Mount Etna is erupting again - everything you need to know about the Italian volcano

Wednesday, 17th February 2021, 10:03 am
Updated Wednesday, 17th February 2021, 10:04 am
Lava flows from Mount Etna - one of the most active volcanoes in the world in an almost constant state of activity - in August 2014 (Photo: TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images)

One of the most active volcanoes in the world has begun to erupt again, producing spectacular shows of red hot magma and plumes of smoke and ash rising high into the sky.

Mount Etna’s latest activity has caused airports to close, and though authorities say nearby settlements are not at risk from the volcano, the situation is being monitored closely.

The photos shared on social media showed ash raining down on houses, no injuries have been reported as a result of the eruption.

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Here is everything you need to know about it.

Where is Mount Etna?

At over 3,000 metres in height, Etna dominates the skyline of the Italian island of Sicily, where it sits on its eastern coast.

Located between the cities of Messina and Catania, it is the highest active volcano in Europe outside the Caucasus – a region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea – and the highest peak in Italy south of the Alps.

In total, the volcano covers 459 square miles, an area larger than Hong Kong, and is by far the largest of the three active volcanoes in Italy, the next largest being Mount Vesuvius, east of Naples.

How active is it?

Despite its recent activity making the news and producing spectacular lava displays, Etna is in a state of near constant activity, and as such has been designated a Decade Volcano by the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior.

That means it is only one of 16 volcanoes deemed worthy of particular study in light of their history of large, destructive eruptions and proximity to populated areas.

Far from being totally destructive, Etna’s turbulent history means the plains surrounding the mountain are rich with volcanic soils that support extensive agriculture, vineyards and orchards.

The first known recording of Etna erupting comes nearly 3,500 years ago, from ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, who lived between 90 and 30 BC.

Thousands of tourists each year visit Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes located on the eastern coast of Sicily. Eruptions occur frequently, although incidents that involve injured tourists are rare.

In 2017, a BBC journalist and camerawoman on assignment at the volcano were among the injured when a team of scientists on Etna were hurt when magma spewing from the volcano hit snow, causing an explosion.

The BBC’s global science reporter, Rebecca Morelle, described the experience in a series of tweets. “Running down a mountain pelted by rocks, dodging burning boulders and boiling steam - not an experience I ever want to repeat,” she wrote.

The BBC crew was physically OK despite having suffered cuts, bruises and burns; Morelle showed her colleague’s jacket on air with a hole in the back where the material had melted.

Is it dangerous?

Etna photographed from an altitude of 2900 metres in December 2020 (Photo: Fabrizio Villa/Getty Images)

Italy’s Department of Civil Protection has said nearby populations are not at risk from the recent eruption, though centres were not at risk, the Central Emergency Department has said it was watching the situation closely, in particular the towns of Linguaglossa, Fornazzo and Milo.

Catania’s airport was forced to close due to kilometre-high plumes of ash, which has rendered the airspace around the volcano unfit to fly in, reports the Ansa news agency.

Stefano Branco, head of the INGV National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology, told Italian news agency AGI described the recent eruption as "not at all worrying", adding: "We've seen worse".

Though the eruption is classified as ongoing, activity on the mount is already showing signs of easing, signalling that the worst may have passed.

Where can I watch the eruption?

You can watch a live stream of the activity at the volcano’s summit by clicking here.

A version of this article originally appeared on our sister title, The Scotsman