Mount Etna erupting recently, seen from the harbour in Catania.  

Mount Etna is Europe's most active volcano and regularly erupts, most recently in May of this year. At 3,346 metres above sea level it is also the highest mountain on Sicily, and the summit is snow capped for much of the year, indeed it is a popular ski resort during the winter months despite being highly active. The volcano was formed when the Eurasian and African tectonic plates collided and the African plate was sub ducted beneath the Eurasian plate  - BELOW RIGHT . The friction causes immense heating of the rock some of which re-emerges periodically as lava and ash through a fault beneath Etna. The most recent eruption just four weeks before our visit in June 2013, was minor in comparison to some of the eruptions in recent history though it was still very spectacular. To view a short video of the most recent eruption (at the time of this report) please click on the movie link above.

Nowadays with vulcanologists monitoring seismic activity, swelling of the cone, gas emissions etc. forecasting imminent  eruptions is quite precise and the people who live close to the volcano have little fear of being caught by surprise. It was not always so however. As recently as 1669 a huge eruption, which continued uninterrupted for 4 months, sent enormous lava flows down the flank. When molten lava begins to cool it forms a surface skin which effectively insulates the flow and prevents further cooling. The skin continues to form along the length of the flow and before too long the stream is channelled beneath the surface in a tunnel known as a lava tube. With the flow isolated from the cooling effect of the air it stays incredibly hot and fluid and flows far further than it would if it had remained on the surface - indeed a flow running inside a lava tube will only be about 50 degrees cooler when it emerges several miles from the point of eruption. With the inevitable creation of lava tubes by the flow in the 1669 eruption, it reached and engulfed Catania over 17 miles away to the southeast causing massive destruction and catastrophic loss of life with as many as 20, 000 dead and massive and many thousands more made homeless.

As you drive away from the volcano today you pass a quarry located well within the city where the old lava flows are being excavated for re-use as building materials. The first recorded eruption of the volcano was in 475 BC and in 1169AD, a major earthquake just prior to an eruption killed some 15,000 people on the island. With the risk to life and livelihood from lava flows there have been many attempts by mankind to halt or divert flows away from areas of population. During the 1169 eruption the mountain initially began to rumble and emit vast clouds of gas but the locals chose to ignore the warning signs.

Lava flows down the flanks of Etna in May 2013.

Within three days choking clouds of poisonous fumes enveloped the flank rapidly asphyxiating some 3,000 people living on the lower slopes and lava began to pour down the south side of the mountain towards the city. Diego de Pappalardo gathered a team of 50 men and they attempted to divert the lava flow with long iron rods and picks and shovels, wearing cowhides soaked in water for protection against the searing 1000 degree Celsius heat. At enormous risk to themselves they managed to hack a hole in the lava tube and the flow re-emerged and began to head west away from the city.

But things then began to assume an air of the farcical, for the flow now diverted away from Catania was heading instead straight for Paterno, a city to the southwest of Etna, and the residents there began a pitch battle with the Catanian lava squad whilst the breach filled and the flow resumed its original course! To this day legislation created in the aftermath of this epic tussle on the slopes of Mount Etna states that the direction of a lava flow cannot be interfered with unless sanctioned by the highest authority, though in recent times, with the help of explosives and modern excavating equipment, flows are regularly channelled away from areas of habitation around the base of the volcano, with relative ease and far less risk for the workers undertaking the gargantuan task.

Following an eruption the barren, sterile land has more in common with a Luna landscape than any place on earth. But the ash fields and even the lava flows themselves eventually succumb to the forces of nature and in time the soil becomes incredibly fertile. This factor combined with the year round sunshine of the Sicilian climate means that two and even three crops a year are possible with relative ease. Naturally then this land is highly prized and that accounts for why people are prepared to take the risk of living on the slopes of an active volcano. But the inevitable happens all too often and there are buildings buried and cremated by lava flows almost all the way up the SP92 on the way to Rifugio Sapienza a few hundred metres below the crater. The first of these buildings is literally only a quarter of a mile out of the last village on the road, Nicolosi.



Below is a selection of the photographs we took during our trip up Mount Etna in June, 2013.

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On the way up the long and winding road to the cable car station just below the summit of Etna.

The first of several houses destroyed by lava just a few hundred yards out of the last village on the way up.

The road actually cuts through the lava flows in places.

Here's TJ in our hire car!

Looking back down the mountain towards Catania. Mid shot you can see three of at least sixteen secondary eruption cones which we counted. There are actually many more.

Solidified lava at the side of the road.
The Valle del Bove is where the where the lava was diverted to by explosives and excavation during the 1992/3 eruption.

10 metres of lava on your roof - not a nice thought!


The active cone area is still a long way up yet.


You'd think they'd learn wouldn't you!
We stopped to explore this old church.

Surprisingly the lava appears to have flowed around the building enveloping it rather than crushing it.

The little church did not fair well.
Anything inside the building was incinerated.

Onwards and we soon reach another home with a towering precipice  of solidified lava hard up against the back wall.

On the cable car now - beneath us is snow.
We are only a few hundred metres below the crater rims here.
TJ on a volcano!
Ladybirds - dozens of 'em everywhere!!!

The snow is insulated from the sun by layers of ash and stays all year round despite the air temperature which was in the low 50s Fahrenheit.

Been there!
On the way down we stopped to explore this old church.
The church is built with excavated lava rock from the mountain.
Not a lot left now but the damage is mainly from the fires.
A shrine to the Virgin Mary. She didn't help them much.
Again it's fire damage rather than destruction.
The lava flow passed this building by with only a few metres to spare.
There was no trace of the toilets!
Stair porn Etna style...
...and here's some more!

It's possible the roof collapsed from the weight of ash and pumice falling on top but it is far more likely that the roof timbers simply burnt out and the tiles have been salvaged.

The concrete floors have easily survived.
The well.



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The well still contains fresh water.
A last look at the remains of the church before we leave.