Although there hasn’t been a significant eruption from Italy’s Mount Etna since 1992, as recently as Nov. 23, 2013, nearby Stromboli in the Tyrrhenian Sea appeared to show signs of activity. It was the 17th sign of volcanic life in this part of Italy for the year, with an intense Strombolian display of steam and ash rising into the night sky, according to the website Volcano Discovery.
Just days earlier, in October 2013, Mount Etna itself was spewing ash so forcefully into the air, according to the Huffington Post, that Catania Airport was forced to close its airspace for a short time. The massive plume of ash from the mountain could be seen throughout the eastern part of Sicily. With volcanic activity so prevalent in this populated part of the world, is there cause for worry?
The mountain is broken
While volcanoes exist in many parts of world, no part of the world is as populated as the landscape that lies in the shadows of Italy’s volcanic mountains. The volcanic nature of Mount Etna has been a powerful cultural force for the people who have resided in its sights. As a result, the relationship between the people of Italy and the mountain are, not surprisingly, complex. Volcanoes have destroyed homes and taken lives; however, these events are relatively rare, and past volcanoes have resulted in a very fertile landscape, perfect for farming.
Because of the threatening activity of lava, a popular cry throughout the years among Italians had become scassau a muntagna (“the mountain is broken”), a sign that Etna was beginning to once again show its force and power. Italian history is littered with references to volcanic eruptions, but those living within its reach have, for the most part, remained relatively unharmed over the years.
Ancient eruptions embed themselves in history
Two main eruptions figure prominently into the ancient history of Mt. Etna: one in the year 1169, which is said to have killed as many as 15,000 Italians, and a second in 1669 that may have killed as many as 20,000 residents. As a result, Mt. Etna has actually been more destructive than Mount Vesuvius (near the city of Naples), although this is obviously the far more famous Italian volcanic eruption, one whose results can be seen daily in the tourist mecca of Pompeii.
According to the website Italy’s Volcanoes, the 1669 eruption of Mount Etna and accompanying earthquake resulted in the destruction of some 15 villages, including Nicolosi, which was buried in lava, and Catania, where lava flow broke through the city’s walls.
Volcanic eruptions in modern times
While Mount Etna has continued to show activity, there have been relatively few deaths over the years. The most severe (in terms of fatalities), however, occurred in 1843, when 59 died. A sudden eruption of steam and the flow of lava surprised a number of people in the town of Bronte. In 1979, nine tourists died when there was an unexpected explosion that occurred between two magmatic cycles (at the time, a phenomenon unknown to scientists). Since then, volcanic science has advanced significantly, although volcanoes will always ultimately remain unpredictable and potentially deadly.
Today, more than 1 million people live within reach of Mount Etna. Like Pompeii, it has also become a popular tourist destination and has been assigned World Heritage Site status by UNESCO. It still remains the tallest, most active volcano on the European continent (straddling the tectonic plates of Eurasia and Africa), but science has considerably lessened the chances of any unforeseen natural disaster.