, but they are not covered by anything or anybody once their property gets wiped out. Carmelo explains: `Legally established entrepreneurs may be appeal to compensation funds provided by the State, but only when an official `state of emergency` has been declared. In all other cases, people themselves need to cover their risks.`

Serious eruptions
While the most recent destruction of an entire settlement occurred back in 1928, a part of the highest tourist station on the South flank was last demolished by an eruption in 2002. The creation of dikes and tunnels aims to deviate rolling lava streams to make sure they don`t hit populated areas. Not all these measures are permanent, some aren`t drawn up until an eruption occurs. Explosions have also proved useful in artificially, and oftentimes only temporarily, changing the course of lava streams.

The main eruption danger does not stem from Etna`s main crater. This `lava exit` is the widest, causing the pressure to be relatively low. Three auxiliary craters cause more of a danger, and so do bursts in the side of the mountain. During the devastating 1669 eruption, a deep rupture in the South slope of Etna caused lava to pour out from low altitude, directly threatening settlements and providing for very little time to evacuate the area. Frequent earthquakes also cause inconvenience. In 2002, a part of the Eastern flank slipped two metres, causing structural damage to buildings in the close vicinity.

According to Alberto (21), explosions within the mountain can be heard by those living close to the mountain, even during relatively calm periods. The smell of sulfur usually does not descend all the way to Catania, but anybody who gets within several kilometers of the open craters will notice that Etna is not a normal mountain – if they had not already been sufficiently warned by the moon-like lava landscape on its slope.

Attraction
One may wonder why people choose to inhabit such a risky location. One of the explanations is provided by the fertile grounds that surround the volcano. Farmers gratefully accept this present, and use the territory to grow well-known Sicilian oranges, lemons, apples and grapes. Beside the agricultural advantages, Etna is a perfect place for seismologists to learn more about the creation of the earth. Anyone who has seen this volcano from nearby will easily understand that many people portray Etna as a source of inspiration and creativity. Analisa (27) adds that Etna contributes to the pleasant climate in Eastern Sicily.

Obviously, Etna also serves the tourist industry and thereby the local economy. Ski stations have been built on its slopes and Etna`s extraordinary landscape make it a popular destination for hikers. During major eruptions, which may easily last more than a month, people from across the world rush to Etna to see the best fireworks show they have ever seen. At times, Etna can spit out lava high into the air, making it a perfect subject for night photography. Clouds emitted by the craters can be very compact, creating small thunderstorms in the smoke columns.

Such wonderful visual spectacles do not take away the potential danger Etna may pose for anyone who comes too close. During eruptions, the mountain emits frequent burps that eventually create a flow of extremely hot lava, which spreads fire and rocks down the slopes. Slowly and predictably, but with little mercy for whatever it comes across on the way down.

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