Logo link to homepage

Report on Etna (Italy) — May 1999

Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 24, no. 5 (May 1999)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Etna (Italy) Lava emission continues through May from Southeast Crater into the Valle del Bove

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1999. Report on Etna (Italy) (Wunderman, R., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 24:5. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN199905-211060.

Volcano Profile |  Complete Bulletin



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

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

The following report summarizes activity observed at Etna from March through May 1999. The information for this report was compiled by Boris Behncke at the Dipartimento di Scienze Geologiche (formerly Istituto di Geologia e Geofisica), University of Catania (DSGUC), and posted on his internet web site. The compilation was based on personal visits to the summit, observations from Catania, and other sources cited in the text.

Almost all activity has been limited to the eruptive fissure that became active on 4 February at the southeastern base of Southeast Cone (SEC). During early March, lava continued to flow into the Valle del Bove, forming a lava field (figure 77) composed of numerous lobes. The activity was visible from Catania and other locations on 5 March, with the flow field incandescent over its length from the W rim of Valle del Bove down to ~2,000 m elevation.

Figure (see Caption) Figure 77. Sketch map of Etna showing the Valle del Bove and the area of lava flow-field that has developed since 4 February 1999, as of 4 June 1999. The lavas erupted during 1989-93 are shown in various shades of gray, previous flows (since 1971) are shown in lighter shades. 1995 to early 1999 lavas are not shown. Key: NE=Northeast Crater; V=Voragine; BN=Bocca Nuova; SE=Southeast Cone; TDF=Torre del Filosofo; MO=Montagnola; RS=Rifugio Sapienza; MC=Monti Centenari. Courtesy of Boris Behncke.

Observations on 3 March. On 3 March, the area of activity was visited by Giovanni Sturiale and Boris Behncke (DSGUC), and Christophe Baudin, a visitor from Belgium. The most recent lava to flow through the notch in the N rim of SEC, on 4 February, was covered with a thin layer of reddish ash and showed no heat emission. The inclined floor of the notch was ~3-5 m wide and covered with rubble; the width at its rim was 15-20 m. Only a few glimpses were caught of the interior of the crater, but at several tens of meters depth there was an inner terrace surrounding a narrow central pit. The width of the crater at its rim was at most 50 m. Gas and vapor escaped from several fumarolic areas on the SW and E crater rims. On the SE side of the crater there was a fuming pit ~15-20 m wide. Below this pit, on the outer flank of the cone, a vigorously steaming fissure segment extended ~100 m downslope; below this was the oval-shaped main vent of the 4 February episode.

Eruptive activity from the 4 February fissure consisted of very weak, and intermittent, ejections of pyroclastics, and quiet outflow of degassed lava. A cluster of about 10 hornitos at the upper end of the fissure were covered with sulfur. Relatively regular observations during 27 February-3 March (information from Giuseppe Scarpinati, Carmelo Monaco, and Christophe Baudin) indicated irregular activity at the hornitos. There was vigorous spattering at one of the main hornitos on 27 February, a new hornito began to grow on 28 February about 70-80 m downslope from the main group, and on 2 March a short-lived lava extrusion occurred from the base of one of the uppermost hornitos. On these occasions the hornitos were the site of high-pressure gas emissions that produced loud hissing.

During the 3 March visit, all hornitos were unusually quiet. High-pressure gas emission occurred from a few locations 50-80 m downslope. No flowing lava was visible, but a row of skylights lay 100-150 m downslope from the hornitos. About 100 m farther downslope the lava appeared at the surface in a well-defined flow channel. Several other lava flows were slowly moving across the lava field. At the rim of the Valle del Bove one main flow spilled into this vast depression, forming a pronounced ridge where it disappeared in another lava tube. Lava resurfaced a few hundred meters further downslope through numerous ephemeral vents, forming narrow flows that extended to the floor of the Valle. The farthest active lava was at ~2,000 m elevation, above the Monti Centenari, a cluster of 1852-53 cinder cones of which only the summits now protrude (figure 77).

The mean output was several cubic meters per second; the volume of lava produced in one month of activity was between 5 and 10 x 106 m3. Although this is a very rough estimate, with an error of ~50%, it indicates more production than other long-lived effusive eruptions in the summit area, which had effusion rates of < 1 m3/s.

Observations on 11 and 13 March. A group of DSGUC geologists (Behncke, Mariangela Porravecchio, Giuseppe Paradiso, and Antonella Lentini) visited the eruptive fissure at the base of the SEC on 11 March. Above the rim of Valle del Bove, all lava was flowing in tubes. There are apparently two main lava tubes ~30 m apart at the rim of Valle del Bove. The more southerly tube ended just above the crest of the Valle where the lava appeared at the surface, and two ephemeral vents emitted lava further downslope. The northerly lava tube extended much further into the Valle, and surface flows appeared halfway down its W slope, at ~2,500 m elevation. The active flow-fronts appeared to be somewhere above 2,000 m elevation. No activity had occurred at the hornitos in the uppermost part of the fissure, but degassing occurred from several incandescent fumaroles. Geologists from Palermo University measured temperatures of ~1,030°C in one of these fumaroles.

There appeared to be little activity elsewhere, although something that appeared to be a phreatic steam explosion came from Bocca Nuova's southeastern vent area. It formed a convoluted cloud but contained little or no ash, and it produced no sound.

On the late afternoon of 13 March the eruptive fissure was again visited by DSGUC geologists (Behncke, Monaco, Betty Giampiccolo, and Marcello Bianca). There were only minor changes compared to two days earlier. The southern lava flow sent numerous branches spilling over the rim of Valle del Bove. Little had changed at the northern lava flow. The output was still as high as 5 m3/s, and the effusive episode that began on 4 February was estimated to have produced >15 x 106 m3 of lava, an amount typical of a "slow" flank eruption (Etnean flank eruptions are generally classified into those with relatively low effusion rates, such as the 1983 and 1991-93 eruptions, and high-effusion rate eruptions like those of 1981 or 1989).

During late March lava continued to flow into Valle del Bove. While a major flow issued from an ephemeral vent about halfway down the W slope of Valle del Bove, several smaller lobes were visible on the crest of the Valle on the evening of 24 March.

Observations on 7 April. Effusive activity continued in early April, though at a slightly diminishing rate. Lava flows continued to spill into the Valle del Bove, but their fronts stopped before reaching the base of the steep slope. A visit was made on 7 April by Behncke and geologists of Catania and Switzerland together with Marco Fulle (Trieste Astronomical Observatory) and Roberto Carniel (Stromboli On-line). Numerous small surface flows were active in two areas above the rim of Valle del Bove, one about halfway between the rim and the hornitos at the upper end of the 4 February fissure, and the other just above the rim. In the lower area, three or four small flows slowly advanced a short distance from their vents, which lay around spectacular tumulus, or pressure ridges, formed as magma pushed from below, raising blocks and slabs of older lava up to 5 m. The constant effusion since 4 February had formed an impressive, delta-like ridge on the Valle del Bove rim.

The upper area of activity, at ~2,850 m elevation, had five or six vents around a smaller tumulus. Two vents produced voluminous flows that descended tens of meters and had spectacular cascades. A small vent produced a flow that moved in a 20-cm-wide, S-shaped channel; this vent froze over in less than two hours, and a new ephemeral vent became active 20 m downslope. Strong gas emission occurred from two places in the upper part of the 4 February fissure. The cluster of hornitos at the end of the fissure was quiet while profuse steaming occurred from the upper part of the fracture that split the southeastern side of SEC on 4 February. On the W wall of the Valle del Bove, lava issued from a number of ephemeral vents about halfway down the slope, feeding flows that advanced a few hundred meters.

While lava effusion continued unabated, the rate of lava production appeared lower than during the first six weeks of the eruption, possibly in the range of 1-3 m3/s. The volume of lava produced thus far exceeded 20 x 106 m3.

Observations on 14 April. Decreased lava effusion from the 4 February fissure was observed by Behncke and a German television team on 14 April. Near the W rim of Valle del Bove, lava came to the surface in a few places and produced very small flows. Halfway between the Valle del Bove rim and the hornitos, two main vents fed chanellized flows. Activity was more vigorous than the lower area, but had decreased markedly since one week before.

A notable feature is the formation of pressure ridges, tumuli, and small-volume extrusions from cracks in older lavas. Most of this was caused by very slow intrusion of lava from tubes towards the surface once the tube was blocked or slowed, forcing the lava upwards. Lava oozed through the cracks and formed new flows, but in many cases the lava formed bulbous protuberances which often resembled the lobes of pillow lavas forming underwater.

Observations on 30 April. Behncke and others descended into the Valle del Bove on 30 April. One main effusive vent, at ~2,700 m elevation (~100 m below the rim of Valle del Bove), was feeding several flows which in part disappeared into lava tubes and resurfaced tens of meters downslope. The mean effusion rate appeared to be around 1 m3/s or slightly less. The maximum flow length was ~300 m. The farthest flow fronts were stagnant above the floor of the Valle del Bove. There was no explosive activity around the effusive vents. Only one feeder tube appeared to be active, located in the central part of the field on the W slope of Valle del Bove.

Observations on 12 May. During early May, little significant change affected the activity. Lava flowing from the area of the 4 February fissure through a lava tube appeared at the surface at ~2,600 m elevation on the W wall of Valle del Bove. Active lava fronts did not extend below 2,000 m.

On 12 May, Behncke and Scarpinati visited the summit area, including Bocca Nuova and SEC, and entered the Valle del Bove. The summit craters were quiet, apart from near-continuous passive emissions of light brown ash from the NW vent of Bocca Nuova. This activity, which was most likely caused by internal collapse, was entirely noiseless and ash plumes barely rose above the crater rim. A deposit several centimeters thick covered the S, SE, and E sides of the main summit cone.

After descending from the main summit cone to the saddle which separates it from the SE Cone, Behncke climbed to the summit of the SEC. The crater was practically gas-free, so it could be seen that its floor had collapsed and the conduit was no longer open. There was, however, some gas and vapor emission from the upper part of the fracture which had split the SE flank of the cone on 4 February.

There was no visible activity anywhere above the Valle del Bove rim, the only surface flows appearing ~200-250 m below the original eruptive fissure, in Valle del Bove. Lava was issuing from two ephemeral vents on the N and E sides of a large tumulus. It was ~10-15 m across and consisted of uplifted, tilted, craggy blocks of older lava and minor volumes of more recent smooth-surfaced pahoehoe. The N vent fed a small well-channelized flow while from the vent on the E side of the tumulus lava was squeezed out like toothpaste.

Behncke and Scarpinati heard continuous cracking and knocking sounds from below, and small rockfalls from the sides of the tumulus were frequently observed; rocks at the surface of the tumulus were slowly fracturing. It was evident that magma was forcefully pushing from below, and lava was rising slowly within cracks between the blocks at the surface. After about 15 minutes of observation, Behncke and Scarpinati left the unstable tumulus area and continued their observation from 15 m upslope. For another 20-30 minutes, the tumulus gradually extended in all directions. Fracturing on the slope above the tumulus indicated a larger volume of magma arriving at the end of the feeder tube and nearing the surface.

After about 35-45 minutes of observation, the large blocks of older lava began to fall apart while ever larger rockfalls and collapses occurred on the flanks of the tumulus. After this, the entire tumulus area became highly mobile, and its E and SE sides, perched above the steep Valle del Bove slope, began to slide downhill, producing spectacular cascades of incandescent blocks and exposing the fluid, incandescent interior. The most dramatic phase, which lasted no longer than 5 minutes, saw the virtual unfolding of the whole structure as older blocks slipped into the Valle del Bove. Where the observers had walked only 30 minutes before, an incandescent chasm 15 m wide and 5-6 m deep opened, and lava slowly flowed from draining lava tubes. Fresh lava welled up at the W end of the collapse depression, rapidly filling it and spilling over its SE rim, causing further rockfalls. Some rocks at least 20 m3 in volume fell, with fresh incandescent lava attached to them. The overflowing lava appeared to be more voluminous than that which had previously issued from the two vents.

The previously active flows, cut off from their supply, soon stagnated, and small lava tubes with still-incandescent walls became visible. Fresh lava spilled down in a southeasterly direction, forming two branches which traveled 100-150 m in about 30 minutes.

Observations on 15-19 May. Surface activity resumed at the 4 February fissure on 15 May, after about a month of lava flowing through tubes to the Valle del Bove. A luminous spot in the hornito area was sighted through binoculars on the evening of 15 May by Giuseppe Scarpinati from his home in Acireale. Earlier that day Harry Pinkerton (Environmental Sciences Division, University of Lancaster) and others working in the area had noted no active lava. The next day (16 May), lava was slowly extruded from three small vents. The rate of emission increased during the following two days, and a larger vent fed sluggish flows that advanced across the N part of the flow-field.

On 19 May, Behncke, Antonella Lentini, Mariangela Porravecchio (DGSUC), Valentina Giambarresi (Catania University), and others visited Etna's summit area and the effusive vents. A part of this group climbed to the SEC summit. Since the previous visit by Behncke on 12 May, all emissions of vapor from the obstructed crater floor had ceased. The crater floor was ~70 m below the W rim, and the crater walls were vertical in most places. Fumarolic activity was occurring from numerous locations around the crater rim.

While the group stayed on the SEC summit, ash emissions from Bocca Nuova and Northeast Crater produced dilute plumes ~100-150 m above the respective crater rims. Rumbling sounds came from the direction of the Voragine or (less likely) Northeast Crater. No visible emissions were associated with the noise, and no more sounds were heard when everybody had returned to the hornito area.

The new vent 80-100 m below the hornitos lay in a drained channel ~3 m wide in its central portion. The shift of the currently active vent downslope was evident in the form of a ridge built by a series of crusted-over vents. The emission of lava was frequently accompanied by strong degassing, indicating that the lava here was more gas-rich than that issuing from the ephemeral vent on the Valle del Bove slope. Some 20 m downslope from this active vent, one of the initial three vents (of 16 May) was still extruding small amounts of bulbous lava, forming a tumulus.

The visit to the ephemeral vent on the Valle del Bove slope was highly instructive regarding the properties of effusive vents and lava channels. Lava was still flowing from two vents on the floor of the depression formed during the 12 May collapse of the large tumulus. Flow fronts did not extend to the Valle del Bove floor. Four or five well-channelized flows ~1 m wide were moving down the slope; towards their fronts two of these flows were seen to thicken and broaden to 2-3 m height and 5 m width.

The floor of the depression left after the tumulus collapse was partially covered with new lava, mostly aa with one small lobe of very smooth pahoehoe, and the main effusive vent had shifted ~2 m downslope. A second effusive vent 4-5 m downflow produced a small volume of lava.

Investigation of what remained of the collapsed tumulus revealed that the two effusive vents observed on 12 May had not been completely destroyed. Vent 1 lay on the N side of the tumulus, and while still active it had fed lava into a well-defined channel. Vent 2, on the E side of the tumulus, had squeezed out lava much like toothpaste, which had spilled down the steep E face of the tumulus. Both vents were cut off from lava supply as the tumulus collapsed, and when the area of vent 1 was observed shortly thereafter, lava was still draining from the flow channel. Observation on 19 May revealed that the channel had completely drained, its depth being ~1.5 m (compared to a width of 0.8-0.9 m). This is a much higher depth-width ratio than in most other lava channels on Etna and many other volcanoes, but normally lava channels are not drained as completely as in this case since the supply of lava decreases gradually, allowing some of the lava to remain and "freeze" on the channel floor.

Vent 2, one week after the cessation of its activity, was a roughly circular hole open towards the downslope side, and evolving into a thoroughly drained flow channel that had been hidden under the lava when observed before the tumulus collapse. Like at vent 1, this flow channel was deeper than wide. The vent 2 channel is on much steeper terrain, but this apparently had no effect on the depth and width of the flow channel. The vent itself, ~1.5 m wide at its rim, widened at depth to a subcircular cavity from whose floor some bulbous lava had oozed, probably, at some stage of the tumulus collapse. This indicates that there had been a lava pocket ~1 m below the vent. Vent 2 was surrounded by peculiar lava features. There was something like a "basal" lava type, of chocolate brown color, and with a very smooth ripply surface, onto which patches of black, scoriaceous lava were attached. Many of these features are almost certainly related to the frequent and rapid shifting of the locus of extrusion, and the shearing of actively extruding lava along solidified lava on the vent or flow channel walls.

Effusive activity from the 4 February fissure continued at a slowly decreasing rate through the end of May. This decrease was accompanied by an apparent increase of activity in the summit craters, possibly caused by the rise of the magma in the central conduit system below these craters, as less magma escaped through the 4 February fissure. A new surge of activity at this fissure occurred in mid-June; more detail will be provided in a future Bulletin.

Geologic Background. 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, Dipartimento di Scienze Geologiche, Palazzo delle Scienze, Università di Catania, Corso Italia 55, 95129 Catania, Italy.