There She Blows–Etna’s Erupting!

On the Red Planet, Rover Perseverance is taking photos of a never before seen but pretty blah Martian landscape. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Mount Etna is providing a spectacular display with ongoing photo ops. While the majestic peak is a dazzling shot itself, fountains of lava spewing high into the air offer the chance to capture nature’s power and beauty. While most Earthlings’ attention is focused on a tiny coronavirus, Etna’s eruption is a reminder that there are big things which can pose a danger to humans as well.

For those of us who are not volcano experts, we should know that Mount Etna is one of the world’s most active volcanoes. It stays in an almost constant state of activity. This activity culminated in a summit eruption on February 16th. For days afterwards the volcano continued to belch lava, ash, and volcanic rock without even an apology for this rude behavior.

So, we know that the lava, ash, and rocks were up in the air, but where exactly is Mount Etna? The volcano is situated in eastern Sicily and is the largest of three active volcanoes in Italy. Towering over the landscape at 11,050 feet above sea level, Mount Etna is the highest peak in Italy south of the Alps. It is 2 1/2 times the height of Mount Vesuvius which took out Pompeii for those of you who have forgotten your world history.

Mount Etna is estimated to be around 700,000 years old. Whew! And it still has energy to spew lava, ash, and rocks? Despite its advanced age, the volcano is the second most active one on Earth; only Mount Kilauea in Hawaii tops it. The reason Mount Etna is so active is because it’s situated between the African and Eurasian tectonic plates. This location contributes to the volcano generating nearly constant eruptions of varying degrees.

You’d think that with constant volcanic activity, it would be dangerous to hang around Mount Etna. But this stratovolcano, one that is a composite cone rising dramatically up towards the sky, provides a great venue for skiing. In fact, two ski resorts have been built on Etna for those desiring uncrowded slopes. Hmm. Perhaps those slopes are uncrowded for a reason. Hello! It’s an active volcano! Hope those skiers can fly down the slopes if some lava starts flowing towards them.

Despite the danger associated with volcanic eruptions, the Sicilians greatly benefit from Etna’s volcanic activity. The volcanic soil is fertile and supports extensive agriculture; vineyards and orchards (apple and citrus trees) cover the volcano’s lower slopes. Red and white wines produced from grapes grown on the volcanic slopes are some of the most popular of Sicilian wines.

In addition to the benefit agriculture derives from the volcanic activity, Sicily also rakes in big tourism bucks from the presence of Mount Etna. Besides skiing, backpacking and hiking are popular for tourists. For those who are less physically active, taking pictures of the mighty mount and sightseeing on a train going around the volcano’s 40 km diameter base are also fun. What an exciting rail ride; the train passengers might be coming around the mountain when the lava comes.

The most recent eruption of Mount Etna affects a number of Sicilian municipalities. The border of ten of them meet at the summit of Mount Etna. Volcanic ash, which reached an altitude of 30,000 feet, has blanketed nearby towns requiring lots and lots of dusting. Besides volcanic ash raining down, rocks have fallen from the sky on them as well.

Fortunately, no lava has threatened Sicilian residents. The fiery rivers of glowing lava have rolled down the eastern slope of Mount Etna towards the Bove Valley, an area which is three miles wide and five miles long. For good reason, this valley is uninhabited. No one could afford homeowner’s insurance there, I’m sure.

The lava which the mammoth volcano emits is known as primitive magma. That characterization has nothing to do with cavemen, but it does mean that the magma’s composition has changed little compared to what is found in the Earth’s mantle where it was formed. Since the lava is coming from a deep place, it has a greater charge of gas resulting in amazingly tall lava fountains. The flaming lava lights up the Sicilian night sky with brilliant oranges and red, providing a natural night light for the townsfolk residing below.

The burning rivers of lava flowing down the volcano’s side may be the basis for its name. Although there are several views on how Etna got its name, one thought is that it comes from a Greek word meaning “I burn.” That explanation is appealing to me. Burn baby, burn. Volcano inferno! And with millions of tons of lava coming forth from Etna, it’s a liquid inferno.

Although prior eruptions of Mount Etna have cause death and destruction, the current eruption has so far produced no injuries or loss of life. Certainly air quality has suffered with the ash being produced though. The amount of ash in the air has posed a danger for flying in the area. Thus, the airport in Catania, eastern Sicily’s largest city, has been forced to close at times. At least a volcano’s eruption is a reason passengers can accept for causing a flight delay.

In the past, it has come down to man versus the magma-producing mountain. Death and destruction was averted in 1992 when soldiers employed controlled explosions to divert lava streaming down Mount Etna’s slopes with the town of Zafferana in its path. Humans responded to the explosive volcanic eruptions with some manmade explosions.

Life on Earth will inevitably involve threats from nature for mankind. The natural foe may be as big as Mount Etna or as small as a coronavirus. Man must rise to these challenges or cease to exist. Volcanoes haven’t taken us out yet, so let’s enjoy the beauty of huge Mount Etna’s eruptions while giving healthy respect to this natural threat. And we need to keep a wary eye on the tiny coronavirus while we are at it.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Are you more concerned about a volcanic eruption or being infected by the coronavirus? Is it foolhardy to build ski resorts on the side of an active volcano? Would you visit a ski resort on Mount Etna if you had the opportunity? Why or why not? We can come up with a vaccine against the coronavirus, but what can we do to protect ourselves from volcanic eruptions?

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