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Report on Etna (Italy) — October 1998


Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 23, no. 10 (October 1998)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Etna (Italy) Summary of eruptive activity from summit craters during January-May 1998

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1998. Report on Etna (Italy) (Wunderman, R., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 23:10. Smithsonian Institution.



37.748°N, 14.999°E; summit elev. 3320 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

The following report summarizes activity observed at each of the four summit craters of Etna from 15 January through May 1998. Southeast Crater was active throughout this period, with explosions and lava flows both within the crater and on the flanks of the cone. Activity at Bocca Nuova alternated between ash emissions from collapses and vigorous magmatic eruptions until early April. Voragine exhibited intermittent low-level activity. Northeast Crater had a lava fountaining episode in late March, its first significant activity since August 1996. Additional summit crater eruptive episodes after May 1998 will be described in future issues.

Information for this report was compiled by Boris Behncke at the University of Catania and published on his internet web site. The compilation was based on personal visits to the summit, telescopic observations from Catania, and other sources.

Seismicity on the W flank. Seismic activity resumed on 15 January with weak tremors ~6 km below the W flank (Monte Palestra area) and several shallow shocks on the SW slope. Seismicity was low but a tremor occurred on the W flank, and another directly below the summit craters, on 19 January. After about two weeks of relative seismic quiet, earthquakes occurred again below the W flank on 31 January and below the summit craters on 1 February. Mild seismic activity was occurring again on 9 February in the Monte Palestra area (W flank at around 2,000 m), in the same area that has been affected repeatedly by seismic activity since late December.

Activity at Southeast Crater. On 16 January, explosive and effusive activity resumed at Southeast Crater (SEC). On 18 January there were three active lava flows on the southern slopes of SEC. A lava flow which moved towards the W rim of Valle del Bove stopped shortly on 20 January. After two days of weak or absent eruptive activity, SEC resumed Strombolian activity on 22 January. On 28 January a lava tongue extended to the W rim of Valle del Bove; at dusk there was vigorous explosive activity and two small lava flows were visible. During the evening of 29 January, Strombolian activity occurred from the intracrater cone while a lava flow was overflowing down the SE flank.

Clear weather on 4 February revealed fresh lava flows on the S and ESE flanks of SEC. Explosive activity continued on 9 February while small lava flows moved down its SE flank. On 10 February, SEC was the site of continuous powerful Strombolian explosions that dropped bombs and scoriae beyond the crater rims. Activity alternated between two vents, only one erupting at any given time. The S vent produced fountains that showered the whole southern sector of SEC with bombs. The N vent sent vertical fountains of bombs up to 200 m high. Some bombs that fell on the W crater rim were up to 30 cm long. Smaller projectiles even fell at the lower slope of the main cone, 100 m from the erupting vent. Lava flowed from a vent on the SE side of the intracrater cone. A lava tongue spilled over the crater rim on its ENE side. Other recent lava tongues had extended just beyond the base of the cone; the longest flow to the ESE (produced in mid-December 1997) had advanced to within ~50 m of the W rim of Valle del Bove. The only significant remainder of SEC's former rim is on the W and NW side where it stands 15 m above the lava field surrounding the central cone. In all other areas the crater is filled and has overflowed in many places. The appearance of the crater's interior is that of a low lava shield topped by a cone that is 30-40 m high.

By 11 February, growth on the NW side of the intracrater cone had raised its summit by at least 1 m since the day before. Two vents were active in its summit crater, and for the first time these were seen to erupt simultaneously. The vigor of the activity increased notably after 1930, when jets of bombs frequently rose up to 250 m above the vent. Lava from the vent on the SE base of the intracrater cone rapidly covered the SE sector of the crater floor and began to spill down the upper outer flank of SEC. By 2000, it had extended some 50-100 m downslope. Activity continued at similar levels through 15 February.

Strombolian activity was intermittent on 17 February, and degassing alternated with bomb ejections while a lava flow slowly moved down the SSE flank of the SEC cone. New lava flows from the intracrater cone covered ~25% of the crater floor, and a new lava lobe began spilling down the outer flank of SEC adjacent to the still-active SSE flow. A lava flow on the SW flank of SEC during 20-25 February appeared to be flowing on the NW side of the January flow. Strombolian activity occurred on the night of 25 February, and a very minor lava lobe spilled over the SE crater rim.

The eruption continued on 5 March with lava effusion on the flanks of SEC. As of 11 March lava continued to spill down the SE flank of SEC. Around 16-19 March, SEC appeared to be the only center of eruptive activity with weak Strombolian activity accompanied by minor overflows of lava. Lava flows began moving down the SSW flank of SEC on 20 and 21 March, but explosive activity was weak. During the Northeast Crater episode of 27-28 March, SEC was intensely active, with vigorous and continuous Strombolian bursts, and a lava flow spilling down the SW flank of the SEC cone. Moderate Strombolian activity continued, but effusive activity on the SW flank ceased sometime during 29 March.

Significant morphologic changes were noted on 6 April that had occurred since the previous visit on 17 February. The summit of the intracrater conelet had collapsed or been destroyed in late March. A depression on the lower E flank of the conelet was the site of a new effusive vent. The effusive vent area that had been active for many months in the S and SE sectors of the conelet's flank was inactive. Lava had buried the old rim of SEC on all sides except the W and NW where the old rim stood a few meters above the lava field. Lava had overflowed onto the northern outer flank of SEC, forming a short lobe. On the SW flank of SEC a lava flow active from mid-February until early March had extended to near the base of the 1971 "Observatory Cone".

The new effusive vent on the eastern base of the conelet had apparently formed only shortly before the visit because the depression around it had not yet been filled. Extrusion at this site had been preceded by subsidence at the base of the conelet. Meter-sized slabs of older lava had been uplifted and tilted, and fresh lava was being squeezed through the cracks, accompanied by high-pressure gas venting. A more vigorous flow issued from a U-shaped vent, similar to ephemeral vents seen on other occasions. Yet another flow began to issue from below an upheaved slab of older lava with spectacular lava stalagtites on its bottom. These two flows spilled 150 m down the NE flank of SEC.

Explosive activity on 6 April occurred from two vents within the crater of the central conelet, but they never erupted simultaneously; one vent was very noisy while the other erupted silently. SEC continued to erupt on 27 April, with small Strombolian explosions and lava effusion. Scientists who visited the crater on 14 May reported that lava was overflowing onto the flanks, and Strombolian activity was occurring from the summit of the conelet.

Vigorous explosive and continuous effusive activity as well as morphological changes were observed at SEC during a visit on 21 May with students from North Dakota State University. The central conelet was observed at close range, and the main effusive vent could be approached amidst a rain of light scoriae. Strombolian activity occurred from a single vent in the NW summit area of the conelet. Explosions occurred incessantly, and many ejected bombs 200 m above the vent. As on many other occasions, a distinct periodicity could be noted in the activity, each cycle culminating in a series of powerful Strombolian blasts heavily charged with meter-sized bombs. Overlapping lobes on the E side of the conelet had built a low shield, and the depression which had formed at the E base of the conelet was completely filled.

Vigorous explosive activity occurred on 24 May from the central conelet of SEC, and two flows were descending the SE cone. Some explosions ejected incandescent bombs at least 200 m high. Giovanni Sturiale and Boris Behncke, both of Catania University, visited SEC on 28 May; the central conelet was somewhat higher in the vent area than on 20 May. The main vent at the E base of the conelet was issuing lava that spilled over the E rim of SEC (buried under at least 30 m of lava since July 1997). Most flows stop at the base of the cone and are followed by the formation of new flows. Vigorous explosive activity dropped bombs on the N side of the central conelet. The current activity is known as Etna's "persistent summit activity" which became famous from descriptions of Northeast Crater which in the 1950's to 1970's produced similar activity.

Activity at Bocca Nuova. Very dense gas emissions were occurring from Bocca Nuova (BN) on 19 January; some contained ash. Explosions from BN were audible 8 km from the summit on 20 January, but magmatic activity alternated with collapses, generating dense ash plumes. Bright glow was visible on 22 January. BN was emitting white steam with some dark ash plumes derived from crater wall collapse on 28 January. On 28-29 January periods of intense incandescence indicated vigorous but intermittent activity at both the SE and the N eruptive centers.

Intense glow was again visible at BN on 4 February, indicating vigorous intracrater activity. Activity on 8 February continued without significant changes; there were emissions of dark ash indicating collapse of the crater walls. Magma again withdrew from BN (as indicated by internal collapse) on 9 February. Later that day collapse in BN ended; at nightfall, bright incandescence was visible.

The overall appearance of BN on 10 February was similar to before the collapses that accompanied the seismic crises on the W flank. The collapse had affected only the summit areas of the two large cones, and the N cone had subsided several meters. Activity had resumed at both cones. Jets of bombs, at times mixed with ash, rose tens of meters above the vents, and occasional explosions ejected bombs. Eruptive activity from the northern cone had resumed at a new vent close to the center of BN. A vent in the deepest part of the ~150-m-wide crater of the cone was vigorously degassing. A third vent rarely produced spectacular ash emissions. The main eruptive vent (on the S rim of the cone) was in constant eruption, with powerful bomb ejections about every 2 seconds. Many ejections rose above the W rim of BN, which stands 70-80 m above the vent. Every 5-10 minutes, this vent would produce larger eruptions, ejecting continuous fountains mixed with ash.

Activity in BN increased notably when seen on 11 February. Activity was continuous at both cones. During the afternoon, periods of near-continuous ash emissions were accompanied by powerful explosions. At night, both eruptive areas produced intense continuous glow. Occasional larger explosions ejected bombs up to 150 m above the SE rim of Bocca Nuova. The eruption in BN continued on 15 February without significant modifications. There were vigorous bomb ejections, many of which dropped bombs on the outer slopes of the main summit cone.

During another visit on 17 February, both eruptive centers of BN were active. One vent, 30-35 m in diamater, was ejecting continuous lava fountains and occasional large jets to above the crater rim. The northern eruptive center was the site of continuous very narrow incandescent fountains, and a small lava flow. Occasional violent explosions occurred from the vent on the southern rim of the collapse structure which had been the most active vent in this area one week earlier. Activity in BN during 20-23 February was characterized by low-level bomb ejections with occasional larger jets of bombs. Virtually continuous ash emissions began at BN on the afternoon of 24 February. The ash emissions were followed that evening by vigorous magmatic activity, probably from the SE vents, that caused a bright fluctuating glow until daylight.

BN continued to erupt in early March, although the activity appeared to decrease. On 5 March there was weak activity at BN. As of 11 March sporadic night glow was visible at BN. This crater was completely inactive during a 6 April visit. Wholesale collapse had occurred at the N and SE eruptive areas. A vast collapse depression had formed at the former, leaving only the N part of the large cone that had grown there until the end of 1997. Explosion sounds heard on 27 April possibly came from BN. The local mountain guides reported on 21 May that there had been no recent activity at BN. Activity resumed from BN at the end of May after several months of little activity.

Activity at Voragine. Eruptive activity reportedly included the Voragine on 20 January, but it was inactive during a summit visit on 10 February. During a 6 April visit, the first to this crater since 10 February, a few minor morphologic changes were noted. The most significant was the formation of a new crater <10 m in diameter on the central conelet. Some growth had occurred, and the crater floor was covered with finer-grained tephra. The SW vent at the base of the septum between Voragine and BN had enlarged to ~40 m in diameter. This vent was the only site of eruptive activity within the crater during the visit. Large explosions every 3-5 minutes ejected bombs tens of meters high, some of which flew into BN. Scientists at the summit on 14 May reported vigorous activity from the vent in the SW part of the Voragine and numerous fresh bombs. Loud detonations on 24 May indicated explosive activity; some were accompanied by dense vapor and gas plumes.

Activity at Northeast Crater. In one of the most spectacular eruptive events of the past few years, Northeast Crater (NEC) produced a 2-hour episode of lava fountaining during the night of 27-28 March. The event marks a resumption of more vigorous activity at NEC, which has displayed only weak activity since August 1996.

Volcanic tremor was registered by seismic stations in the summit area early on 27 March. At about 1000, Northeast Crater began to emit ash plumes that continued until shortly after 1600. By nightfall, sporadic ejections of incandescent bombs sometimes rose several hundred meters above the crater. The Strombolian ejections gradually increased in intensity and became virtually continuous by 2200. Shortly before midnight, the ejections merged into a continuous pulsating fountain rising 300-350 m above the rim of the active vent within the collapse pit in the S-central part of the crater. Large bombs fell onto the lava platform and into the adjacent Voragine and BN craters, some fell 1 km S and SW of the vent. Loud detonations were heard on the E and SE flanks where hundreds of thousands of people watched the display at a safe distance. By about 0130, the activity began to decline and was virtually over after 0200. This eruption appears to be another episode of lava fountaining similar to those at the same crater between November 1995 and June 1996, and many times during the late 1970's and early 1980's. The next day, NEC emitted a few ash plumes several hundred meters above the summit, but there was no evidence of renewed Strombolian activity.

When the crater was visited on 6 April, centimeter-sized, highly inflated scoriae were abundant a few hundred meters S of the 1971 "Observatory Cone," and the deposit was nearly continuous on the W side of that cone, with maximum clast sizes exceeding 5 cm. Closer to SEC the deposit was no longer continuous, but clasts up to 10 cm long were found. Close to NEC, little fallout was found. A few impact craters were seen in the N part of the Voragine floor while on its N wall bombs had formed a nearly continuous cover. On the S and SE rim of NEC the deposit was at most a few meters thick. The inner terrace surrounding the central pit, previously 5-10 m below the outer terrace, had subsided at least 10 m, exposing huge caverns in the vertical scarp along which subsidence took place; these were formed during the summer of 1996 when the crater was filled with lava which crusted over and later drained. The dimensions of the central pit had changed little, but its floor had risen to within ~50-60 m of the lowest point on the rim. There was no evidence of fresh ejecta around these vents indicating that no significant eruptive activity had taken place there since the 27-28 March eruption.

Local mountain guides reported on 21 May that there had been no recent activity at NEC. However, on the morning of 1 June there was a series of ash emissions.

Geological Summary. Mount Etna, towering above Catania, Sicily's second largest city, has one of the world's longest documented records of historical 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 horseshoe-shaped 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: Boris Behncke, Istituto di Geologia e Geofisica, Palazzo delle Scienze, Università di Catania, Corso Italia 55, 95129 Catania, Italy.