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Report on Etna (Italy) — December 1995


Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 20, no. 11 (December 1995)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Etna (Italy) Six lava fountaining episodes from Northeast Crater

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1995. Report on Etna (Italy) (Wunderman, R., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 20:11. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN199512-211060



37.748°N, 14.999°E; summit elev. 3357 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

On 2 August 1995 explosive activity resumed at Northeast Crater (NEC) (BGVN 20:08). In August and September the activity was sporadic and low in intensity (BGVN 20:09), but after 2 October a vigorous Strombolian phase was observed (BGVN 20:10). Explosive activity occurred again during 19-22 October.

On 1 November there was vigorous spattering and bubbling of magma in a 15-m-wide pit on the NEC floor. Magma degassing formed large bubbles that burst, throwing spatter to the crater rim. In the following days the activity was discontinuous and less intense.

Lava fountaining episodes, 9-14 November. At 0014 on 9 November there was a sudden increase in volcanic tremor, but bad weather prevented summit observations. Between 0105 (at Trecastagni) and 0110 (at Catania, 30 km SSE) ash and lapilli fallout covered the SE flank (figure 61), eventually reaching as far as Siracusa, 75 km from the vent. The episode lasted only a few minutes and the material on the lower slope amounted to a few tens of grams per square meter, although rare dense lapilli broke some skylights and car windows. Fieldwork the next morning revealed that the NEC eruption produced a lava fountain followed by a strong phreatomagmatic blast. Part of the S rim collapsed inside the NEC and was later ejected. A welded spatter deposit several meters thick mantled the upper slope of the NEC cone and was overlain by a few centimeters of ash and lapilli. The bombs varied from 2-3 m close to the vent, to 25 cm at 2.5 km downwind. Several large accidental lithics (up to 1 m) occurred in the very proximal deposit. A large amount of spatter fell into the crater, raising its floor by several tens of meters. The crater appeared completely sealed, with wide red cracks on the crust of the spatter pile. The total volume of tephra from the 9 November eruption was ~1.5 x 106 m3.

Figure (see Caption) Figure 61. Map of the Etna area showing areas affected by ashfall on 9, 14, and 27 November, and 23 December 1995. Courtesy of IIV.

On 10 November a new lava fountain episode at NEC was observed from Catania around 0400-0530. Pulsating magma jets climbed up to 300 m above the crater rim; some were expelled up to 500 m. An ash-and-lapilli column ascended ~5,000 m and was blown SE. The spatter deposit was limited to the upper part of the volcano and in a narrow strip extending ~3 km SE; little ash fell on the middle slopes. The estimated volume of the pyroclastics was a few tens of thousands of cubic meters.

A third episode took place around 0600 on 14 November, and lasted ~3 hours. Between 0800 and 0900 the paroxysmal phase sent dense black ash columns through a white cloud covering the summit until they reached 5,000 m altitude. During the entire episode a non-continuous sustained eruptive column was observed and each ash puff contributed to a plume bent downwind that reached its buoyancy level at 6-7 km altitude. Ash and lapilli rained on the NE flank down to the coast (figure 61), leaving only a few grams of material per square meter on the middle and lower slopes. The proximal spatter deposits, mapped two days later, partially covered the previous ones on the cone and extended ~2 km NE in a band a few hundred meters wide. Lithic blocks and ash were less abundant than in deposits from the 9 November episode. The crater bottom was sealed by back-fallen welded spatter and was ~50 m below the crater rim, 100 m higher than before 9 November. The total volume of tephra from the 14 November eruptions was ~350,000 m3.

The volcano remained quiet after the 3rd episode. Within NEC, only a few large cracks on the welded spatter crust emitted fumes. Bocca Nuova crater showed a normal continuous degassing; Southeast and Voragine craters continued their steam emission.

Lava fountaining episodes, 22-27 November. Late on 22 November continuous glows were observed at NEC and some bangs were heard on the lower slopes. Beginning around midnight, two hours of fire fountaining and intense red glow was visible from Catania. The lava jets remained fairly low (~100 m above the crater rim) so the proximal spatter deposit mantled only the upper part of the cone, whereas the fine material fell on the SE flank as far as the coast. However, the total volume of the erupted material was limited to a few tens of thousand cubic meters, close to that of the second episode.

After the 22 November episode the vent was closed again by material that fell back into the crater. Three days later some bangs were heard at NEC and glow was observed during the night of 26-27 November. That morning seismic tremor rose suddenly and at 0715 an ash-and-lapilli column rose from the volcano. Cloud cover prevented direct observations. Ash and lapilli were carried by strong winds and fell on a narrow band of the N flank down to its foot (figure 61). Lapilli fallout ended around 1000, but the explosive activity continued for several hours. The thickness of the scoria-fall deposit varied from decimeters close to the vent to ~1 mm at 12 km away. The total tephra volume from this 5th eruptive episode was estimated at 0.4-0.5 x 106 m3.

Fieldwork two days later revealed that the proximal spatter deposits of the 22 and 26 November episodes were thinner than earlier ones. Lithic blocks were less abundant than in the 9 November deposits, but large ballistic scoriaceous bombs were found up to 500 m from the vent. The crater floor was completely sealed by fall-back spatter, but every 40-60 minutes a gas pocket broke the solid crust and a single lava bubble burst. These phenomena were observed for a few more days.

Activity during December. In the first half of December the summit craters were quiet, with continuous steam emissions, except for NEC, which had no open vent. A short explosive phase was reported on the night of 6 December. Poor weather conditions prevented observations until 16 December, when continuous Strombolian activity was seen at a small vent on the crater floor; a cone grew within a few days. The activity was characterized by the bursting of single magma bubbles alternating with degassing jets and spatter lasting from tens of seconds to a few minutes. This intense Strombolian activity continued for several days.

Around 1100 on 23 December strong bangs were heard from skiers on the upper slope. Very soon the bangs became frequent and black ash puffs were observed from NEC. Between 1215 and 1220 the first jet of magma rose above the crater rim, followed shortly by several pulses of magma jets and a large eruptive column. Between 1235 and 1305 the paroxysmal phase occurred, with jets of magma that rose 500-600 m (measured on the video record of the surveillance camera at La Montagnola, 2,700 m elevation on the S flank). Fragments from the top of the jets fed an eruptive column that reached 9.5 km altitude (6.2 km above the summit). Clear weather allowed observation of the column from many places on Sicily, as far as the city of Palermo 190 km away. Abundant ash and lapilli fell on a wide band of the NE flank down to the coast (figure 61). A brownish ash plume was emitted by Voragine during the entire paroxysmal phase of the eruption. Around 1330 the eruption quickly declined, but isolated explosions occurred until the evening. This episode was the most energetic among the six at NEC during November and December 1995.

The proximal deposit mantled the NEC cone with meters of welded spatter. In the W and E saddles between NEC and the Central Cone, spatter formed two thick lava flows a few hundred meters long. The E flow was still active during the night of 23-24 December; downslope movement of fluid material in the core produced continuous collapses of large incandescent blocks at the flow front. Crater modifications included the thick new scoria bank and widening and lowering of the S crater rim. Ballistic clasts had been thrown up to 600 m from the vent and landed as cow-pie bombs up to 2 m in diameter. The distal deposit from the eruptive column was made of scoriaceous bombs and lapilli up to 10-15 km from the vent, and from lapilli and a minor ash up to the shoreline, 22 km away. The bombs were very brittle, flat, and up to 30 cm in diameter at 6 km from the vent (observed while still in the air). The scoria-fall deposit formed a continuous band from the vent to the coast, damaging fruit plantations, vehicles, and buildings. The Messina-Catania freeway had to be cleared of a scoria deposit along a 4-km-long stretch. The deposit thickness along the dispersal axis was 6-7 cm at 6 km, 3-4 cm at 13 km, 3 cm at 16 km along the freeway, and 1-2 cm at 20 km near the coast. The estimated total volume of pyroclastics erupted on 23 December was ~3 x 106 m3.

On the days after 23 December eruption only a few blasts were heard from NEC, but on the nights of 27 and 28 December discontinuous glow was again seen, sometimes similar to those produced by mild Strombolian explosions. No further activity was reported at NEC or the other craters through the end of the year.

Tephra characteristics. Bombs and lapilli erupted during the November-December 1995 episodes are highly vesiculated and show glassy and smooth surfaces. Only in the volcanics erupted on 9 November are both vesicles and surfaces filled by reddish, fine-grained non-juvenile material. Juvenile ash consists of: 1) poorly vesiculated tachylitic (glassy) grains; 2) highly vesiculated clasts with glassy, smooth surfaces, and many Pele's hair and shards in the finer fraction; and 3) loose crystals covered in some cases by a thin film of glass.

Generally rounded grains with variable alteration form the non-juvenile fraction. In the ash fraction of all deposits, juvenile material is always the most abundant (60-100%), and preliminary investigation indicates that it increased with time. The juvenile fraction is ~60% of the 9 November ash, ~80% of the 14 November ash, and ~100% of the ash erupted during the following episodes (23 and 27 November, 23 December). The proportions of different juvenile components also changed during the eruptive sequence.

Scoria erupted during the November-December explosive episodes are, like most of Etna's historical volcanics, porphyritic hawaiites with phenocrysts of plagioclase, clinopyroxene, and olivine, and microphenocrysts of Ti-magnetite in a hyalopilitic groundmass. The scoria are more vesiculated and slightly less porphyritic than those erupted in October 1995. The chemical composition of November-December scoria is rather homogeneous even if the 9 and 14 November material is slightly more differentiated than those erupted after 23 November. Overall, the composition of the November-December volcanics is comparable to those of the Strombolian activity at NEC during the first half of October, and to the products erupted in the first days of the 1991-93 eruption.

Seismicity. Seismicity recorded by the permanent seismic network (12 stations; figure 62), during November-December 1995 was characterized by remarkable phases of increased volcanic tremor amplitude. Earthquake activity stayed at very low levels. A few tens of shocks took place and the only significant episode occurred on 24 December when a minor swarm (6 events; Mmax=3.2) was located near Mt. Maletto (NW slope of the volcano) at a depth of ~15 km.

Figure (see Caption) Figure 62. Map of Etna showing locations of seismic stations, tilt stations, and EDM networks maintained by the Istituto Internazionale di Vulcanologia as of December 1995. Courtesy of IIV.

Since the end of August 1995 volcanic tremor recorded at Pizzi Deneri (PDN: ~2 km from NEC, 2,820 m elevation) and Serra Pizzuta Calvarina (ESP: ~7 km from NEC, 1,590 m elevation) stations has shown an increasing trend. This pattern became more evident in late September, when some increases in tremor amplitude were recorded for durations ranging from tens of minutes to a few hours. The most relevant increases in tremor amplitude occurred on 22-23 September, 2, 3 and 21 October, 9, 10, 14, 22-23, and 27 November, and 23 December. This tremor amplitude pattern correlated with visually observed NEC eruptive activity.

The volcanic tremor spectral amplitude temporal pattern at PDN and ESP stations showed a clear amplitude increase. Spectral amplitude peaks were superimposed on the increased trend and corresponded to the episodes listed above. Dominant peaks in tremor spectra recorded at PDN and ESP stations showed a high-frequency (~3.5 Hz) trend coincident with the high tremor amplitude. Each amplitude increase showed similar characteristics.

Ground deformation. After the end of the 1991-93 eruption deformation was dominated by steady inflation, mostly affecting the W and NE slopes. Positive trends of areal dilatation, cumulating at ~14 ppm, were clearly apparent on the SW and NE flank EDM networks (figure 62) following the 1991-93 eruption, while the S network was characterized by a flat trend of areal dilatation for several years. Both the SW and NE networks followed comparable trends, only differing in the recent sharp positive gradient variation (10 ppm) shown by the latter between August and October.

The shallow bore-hole permanent tilt network (figure 62) indicated a progressive increase (starting by the second half of 1993) in the radial tilt component recorded at the stations on the W flank (MSC: 50 µrad) and on the N flank (MNR: 10 µrad), while the S slope showed no appreciable positive variation until July 1995. The eruptive activity resumed at the summit craters by late July-early August, and the renewed ejection of magma appeared to be strictly related in time to the positive variation of the radial tilt at SPC (~15 µrad) and the sharp increase of areal dilatation in the NE sector. Radial tilt at PDN was affected by a sharp negative variation (35 µrad) at almost the same time.

September EDM survey on the S flank. J. Moss noted that reoccupation of a different S-flank EDM network in September 1995 showed only minor line extension since eruptive activity resumed in August. Significant extensions of lines perpendicular to the Valle del Bove accompanied dike emplacement prior to the 1991-93 eruption. However, the July 1995 survey showed only minor changes since July 1994. Over 80% of the lines measured between those two surveys showed extension, suggesting a pattern of broad edifice inflation. The small strain rates suggest that no magma was intruded into this part of the S rift zone prior to September 1995.

Geological Summary. Mount Etna, towering above Catania on the island of Sicily, has one of the world's longest documented records of volcanism, dating back to 1500 BCE. Historical lava flows of basaltic composition cover much of the surface of this massive volcano, whose edifice is the highest and most voluminous in Italy. The Mongibello stratovolcano, truncated by several small calderas, was constructed during the late Pleistocene and Holocene over an older shield volcano. The most prominent morphological feature of Etna is the Valle del Bove, a 5 x 10 km caldera open to the east. Two styles of eruptive activity typically occur, sometimes simultaneously. Persistent explosive eruptions, sometimes with minor lava emissions, take place from one or more summit craters. Flank vents, typically with higher effusion rates, are less frequently active and originate from fissures that open progressively downward from near the summit (usually accompanied by Strombolian eruptions at the upper end). Cinder cones are commonly constructed over the vents of lower-flank lava flows. Lava flows extend to the foot of the volcano on all sides and have reached the sea over a broad area on the SE flank.

Information Contacts: M. Coltelli, M. Pompilio, E. Privitera, S. Spampinato, and S. Bonaccorso, CNR Istituto Internazionale di Vulcanologia (IIV), Piazza Roma 2, 95123 Catania, Italy (URL: http://www.ingv.it/en/); Jane L. Moss, Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education, Francis Close Hall, Swindon Road, Cheltenham GL50 4AZ, United Kingdom.