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Report on Etna (Italy) — September 1998


Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 23, no. 9 (September 1998)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Etna (Italy) Summary of summit eruptive activity during August 1997-January 1998

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1998. Report on Etna (Italy) (Wunderman, R., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 23:9. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN199809-211060



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 August 1997 through 15 January 1998. Events through 8 January 1998 at Bocca Nuova, Southeast Crater, Northeast Crater, and Voragine are described below separately. A seismic crisis during 9-12 January was followed by a brief decrease in activity at all of the craters. Significant eruptive episodes after mid-January 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, monitoring of images posted on the internet from the camera maintained by the Istituto Internazionale di Vulcanologia (IIV), and other sources.

Visits to the summit craters in late September and early October 1997 revealed continuing vigorous activity from Bocca Nuova and Southeast Crater while more sporadic activity was occurring at the Voragine and Northeast Crater. This pattern continued through November and December. The overall activity on 8 January 1998 at Bocca Nuova, Northeast Crater, and Voragine was notably diminished; it was the lowest observed in six months.

Activity at Bocca Nuova. During late August, lava ejections from Bocca Nuova (BN) became significantly more vigorous. Both eruptive centers in this crater often ejected lava bombs outside the crater, with many falling on its S rim. Occasional explosions ejected bombs on the lower S flank of the central cone. The number of active vents in Bocca Nuova increased to seven on 28 August, but was down to five just two days later. The bombardment and explosions led to collapse on the E side of Bocca Nuova, lowering the septum between BN and Voragine (informally named "diaframma" among local volcanologists), and eroding the remains of a 1964 cone.

Visits to the summit in late September and early October revealed continuing activity. As of 14 October, Bocca Nuova's activity was gradually increasing, and the crater was being filled in. The northern of its two eruptive centers had a broad cone with a crater 50-100 m wide, which at times was completely filled with fountaining lava. Fountains often sent spatter and bombs high above the rim, and large ejecta fell outside the crater up to 100 m away. Bombs as large as 40 cm in diameter fell onto the area where the best views of the erupting cone in BN are obtained. Explosions in the SE eruptive center at times sent pyroclastic material all over the S flank of Etna's summit cone.

On 6 November the northern eruptive center was vigorously active. The cone at that site had grown to ~50 m below the NW crater rim. The SE eruptive center was much less violent than in previous months; on the crater wall above it a large overhanging hollow had been carved out by explosions. On the evening of 6 November, Strombolian explosions occurred at intervals of 1-5 seconds, with some jets rising up to 200 m above the cone's summit. An episode of spectacular lava fountaining from BN occurred on 25 November when huge bursts of incandescent bombs developed into a continuous fountain from the SE eruptive center. On 28 November the clouds over the mountain cleared, permitting the view of a huge vapor column rising almost vertically to about 1,500 m above the summit. This unusually large plume was due to an approaching cold front that led to increased condensation.

Explosive activity and gas emissions within BN accompanied a lava flow from Southeast Crater during 9-11 December. Intermittent activity on 12 December, stronger than during the previous 17 days, ejected high bursts of incandescent bombs from BN's southeastern vents. Activity through 15 December was very vigorous, and eruptions continued through 21 December. Glow was visible above BN's two eruptive centers on 26 December and over the E part of the crater on 31 December.

On the evening of 7 January, several jets of incandescent bombs rose over the SE crater lip, and a few bombs fell onto the remains of the 1964 cone. As of 8 January the large cone in the N part of the crater floor had partially collapsed, creating a crater ~150 m in diameter. Frequent rockfalls occurred within this crater. Subsidence of the cone and the adjacent crater floor had created a set of circumferential fractures several meters wide. The most recent activity at this eruptive center appears to have been the extrusion of a lava flow that covered the E and SE sides of the BN floor. The vents at the SE eruptive center were the site of weak Strombolian explosions every 10-15 minutes. Most, if not all, activity occurred from the lowermost vent in the SW part of the eruptive center. A complex cone around these vents had grown notably since the visit on 6 November 1997, with the rim of the highest vent being at about the same elevation as the N rim of Bocca Nuova. Large parts of the crater wall above the SE eruptive center had collapsed, probably before the most recent cone growth (all collapse debris was buried).

Activity at Southeast Crater. Strombolian and effusive activity continued from Southeast Crater (SEC), whose intracrater cone could be seen on 1 September through a gap in the NE crater rim from coastal areas to the E. During a visit on 30 August, lava fountains rose up to 150 m above the cone, and three vents were active. There had been significant infilling of the deep southern part of SEC since effusive activity shifted to the cone's NW flank sometime before 11 August. Before then, lava had repeatedly spilled onto the SE flank of the cone.

Visits to the summit craters in late September and early October revealed continuing vigorous activity. While effusive vents were active on the W base of the cone from 10 August to mid-September, lava again issued from E-flank vents in late September, causing renewed overflows onto the outer SW flank of the cone. By mid-October the cone within SEC had grown to about the height of the highest point on the crater rim. Explosive activity was the same as during previous months, and lava effusion continued from the flanks of the cone.

At dusk on 2 November there were continuous Strombolian bursts from SEC. A visit on 6 November revealed very weak and erratic Strombolian activity. For the first time in many months there was no lava effusion at SEC, although guides at Torre del Filosofo reported that a small lava flow had spilled over the low SE rim of the crater three days earlier. After sunset on 6 November, Strombolian bursts from SEC could be seen from Catania (Palazzo delle Scienze).

Telescope observations from the roof of the Palazzo delle Scienze in Catania on 3-4 December revealed vigorous Strombolian activity at SEC and significant growth of its central conelet, which stood much higher than the surrounding crater rims. Activity on the evening of 5 December was documented with the IIV camera until bad weather hid the summit. At dusk, activity at SEC increased, and strong explosions heralded lava emission to the NE side of the intracrater cone. A more significant lava flow was erupted from SEC on the late afternoon of 9 December, accompanied by vigorous explosive activity at the intracrater cone and within Bocca Nuova. The SEC lava flow overrode previous flows on the SE flank of the cone.

The 9 December lava flow was visible on 11 December, contrasting against freshly fallen snow. Seen from Palazzo delle Scienze, this flow extended much farther downslope than previous flows on the SE flank of the cone, but its front was still several hundred meters from the steep W flank of Valle del Bove. The flow had apparently stopped (no steam was visible at the contact of the lava with the snow). Two smaller lava lobes were erupted onto the SE flank of SEC's cone, about two-thirds of the way down the cone's flank. The active central cone appeared to have lost some height during the strong explosions; Strombolian activity was still vigorous and at times accompanied by weak ash emissions. Vigorous activity at SEC, with some large explosions, continued during 12-15 December, with lava flows spilling over the SE rim and some SE-flank lava extending far beyond the base of the cone. The new flow passed only about 600 meters NE from the Torre del Filosofo mountain hut, ~1 km from SEC. As of 17 December the lava flows erupted from SEC during the previous few days were still confined to the SE flank of the cone. None of the new flows had extended as far as those on 9 and 12-13 December. Over 20-21 December, nearly continuous explosive activity at the SEC intracrater cone sent lava onto its SE and SSE flanks. The cone regained the height lost after 5 December. A 22 December afternoon episode of vigorous lava fountaining as high as 200 m from SEC lasted about 1 hour. A lava flow erupted onto the SE flank of SEC appeared to be no longer than ~200 m.

Activity at SEC in late December and early January was spectacular. On 25 December, continuous Strombolian activity occurred from the central conelet and lava flowed down the SE flank to its base, covering previous flows. Three active lava flows were visible on the SE flank on the 26th. Sometime between early 29 and early 30 December, more lava flows spilled down the S flank of SEC, and a peculiar flow moved down on the SW flank, bifurcating on the lower slope. On the evening of the 30th, active flows were visible on the S flank while the SW flow only showed incandescence in its upper part. On the evening of 31 December, incandescent lava was visible on the lip of SEC in many places while active flows were descending on the S flank. On 7 January the SW flow was incandescent along its full length, with the W lobe extending to the base of the SEC cone.

On 8 January Southeast Crater gave off continuous Strombolian explosions from two vents at the summit of the intracrater cone and lava emission from its SE base. The summit of the cone was distinctly (~5-7 m) higher than the highest point ("Fortino") on the NE rim of SEC. Lateral growth of the cone was most significant in the N and NE parts of SEC where all lava flows and effusive vents active between July and September 1997 had been buried. The lava field surrounding the central cone had risen significantly, causing overflows on the E, SE, S, and SW sides. Only a segment of the NE crater rim stood a few meters above the lava fill; the W and NW part of the rim stood 20 m above the lava field and the cone's base. Three craters were present on the central cone, two of which were erupting. Activity would occur from one vent at any given time while the other was silent. The N vent ejected bombs and scoriae onto the N and NW crater rim and beyond. The S vent produced loud bangs and showered the E and SE flanks of the cone with pyroclastics. The effusive vent on the SE side of the cone had crusted over, and lava issued only on the SW rim of SEC where it overflowed, forming a narrow (1.5 m) flow with distinct lateral levees extending to the base of the SEC cone. The flow bypassed a cone formed in 1971 on its E side; when reaching the almost horizontal plain below the steep SW flank of SEC, it broadened and thickened notably and advanced slowly in the direction of the 1971 "Observatory cone." Within 3.5 hours on 8 January, the flow front advanced ~15 m through thick snow, forming an offshoot on the W side of the ~20-m-wide lava front. None of the other flows on the S flank of SEC showed any signs of movement or incandescence. The distance from the Torre del Filosofo mountain hut to the nearest flow front was ~1 km; the active flow did not threaten this structure.

Activity at Northeast Crater. During the second half of July Northeast Crater (NEC) occasionally ejected incandescent bombs from a deep pit in the central part of the crater; fine ash fell outside the pit. Visits to the summit craters in late September and early October revealed sporadic activity. NEC frequently emitted ash plumes during the first week of October, and on the evening of 10 October, incandescent ejections rose as high as 50 m above the crater rim. Strong gas emission was occurring from NEC on 11 December. NEC was essentially quiet on 8 January, with only light steam emissions from its central pit and some of the June-August 1996 vents in the SW part of the crater. Steam emission was more abundant, and at times pulsating, from a collapse pit in the S part of the crater. This pit was also the site of frequent avalanching and rockfalls that generated plumes of brown ash. No fresh magmatic products were found in the vicinity of the central and southern pits.

Activity at Voragine. A small cone began to form on the floor of Voragine in late July, and Strombolian activity was observed on 5 August. On 30 August, the cone was mildly steaming, and the surrounding deposit of black scoriae was partly covered by blocks that had collapsed from the septum between Voragine and Bocca Nuova. The first effusive activity from the Voragine in many years occurred in late September, forming a small lava field on the crater floor. Strombolian activity was weak on 28 September but very vigorous on 9 October; one day later it was again weak. The Voragine was explosively active from the central conelet on 6 November, and another weakly explosive vent had formed at the SW base of the diaframma between the Voragine from Bocca Nuova.

The cone in the central part of the Voragine was quiet on 8 January, with only slight emission of bluish gas. Its horseshoe-shaped crater was open to the SE; a small lava flow had issued from the open side of the cone. The vent on the SW side of the crater floor, which was first observed on 6 November 1997, had enlarged and was surrounded by a low half-cone leaning against the base of the diaframma. This vent produced weak explosions that mainly expulsed hot gas and a few pyroclasts. When viewed from the E rim of the Voragine, the conduit of this vent was seen to be inclined SW, diving below the diaframma.

Seismic crisis of 9-12 January 1998. The most intense seismic crisis during the current eruptive cycle occurred during 9-12 January and caused widespread media attention. From the afternoon of 9 January through 11 January about 200 earthquakes occurred in an area on the W and SW flanks of the volcano. The strongest shock (M 3.7) damaged a church in Biancavilla. No other damage or injuries were reported. Most epicenters were between Monte Nunziata and Monte Palestra, two ancient cones on the W flank. Seismicity diminished late on 10 January.

Strong ash emissions from BN on the morning of 11 January indicated further collapse in that crater, caused by earlier subsidence of the magmatic column. It is assumed that the magma intruded into a new fracture within the W side of the volcanic edifice. On 12 January ash emission from BN was almost continuous, but strong ash emissions also occurred from NEC. Activity at SEC continued with Strombolian bursts and emission of lava flows onto the SW, S, and SE flanks of the cone. The peculiar SW flow seemed to be waning; during the previous few days it had formed several minor lobes adjacent to the main one; the flow front seemed to have reached the base of the 1971 "Observatory cone."

Another seismic swarm occurred below the W flank on the afternoon of 12 January, with twelve earthquakes in 20 minutes, the strongest being M 3.1. Epicenters were closer to the summit craters than those of the preceding swarm, clustering 2-3 km E of Monte Palestra. Focal depths were ~4 km below sea level; no damage was reported. No significant change was noted in the eruptive activity at Southeast Crater, which had three active flows moving down its SW, S, and SE flanks.

Summit activity during 13-15 January 1998. Strombolian activity on the evening of 13 January at the intracrater cone in SEC was vigorous, while active lava was only visible near the crater rim in three places. A very faint glow reappeared at the SE eruptive center in BN. Strong ash emissions occurred from BN throughout the day. Seismic and eruptive activity were low on 14 January. The only visibly active crater was SEC, which was vigorous on the 13th but showed a marked diminution of activity towards midnight. At nightfall on 14 January SEC had very few and weak explosions, and there was no active lava flow on its outer flanks. No glow was visible above BN. This was the lowest level of activity observed in about a year. Seismic activity resumed late on 14 January with a series of about ten weak earthquakes below the W flank (Monte Palestra area) and several shocks beneath the SW slope, some 5 km above Biancavilla. Hypocenters were ~6 km below the surface on the W flank but much shallower on the SW flank. Activity at SEC dropped to very low levels: very few and weak explosions from the intracrater cone were observed on 14 January and no active lava was visible on the outer flanks of the crater.

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 Geofisico, Palazzo delle Scienze, Università di Catania, Corso Italia 55, 95129 Catania, Italy.