Etna history

Mont Etna

(pronunciation: /ˈɛtnə/; Italian: Etna [ˈɛtna] or Mongibello [mondʒiˈbɛllo], Sicilian: Mungibeddu [mʊndʒɪbˈbɛɖɖʊ] or â Muntagna, Latin: Aetna) is an active stratovolcano on the east coast of Sicily, Italy, in the Province of Catania, between Messina and Catania. It lies above the convergent plate margin between the African Plate and the Eurasian Plate. It is the tallest active volcano in Europe, currently 3,329 m (10,922 ft) high, though this varies with summit eruptions. It is the highest mountain in Italy south of the Alps.

etna territory
Etna google maps

Etna covers an area of 1,190 km2 (459 sq mi) with a basal circumference of 140 km. This makes it by far the largest of the three active volcanoes in Italy, being about two and a half times the height of the next largest, Mount Vesuvius. Only Mount Teide in Tenerife surpasses it in the whole of the European–North-African region. In Greek Mythology, the deadly monster Typhon was trapped under this mountain by Zeus, the god of the sky and thunder and king of gods, and the forges of Hephaestus were said to also be located underneath it. Mount Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and is in an almost constant state of activity. The fertile volcanic soils support extensive agriculture, with vineyards and orchards spread across the lower slopes of the mountain and the broad Plain of Catania to the south. Due to its history of recent activity and nearby population, Mount Etna has been designated a Decade Volcano by the United Nations. In June 2013, it was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites .

Geological history

Volcanic activity first took place at Etna about 500,000 years ago, with eruptions occurring beneath the sea off the ancient coastline of Sicily.[11] About 300,000 years ago, volcanism began occurring to the southwest of the summit (center top of volcano) then, before activity moved towards the present centre 170,000 years ago. Eruptions at this time built up the first major volcanic edifice, forming a stratovolcano in alternating explosive and effusive eruptions. The growth of the mountain was occasionally interrupted by major eruptions, leading to the collapse of the summit to form calderas. From about 35,000 to 15,000 years ago, Etna experienced some highly explosive eruptions, generating large pyroclastic flows, which left extensive ignimbrite deposits. Ash from these eruptions has been found as far away as south of Rome's border, 800 km (497 mi) to the north. Thousands of years ago, the eastern flank of the mountain experienced a catastrophic collapse, generating an enormous landslide in an event similar to that seen in the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

valle del bove
valle del bove

The landslide left a large depression in the side of the volcano, known as 'Valle del Bove' (Valley of the Ox). Research published in 2006 suggested this occurred around 8000 years ago, and caused a huge tsunami, which left its mark in several places in the eastern Mediterranean. It may have been the reason the settlement of Atlit Yam (Israel), now below sea level, was suddenly abandoned around that time.The steep walls of the valley have suffered subsequent collapses on numerous occasions. The strata exposed in the valley walls provide an important and easily accessible record of Etna's eruptive history. The most recent collapse event at the summit of Etna is thought to have occurred about 2,000 years ago, forming what is known as the Piano Caldera. This caldera has been almost entirely filled by subsequent lava eruptions, but is still visible as a distinct break in the slope of the mountain near the base of the present-day summit cone. 

Historical eruptions

etna explosion
Etna explosive eruption

Eruptions of Etna follow a variety of patterns. Most occur at the summit, where there are currently (as of 2008) five distinct craters — the Northeast Crater, the Voragine, the Bocca Nuova, and the Southeast Crater Complex. Other eruptions occur on the flanks, which have more than 300 vents ranging in size from small holes in the ground to large craters hundreds of metres across. Summit eruptions can be highly explosive and spectacular, but rarely threaten the inhabited areas around the volcano. In contrast, flank eruptions can occur down to a few hundred metres altitude, close to or even well within the inhabited areas. Numerous villages and small towns lie around or on cones of past flank eruptions. Since the year AD 1600, at least 60 flank eruptions and countless summit eruptions have occurred; nearly half of these have happened since the start of the 20th century.

Etna explosive eruption
Etna explosive eruption

Since 2000, Etna has had four flank eruptions — in 2001, 2002–2003, 2004–2005, and 2008-2009. Summit eruptions occurred in 2006, 2007–2008, January–April 2012, in July–October 2012  on the novembre 2015 and again in may 2016.

The first known record of eruption at Etna is that of Diodorus Siculus. The Roman poet Virgil gave what was probably a first-hand description of an eruption in the Aeneid. In 396 BC, an eruption of Etna reportedly thwarted the Carthaginians in their attempt to advance on Syracuse during the Second Sicilian War. A particularly violent explosive (Plinian) summit eruption occurred in 122 BC, and caused heavy tephra falls to the southeast, including the town of Catania, where many roofs collapsed. To help with reconstruction after the devastating effects of the eruption, the Roman government exempted the population of Catania from paying taxes for ten years. During the first 1500 years AD, many eruptions have gone unreported (or records have been lost); among the more significant are:

  1.  an eruption in about 1030 AD near Monte Ilice on the lower southeast flank, which produced a lava flow that travelled about 10 km, reaching the sea north of Acireale; the villages of Santa Tecla and Stazzo are built on the broad delta built by this lava flow into the sea;

  2.  an eruption in about 1160 (or 1224), from a fissure at only 350–450 m (1,148–1,476 ft) elevation on the south-southeast flank near the village of Mascalucia, whose lava flow reached the sea just to the north of Catania, in the area now occupied by the portion of the city named Ognina.

Painting destruction Catania 1669
Painting destruction Catania 1669

Etna's most destructive eruption since 122 BC started on 11 March 1669 and produced lava flows that destroyed at least 10 villages on its southern flank before reaching the city walls of the town of Catania five weeks later, on 15 April. The lava was largely diverted by these walls into the sea to the south of the city, filling the harbour of Catania. A small portion of lava eventually broke through a fragile section of the city walls on the western side of Catania and destroyed a few buildings before stopping in the rear of the Benedictine monastery, without reaching the centre of the town. Contrary to widespread reports of up to 15,000 (or even 20,000) human fatalities caused by the lava,[16] contemporaneous accounts written both in Italian and English mention no deaths related to the 1669 eruption (but give very precise figures of the number of buildings destroyed, the area of cultivated land lost, and the economic damage), so it can be safely assumed that the enormous number of fatalities often picked up also by the news media must be a confusion with the earthquake that devastated southeast Sicily (including Catania) 24 years later, in 1693. A study on the damage and fatalities caused by eruptions of Etna in historical times reveals that only 77 human deaths are attributable with certainty to eruptions of Etna, most recently in 1987 when two tourists were killed by a sudden explosion near the summit.A large lava flow from an eruption in 1928 led to the destruction of a population centre for the first time since the 1669 eruption. The eruption started high on Etna's northeast flank on November 2. Then new eruptive fissures opened at decreasing elevations down the flank of the volcano. The third and most vigorous of these fissures opened late on 4 November at an unusually low elevation, approximately 1,200 m (3,937 ft) above sea-level, in a zone known as Ripe della Naca.

plan eruption 1928 mascali

The village of Mascali, lying down-slope of the Ripe della Naca, was almost completely destroyed in two days. Only a church and a few surrounding buildings survived in the north part of the village, called Sant'Antonino or "il quartiere". During the last days of the eruption, the flow interrupted the Messina-Catania railway line and destroyed the train station of Mascali. The event was used by Benito Mussolini's fascist regime for propaganda purposes, with the evacuation, aid, and rebuilding operations being presented as models of fascist planning. Mascali was rebuilt on a new site, and its church contains the Italian fascist symbol of the torch, placed above the statue of Jesus Christ. In early November 2008, the town of Mascali commemorated the 80th anniversary of the eruption and destruction of the village with a number of public events where eyewitnesses shared their memories of the eruption.Other major 20th-century eruptions occurred in 1949, 1971, 1981, 1983 and 1991–1993. In 1971, lava buried the Etna Observatory (built in the late 19th century), destroyed the first generation of the Etna cable-car, and seriously threatened several small villages on Etna's east flank. In March 1981, the town of Randazzo on the northwestern flank of Etna narrowly escaped destruction by unusually fast-moving lava flows. That eruption was remarkably similar to one in 1928 that destroyed Mascali. The 1991–1993 eruption saw the town of Zafferana threatened by a lava flow, but successful diversion efforts saved the town with the loss of only one building a few hundred metres from the town's margin. Initially, such efforts consisted of the construction of earth barriers built perpendicularly to the flow direction; it was hoped that the eruption would stop before the artificial basins created behind the barriers would be completely filled. Instead, the eruption continued, and lava surmounted the barriers, heading directly toward Zafferana. Engineers then decided to use explosives near the source of the lava flow, to disrupt a very efficient lava tube system through which the lava travelled for up to 7 km (4 mi) without essentially losing heat and fluidity. The main explosion on 23 May 1992 destroyed the tube and forced the lava into a new artificial channel, far from Zafferana, and it would have taken months to re-establish a long lava tube. Shortly after the blasting, the rate of lava emission dropped, and during the remainder of the eruption (until 30 March 1993) the lava never advanced close to the town again.

etna eruption
etna eruption

Following six years (1995–2001) of unusually intense activity at the four summit craters of Etna, the volcano produced its first flank eruption since 1991–1993 in July–August 2001. This eruption, which involved activity from seven distinct eruptive fissures mostly on the south slope of the volcano, was a mass-media eruption, because it occurred at the height of the tourist season and numerous reporters and journalists were already in Italy to cover the G8 summit in Genoa. It also occurred close to one of the tourist areas on the volcano, and thus was easily accessible. Part of the "Etna Sud" tourist area, including the arrival station of the Etna cable car, were damaged by this eruption, which otherwise was a rather modest-sized event by Etna standards. In 2002–2003, a much larger eruption threw up a huge column of ash that could easily be seen from space and fell as far away as Libya, 600 km (370 mi) south across the Mediterranean Sea. Seismic activity in this eruption caused the eastern flanks of the volcano to slip by up to two metres, and many houses on the flanks of the volcano experienced structural damage. The eruption also completely destroyed the tourist station Piano Provenzana, on the northeastern flank of the volcano, and part of the tourist station "Etna Sud" around the Rifugio Sapienza on the south flank.Footage from the eruptions was recorded by Lucasfilm and integrated into the landscape of the planet Mustafar in the 2005 film Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. The Rifugio Sapienza is near the site of a cable car station which had previously been destroyed in the 1983 eruption; it has now been rebuilt. Following a rather silent, slow and non-destructive lava outflow on the upper southeastern flank between September 2004 and March 2005, intense eruptions occurred at the Southeast Crater in July–December 2006.

etna view
etna view

These were followed by four episodes of lava fountaining, again at the Southeast Crater, on 29 March, 11 April, 29 April and 7 May 2007. Ash emissions and Strombolian explosions started from a vent on the eastern side of the Southeast Crater in mid-August 2007.On 4 September 2007 a spectacular episode of lava fountaining occurred from the new vent on the east side of the Southeast Crater, also producing a plume of ash and scoriae which fell over the east flank of the volcano. A lava flow travelled about 4.5 km (2.8 mi) into the uninhabited Valle del Bove. This eruption was visible far into the plains of Sicily, ending the following morning between the hours of 5 to 7 a.m. local time. Catania-Fontanarossa Airport shut down operations during the night for safety precautions.[verification needed] An eruption on the morning of 13 May 2008, immediately to the east of Etna's summit craters was accompanied by a swarm of more than 200 earthquakes and significant ground deformation in the summit area. The eruption continued at a slowly diminishing rate for 417 days, until 6 July 2009, making this the longest flank eruption of Etna since the 1991–1993 eruption that lasted 473 days.

Etna emission of ashes
Etna emission of ashes

Previous eruptions, in 2001, 2002–2003, and 2004–2005 had lasted 3 weeks, 3 months, and 6 months, respectively. Lava flows advanced 6.5 km during the first few days of this eruption but thereafter stagnated at much minor distances from the vents; during the last months of the eruption lava rarely advanced more than 1 km downslope.Through January 2011 to February 2012, the summit craters of Etna were the site of intense activity. Frequent eruptions and ash columns forced the authorities to shut down the Catania airport on several occasions. The July 2011 episode also endangered the Sapienza Refuge, the main tourist hub on the volcano, but the lava flow was successfully diverted.[26] In 2014, a flank eruption started involving lava flows and strombolian eruptions. This was the first flank eruption since 2008-09. On 3 December 2015, an eruption occurred which climaxed between 03:20 and 04:10 local time. The Voragine crater exhibited a lava fountain which reached 1 km (3,300 ft) in height, with an ash plume which reached 3 km (9,800 ft) in height. The activity continued on the following days, with an ash plume that reached 7 km (23,000 ft) in height that forced to shut down Catania airport for a few hours.


ETNA UPDATE, 23 MAY 2016, 17:30 UTC

During the past few days, two further eruptive episodes have taken place in Etna's summit area. The first, in the early morning hours of 21 May 2016, occurred at the Voragine, which had been the site of two paroxysmal episodes on 18 and 19 May. This latest episode was preceded by modest Strombolian activity, which started around noon on 20 May, producing explosion noises audible in a vast area on Etna's southern and eastern flanks. In the night, the activity gradually intensified, with explosions from two or three vents within the Voragine. Contemporaneously, renewed inflation of the summit area was recorded by a clinometer at Punta Lucia, to the northwest of the summit craters, as had happened also before the preceding paroxysms. 

Etna eruption with explosions
Etna eruption with explosions

Shortly after 04:00 local time (=UTC+2) and accompanied by a rapid increase of the volcanic tremor amplitude, the Strombolian explosions passed into pulsating jets of lava, launching incandescent bombs to a distance of about 1 km (to the southern base of the Bocca Nuova), and an eruption column was blown by the wind toward south-southeast. The images recorded by the thermal monitoring camera at Monte Cagliato (EMCT, on the eastern flank of Etna) show that eruptive activity also occurred form a vent in the southern portion of the Northeast Crater, which had collapsed on 18 or 19 May. Visibillity was rather reduced due to weather clouds and further deteriorated in the final phase of the paroxysm. Yet it was possible to observe, during the climax of the paroxysm, that a fracture formed on the southeastern flank of the central cone, and in the "saddle" between this cone and the old cone of the Southeast Crater an effusive vent became active, which emitted a small lava flow toward the Valle del Leone. The photo above at left, courtesy of Alessandro Lo Piccolo, shows the explosive activity at the Voragine at right, and the little lava flow further left, which had advanced a few hundred meters. Again, lava erupted from the Voragine spread out over the floor of the nearby Bocca Nuova, already completely filled by the earlier lavas from the Voragine, and overflowed its western rim, feeding a multilobate lava flow that covered the lavas from the overflows on 18 and 19 May. The activity started to diminish around 05:00 local time, and was essentially over by 06:00.

Since the morning of 22 May, the eruptive vent formed o 25 November 2015 on the upper east flank of the New Southeast Crater cone was the source of a series of ash emissions, with plumes which in the absence of wind rose several hundred meters above the summit and then dispersed in the atmosphere. Some of these emissions produced small anomalies in the images of the thermal camera EMCT, pointing to the presence of hot material. On the evening of 22 May, Strombolian activity resumed at the Northeast Crater, which continued at flucutating rate and intensity through the night. The strongest explosions ejected incandescent bombs up to a few hundred meters above the crater rim, some of which fell onto the flanks of its cones. Today, 23 May, sporadic ash emissions continued from the vent on the upper east flank of the New Southeast Crater cone. The activity of Etna is monitored continuously by the systems of video and thermal cameras, seismic stations and ground deformation.


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