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Report on Etna (Italy) — December 1998


Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 23, no. 12 (December 1998)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Etna (Italy) Episodic eruptions from Southeast Crater during October-December

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1998. Report on Etna (Italy) (Wunderman, R., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 23:12. 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 October through December 1998. Bocca Nuova and Voragine exhibited some explosive activity during this period, but Northeast Crater was quiet. Southeast Crater had 15 distinct eruptive episodes. Most of the information for this report was compiled by Boris Behncke at the Istituto di Geologia e Geofisica, University of Catania (IGGUC), and posted on his internet website. The compilation was based on personal visits to the summit, telescopic observations from Catania, and other sources.

Activity at Southeast Crater (SEC). Poor visibility precluded observations after 30 September, when intense activity was rapidly building the intracrater cone and a new lava flow was spilling down the SW flank of the SEC cone (figure 74). On the evening of 1 October, no incandescence was visible at the crater, and brief glimpses of the summit during the following days revealed that no further growth of the intracrater cone had occurred. A group encamped ~800 m S of SEC reported that on 4 October there were no eruptions, but that activity renewed during the night.

Figure (see Caption) Figure 74. Sketch map of Etna's summit craters showing recent eruption products as of 1 November 1998. The approximate extent of recent lava flows from Southeast Crater has been added. This map is not completely accurate regarding the distribution of the new flows, but locates some frequently mentioned features. Courtesy of Boris Behncke.

The summit was visited on 5 October by a group including Boris Behncke and Giovanni Sturiale (IGGUC), Marco Fulle (Trieste Astronomical Observatory), and Jürg Alean (Stromboli On-line). Strombolian bursts hurled incandescent bombs up to 200 m above the vent. A small conelet a few meters high that had grown around this vent was destroyed by explosions around 1300, and the active vent widened to 8-10 m diameter, with a low pyroclastic mound around it. Meter-sized lava blobs jetted continuously from the vent, and bombs showered SEC and its N flank. Many explosions were caused by the bursting of magma bubbles. Although the intracrater cone had grown significantly, it did not entirely fill the 15 September explosion crater. Alean stayed on the summit until the late evening of 5 October and returned the next afternoon. Strombolian activity culminated in a paroxysmal eruptive episode (the sixth since the crater resumed its activity on 15 September) on the evening of 5 October when fluid lava moved ~1 km down its E flank within a few hours. Strombolian activity at the intracrater cone was weaker, but increased slightly during the evening.

Vigorous eruptive activity resumed on the evening of 11 October at SEC, which had shown only low levels of activity during the preceding days. The renewed activity (the eighth eruptive episode) consisted of lava fountains and a lava flow that extended ~700 m downslope adjacent to the 5 October flow. Strombolian activity at the intracrater cone continued the next morning. Fulle reported "zero activity" at SEC on 13 October.

The episode of lava fountaining and lava emission during the night of 11-12 October was the seventh at SEC since the reawakening of the crater on 15 September. The activity had established a repetitive pattern of periods of relative calm or very low-level activity that lasted up to several days, followed by episodes of very intense Strombolian activity that culminated in lava fountains and short-lived, rapid effusion of lava flows for 1-2 days. The same crater displayed a series of episodes in September 1989 that marked the uprise of a voluminous batch of fresh, gas-rich magma, and culminated in a flank eruption in Valle del Leone. That eruption was accompanied by the formation of a non-eruptive fracture system down the SW flank to about 1,600 m elevation, close to one of the most densely populated areas on Etna. The new eruptive episodes at SEC, however, were of much smaller magnitude and occurred at greater intervals, and there was no geophysical evidence that magma was intruding at shallow levels into the fracture systems that radiate from the central conduit system.

Strombolian activity at SEC resumed on the evening of 16 October, after three days of no eruptive activity. According to Fulle, who witnessed the resumption of activity, there were first some high-pressure gas emissions during the late afternoon, without the ejection of pyroclastics. Strombolian activity had initiated sometime before 1900. Remote observation with binoculars from 5 km N of Catania by Sturiale during the night of 17-18 October revealed that the intracrater cone fractured on its southern side and issued lava. While Strombolian activity from the summit vent of the intracrater cone culminated in about nine hours of paroxysmal activity with lava fountains several hundred meters high, the new lava flow advanced in up to five lobes a few hundred meters downslope, slowing at the base of the SEC cone. Further flows spilled down the E and W sides of the cone. According to Sturiale, the most intense activity occurred around 0300; the episode ended at around 0630. The intracrater cone had merged with the N outer flank of the pre-1997 SEC cone; the summit of the cone was conservatively estimated to stand at 3,220 m, 30-40 m higher than the highest pre-1997 rim of SEC.

On 24 October SEC produced its ninth eruptive episode since 15 September. Activity began to intensify at around 1700 and was at its climax between 1900 and 2100 when Strombolian bursts jetted hundreds of meters above the cone. At times several vents appeared to be active. The main lava flow advanced to the base of the intracrater cone where it bifurcated into at least five lobes that spilled down the S flank. As of 2100, these active lobes had reached the base of the cone, and movement appeared to be slowing. Another lava flow spilled down the SW side of the SEC cone. Like the previous episode, the 24 October eruption was preceded by about 24 hours of weak Strombolian activity on the evening of 23 October. The paroxysmal event itself lasted only a few hours but was very intense, with about 2 hours of near-continuous lava fountaining. The lava flows on the S flank came close to the tourist lookout ~500 m N of the Torre del Filosofo hut, and then turned SE towards Valle del Bove, reaching ~1 km in maximum length. The SW lava flow did not extend beyond the base of the SEC cone. By 2300 all activity was over, but a brief revival of Strombolian activity occurred at around 0200 the next morning.

The tenth eruptive episode from SEC in seven weeks took place on the early morning of 1 November. In a characteristic pattern established during the recent episodes, the 1 November event was preceded on 31 October by the resumption of very mild Strombolian activity, and an increase in seismicity. While no effusive or explosive activity was evident until shortly after midnight (observation by Sturiale), lava began to spill down the S flank of the SEC cone before 0030. Low fountains began to play in the summit vent by 0130, and continued through at least 0430. The culminating phase began at around 0500 and lasted two or three hours; during this phase lava fountains continuously jetted hundreds of meters above the erupting vent, and numerous lava lobes spilled down the S flank of the SEC. Two lobes stopped about 100-150 m short of the tourist outlook, but other lobes turned SE at the base of the cone and reached ~600 m from the crater. Loud explosion noises were audible in towns on the lower flanks of Etna. It appears that initially the magma rose within the conduit and overflowed quietly without being accompanied by vigorous degassing, and this relatively quiet phase lasted a few hours. The 24 October episode was also reported to have initiated with the quiet overflow of lava prior to vigorous fountaining.

Behncke and Carmelo Monaco (IGGUC) visited the summit craters starting on 1300 on 1 November, roughly six hours after the end of that morning's eruptive episode and cessation of all lava outflow. Mild Strombolian activity continued through 1700, but there was no active or incandescent lava and Behncke was able to approach the spillover point on the S side of the intracrater cone, walking on still-hot but stagnant lava emplaced that morning. The spill-over area was a narrow channel, ~10 m deep, whose upper sides were plastered with large spatter; this channel extended to the base of the intracrater cone where it divided into two major channels that fed the lava flows on the outer S flank of the SEC cone. About 20-25 m farther W a similar spillover channel partly filled with 1 November ejecta was probably active during the 24 October episode.

The most striking effect of the five eruptive episodes since 5 October was the growth of the intracrater cone, which had become an imposing structure occupying almost all of the former SEC depression. A crater ~25-30 m wide occupied the summit of the intracrater cone.

Weak and infrequent Strombolian activity began again on the evening of 6 November; the next morning, SEC produced eruptive episode 11. Strombolian activity gradually increased through the night of 7 November and early morning, and the culminating phase of the episode began around 0830 on 8 November. By 1100, vigorous fountaining from the summit was accompanied by lava outflow onto the S flank. Shortly after 1330 the main phase of the episode was over, and no active lava was visible.

As of 16 November there had been no significant activity since 7 November, as revealed by seismic data (information from G. Patanè of the Osservatorio Sismologico di Acireale and IGGUC) and the lack of morphological changes to the summit cone. Sandro Privitera (IGGUC) reached the Torre del Filosofo hut on 15 November and witnessed a single ash emission from the cone before clouds hampered observations.

After 11 days of silence SEC produced its 12th eruptive episode in nine weeks on 18 November. After several days of weak seismicity, earthquakes began to increase in frequency during the late afternoon of 17 November (information from Patanè), and weak Strombolian activity began sometime around 2000 (information from J.C. Tanguy). This activity continued throughout the night, gradually increasing in vigor. The most intense activity occurred around 1030-1130 with high lava fountains, frequent ash emissions, and lava overflow onto the S flank. By 1230, most pyroclastic activity had ceased, and lava movement apparently stopped, although vigorous steaming from the new lava continued, and intense seismicity persisted for some time.

The 13th episode occurred on 29 November, again after a quiet interval of 11 days. Due to bad weather conditions, the activity could not be observed, but loud detonations were audible 25-30 km from the summit. The effects of this episode were studied during a visit on 3 December by Behncke. Lava had spilled through the breach in the S crater rim and reached the base of the cone. The summit of the newly formed cone at SEC was climbed to observe the vent that had produced all the recent activity; there was no eruptive activity, and only weak gas emissions occurred. The summit crater was ~50-80 m wide, its rim being highest on the SE side. The crater floor was relatively flat and had a central pit ~15 m wide in its center. From the crater rim it was possible to see that the summit of SEC was only about 20 m lower than the rim of the former summit crater (elevation 3,260 m), and thus SEC has grown at least 60-80 m since mid-1997.

It was SEC more than 14 days later that SEC began its fourteenth eruptive episode in three months, on 13-14 December. As usual, Strombolian activity began some 24 hours or so earlier. Carmelo Monaco (IGGCT) heard explosion sounds at Montagnola from the direction of SEC, but clouds prevented observations. However, at about 1930 the summit became visible from Catania, when Strombolian bursts occurred every few seconds. Between 2000 and 2030 a growing incandescent spot became visible below the fountain. During the next two hours, lava spilled down the S flank, and pyroclastic ejections became gradually stronger. The culminating phase began at about 0430, marked by strong seismic activity (information from Patanè). Tephra was carried S, leaving a dark streak on the snow. On 14 December, when viewed from Catania, the cone of SEC was covered with new pyroclastics and appeared to have grown; activity had returned to low levels.

The fifteenth eruptive episode from SEC occurred on 29 December, after the longest quiet interval between two episodes observed so far, and was essentially similar to the preceding episodes, with vigorous lava fountaining, tephra emission, and small lava flows.

Activity at Bocca Nuova (BN), Voragine, and Northeast Crater (NEC). The summit craters were visited on 5 October by Behncke, Sturiale, Fulle, and Alean. NEC was limited to forceful gas emission from a 30-m-wide vent on the floor of its about 80-m-deep central pit. Activity in the Voragine occurred in one vent in its SW part, which was ~100 m wide, tens of meters deep, and ejected bombs in near-continuous bursts; four other vents in the Voragine were degassing quietly. Within BN, both the NW and SE vent areas produced Strombolian activity. At the former, two vents in the W part of the cone were the sites of continuous minor bomb ejections culminating in fountains ~100 m high every 5-15 minutes. Only very few bombs fell outside the crater, but abundant fresh-looking bombs indicated that stronger activity had occurred within the preceding two days. Extensive fracturing of the lava flow that had entered the Bocca Nuova on 22 July indicated that minor subsidence had also affected a wider area. At the SE vents continuous Strombolian activity occurred from two vents in the collapse depression formed in early 1998.

Alean reported that activity in the Voragine and the SE vents in BN was stronger on 6 October. Fulle indicated that low-level activity persisted through 10 October and that during his observations on 12 and 13 October there was ongoing eruptive activity in BN and the Voragine. Eruptions from the SW vent in the Voragine ejected bombs into BN. An increase in the vigor of the ejections of the NW vent in BN was noted by Fulle on 15-16 October; explosions from that site ejected large (up to 1.5 m) black bombs onto the NW and N crater rims. On the morning of 25 October there was a dense gas plume issuing from BN.

Behncke and Monaco observed activity at BN and the Voragine on 1 November. In the former, the NW cone did not produce visible eruptions although explosion sounds could occasionally be heard. In the SE eruptive area three vents were the site of Strombolian activity. For the first time since the 22 July eruption it was possible to enter the Voragine, which was much shallower than before that event. Only the large SW vent was erupting, but that activity was very deep-seated, and only on one occasion did bombs rise above the lip of the vent. Very little degassing occurred from the large central vent, and the general impression was that the Voragine was quieter than at any time during the past six months. A weak gas plume was seen rising from the NEC central pit. There was continued weak activity in BN and Voragine through at least 10 November.

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, Universit√° di Catania, Corso Italia 55, 95129 Catania, Italy.