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Report on Etna (Italy) — September 1989


Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, vol. 14, no. 9 (September 1989)
Managing Editor: Lindsay McClelland.

Etna (Italy) Strong tephra emission; lava fountains >1 km; lava flows

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1989. Report on Etna (Italy) (McClelland, L., ed.). Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, 14:9. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.SEAN198909-211060



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

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

The following supplements the preliminary report in 14:08.

Through 26 September, the eruption was dominated by vigorous Southeast Crater activity that fed upper-flank lava flows and ejected tephra that reached the coast. Fissures opened on the upper E flank 27 September, producing lava flows that advanced ~ 6 km before activity stopped on 9 October.

[Fourteen] strong eruptive episodes that occurred 11-26 September included vigorous explosive activity from Southeast Crater with lava fountains that rose > 1 km. Violent Strombolian activity alternated with periods limited to ash ejection, particularly during the first days of the eruption. Winds initially carried eruptive clouds E and S, then E and NE, with ashfalls reaching Catania (roughly 30 km SSE of the summit). Very fluid lava flows moved S and SSE (Piano del Lago), SE and E (Valle del Bove), and NE (Valle del Leone). The lava flows reached 2,600 m elevation (~ 2 km from the crater) in the Piano del Lago, and the base of the Valle del Bove's W wall at ~2,000 m (3-4 km from the crater).

A team from the Open Univ (P. Francis, C. Oppenheimer, and D. Rothery), the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (L. Glaze and D. Pieri), and IIV (T. Caltabiano) carried out field work 22-29 September. Lava fountaining and Strombolian activity occurred about every 10-12 hours from Southeast Crater. The activity fed many aa flows ~ 100 m long in addition to the more fluid flows that advanced farther downslope. Their detailed chronology of a 24 September Southeast Crater eruptive episode, apparently typical of 23-28 September activity, is shown in table 3.

Table 3. Description of the 24 September 1989 eruptive episode at Etna's Southeast Crater, observed by L. Glaze, C. Oppenheimer, and D. Rothery from 900 m away at the Torre del Filosofo. Temperatures were measured with a Cyclops 33 infrared thermometer (8-14 mm bandpass), but were lower than true values because the 1° field of view always included some air or cold ash.

Time Description of activity
0940-0955 Gray ash clouds rose 50-100 m above the rim every few minutes. The Central Crater was fuming strongly, but produced no ash.
0955-1035 Sustained gray ash eruption to 100 m above the rim.
1038 Ash column production ceased, but explosions were audible. Peak column base temperature, 288°C.
1040 Bombs began to rise above the rim.
1050 Semi-continuous Strombolian ejection with some red incandescence. No distinct tephra column.
1103 50-m lava fountain; maximum temperature of 443°C at its visible base.
1105 Onset of fine ashfall at the Torre del Filosofo (TDF).
1108 Continuous noise; fountain to about 80 m above the rim.
1115-1117 Temperature at the fountain's visible base, 280-882°C. Brown smoke rose E of the crater, probably from lava advancing toward the Valle del Bove.
1120 Lava fountained to 160 m above the rim, surmounted by a convectively rising ash/scoria column.
1124 Maximum temperature of the visible column base 693°C with the Cyclops 33, but 983 with a Cyclops 52 (0.3 field of view, 0.1-1.1 micron bandpass).
1126 Centimeter-size scoria fall began at the TDF.
1129 Incandescent material rose above the rim from a second western source within the crater. The two sources soon joined to feed a single lava fountain with a sustained height of 250 m above the rim.
1136 A clast-fed lava flow began on the crater's SW flank. 2-cm tephra fell at the TDF a minute later.
1145 Brick-size bombs fell 100 m E of the TDF, where 4-cm tephra was falling 2 minutes later.
1200 Lava fountained to more than 300 m above the rim with jet engine roaring. A convective ash/scoria column rose to considerable (but undetermined) altitude.
1205 A fissure developed on the crater's SE flank, and lava fountaining from the fissure fed a flow. The fountain's infrared temperature was 614°C at 1211. By 1224, the fissure had become the source of the main column, with incandescent material rising 200-300 m.
1233 Roaring noise stopped for about 3 seconds, then activity declined and had virtually ceased by 1238.

Geologists from the Ruhr Univ visited Etna 22-30 September. Eruptive episodes that included lava fountains up to 500 m high, ash emission, and lava flows from Southeast Crater and associated fissures, occurred once or twice daily during their first five days. They provided the following chronology of activity observed from Nicolosi, 15 km to the S.

22 September, 2100-2330: Lava fountains to 500 m height, lava flows mainly directed toward the Valle del Bove.

23 September, 2000-2015: Vigorous lava fountains (probably higher than the previous night) and lava flows to the Valle del Bove.

24 September, 0930-1200: Initial small ash puffs from Southeast Crater were followed by high lava fountains. New fissures opened at the base of Southeast Crater, and lava flows moved S, cutting off the road to the Torre del Filosofo (900 m from Southeast Crater).

25 September, 0530-0900: Lava fountains rose 300 m, a 4-km vapor plume was ejected, and lava flowed into the Valle del Bove. Loud rumblings were heard from Nicolosi near the end of the activity. Strong ash emission from Southeast Crater and Bocca Nuova lasted from 0700 to 0900. 1900-2000: Lava fountained to 300 m height from at least four vents in Southeast Crater and a lava flow advanced toward the Valle del Bove.

26 September, 0600-0710: Lava fountains reached 400 m height and powerful ash ejection fed a column that rose 5-6 km above the summit within 30 minutes. Lava flowed into the Valle del Bove. At 0645, a brown, cauliflower-shaped ash cloud rose from the Valle del Bove, suggesting a possible flank outbreak. However, ash emission from that site ceased after a few minutes and no flank eruption was confirmed by other observers. 1210-1215: A series of ash puffs rose from Southeast Crater, but no additional eruption followed. 2000-?: High lava fountains were ejected, lava flowed to the Valle del Bove, and a new vent formed near Southeast Crater.

27 September, about 1200: Ash emission resumed from Southeast Crater. Dark gray ash clouds rose continuously to ~ 100 m above the vent before being carried E by strong winds. Ash emission continued through the evening. After nightfall, a bright glow was visible above the Valle del Bove and small fountains emerged from Southeast Crater once or twice/minute.

R. Romano reports that in the late evening of 27 September (around 2230) two new sub-parallel eruptive fissures opened on the upper E flank at 2,600 and 2,575 m altitude (between Valle del Leone and Valle del Bove, SE of Pizzi Deneri), preceded by a brief seismic crisis. Strombolian activity, violent at times, was initially continuous along the fissures, forming hornitos and scoria ramparts. Lava flows from the upper fissure did not extend beyond (but generally entered) the main lava channel formed by the primary effusive vent at the base of the lower fissure (2575 m altitude). The lava flows, moving generally SE, passed S of Monte Simone, widening at ~ 1,750 m altitude.

During the morning of 28 September an extensive field of NNW-trending non-eruptive fractures formed in the Piano del Lago, propagating in succeeding days to the W and S wall of the Valle del Bove. The fractures also extended downslope, past the edge of Serra del Solfizio, on a NW trend. By the morning of 2 October new fractures had opened to the Zafferana-Rifugio Sapienza road (route 92) ending around 1,500 m elevation, below the effusive vents of 1792. Total length of the fractures was ~6 km.

Ruhr Univ geologists climbed Etna on 28 September. Ash emission from Southeast Crater remained continuous. Around noon, brown ash plumes rose from the vent in pulses every 3-5 seconds, accompanied by block and bomb ejection. No glow was seen. Dense weather clouds obscured visibility during the afternoon, but a distinct increase in noise suggested the onset of Strombolian explosions. As night fell around 1800, weather clouds dissipated and Strombolian bursts were visible every 5-10 seconds, ejecting bombs and spatter to 300 m height. The lava flow in the Valle del Bove apparently emerged from a fissure in its NW part. The non-eruptive fractures that had opened parallel to and ~ 50 m W of the rim of the Valle del Bove during the morning, had vertical displacements that sometimes exceeded 1 m; some were 1.5 m wide and several meters deep. The next day, ash and bomb ejection from Southeast Crater increased considerably at about 0730, with dark gray columns rising 150-200 m despite a very strong W wind. Large bombs often rose higher, falling on the flanks of the cone that was rapidly growing around the vent. Expulsion of ash and blocks occurred every 5-10 seconds, accompanied by hissing and rumbling sounds. No glow was visible. Numerous impact craters as much as 1 m wide and 0.5 m deep, probably produced by the strong 13 September activity (14:08), were found at the site of the 1971 Observatory cone, 500 m SW of the active crater. At 1900, lava fountains were again visible in Southeast Crater, with bombs and spatter sometimes rising 350 m. Lava continued to flow into the Valle del Bove. Similar activity was continuing late 30 September.

R. Romano reports that during the following days a wide lava channel formed, extending E after passing Rocca Musarra to the S. Lava flows branched from this channel, passing a line connecting Monte Calonna and Monte Fontana on 6 October, and reached ~ 1,100 m elevation (~ 6 km from the fissure vents). The lava flows stopped ~ 3 km from the nearest town (Milo). Lava production from the vigorous effusive vent at 2,575 m altitude was very strong during the first days of its activity (30-40 m3/sec), started to diminish beginning 3 October, and stopped completely on 9 October.

Preliminary estimates indicate that a [3] km2 area was covered by lava, and lava volume was [~24] x106 m3 (within the Valle del Bove). No estimates are available for volumes of pyroclastic material and lava ejected by the Southeast Crater. Information remains preliminary and incomplete, and will be revised in coming months with more detailed reports, geophysical and geochemical data, and maps of the lava flows and fractures.

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: R. Romano, IIV; B. Behncke, Ruhr Univ; D. Rothery, Open Univ.