Natural History - Mount Etna

The volcano giveth and the volcano taketh away. That is an extremely abbreviated version of the story of Mount Etna, the extremely large, extremely active and extremely important volcano in eastern Sicily.

I spent eight days in Sicily last September, traveling from Palermo in the northwest to Catania in the east, and being awed by Monreale and Agrigento in between. I'll write more about Monreale and Agrigento in future posts. Today I'll focus on Etna, which looms over the city of Catania.

 Mount Etna, September 2016.

Mount Etna, September 2016.

Mount Etna is huge. It is an active volcano - one of the most active in the world, the experts say - and covers more than 450 square miles. It has been growing for about 500,000 years! In the photo above, you can see Etna blowing smoke from one of her mouths. In the foreground is lava rock from an eruption this century. A month before I was there, a new "active pit crater" was seen by one of the volcanologists who keep a very close eye on Etna every day.

During my recent visit (as part of a tour with the wonderful company Classic Journeys - I'll also blog in the future about whether to visit Italy independently or as part of a tour - I've done both), we hiked Mount Etna. Not to the top - the volcano has an elevation of almost 11,000 feet - but up one section. Along the way, we came across the remains of a hotel buried by lava during the eruption I mentioned earlier. You can see the hotel roof in the photo below. Fortunately, no one died in that eruption. Still, the volcano taketh.

 Mount Etna, September 2016.

Mount Etna, September 2016.

We also came across a local man in September who had been gathering porcini from the fertile land for his lunch. About 25 percent of Sicily's population lives on the slopes of Mount Etna. The volcano provides not only the benefit of fertile land to Sicilians but also the benefit of tourism (all we hikers need to eat, use the restroom, buy souvenirs, etc.). The volcano giveth.

 A Sicilian man shows off the porcini he gathered from Mount Etna for his lunch, protected on his walk home by a cover of ferns. September 2016.

A Sicilian man shows off the porcini he gathered from Mount Etna for his lunch, protected on his walk home by a cover of ferns. September 2016.

As we hiked up the volcano, it was hard to believe anything could grow on the black expanse we covered. It was even harder to believe that Etna is active nearly every day - not spewing-lava active but churning active (I think of it as a stomach growling).

About two months after walking on Etna, I read this on a website dedicated to volcanoes: "Etna volcano update: Signs of unrest increase." Etna, the site said, "is showing signs of becoming more active again: Over the past few weeks, emissions of gas, steam and sometimes perhaps some dilute ash from the main vent ... have increased. In addition, intermittent weak glow can be detected from the same vent at night."

Volcanologists say the first documented Eta explosion was in 1500 B.C. Its most powerful was in 1669. Its longest in the late 1970s (it lasted for more than a decade), and its latest began in 2007. I hope Etna does not erupt soon but I know it will again, changing forever the landscape that I and my fellow travelers were lucky enough to see and experience in September.       -post by JG


Italy is not just home to active volcanoes. As a documentary shared by an Italian acquaintance in Albuquerque notes, Italy "is a turbulent land, geologically." In the past year, a series of earthquakes has shaken the country. The Apennines region experienced half a dozen tremors from August to October. Hundreds of people died, thousands of others were left homeless and historic buildings were destroyed. Earlier this month, a luxury hotel in the region of Abruzzo was hit by a 120,000-ton avalanche. Twenty-nine people were killed. If you love Italy like I do, and want to help with relief efforts, you can donate to: the Italy Earthquake Relief Fund started by GlobalGiving, the Italian Red Cross, or a rebuilding fund started by the National Italian American Foundation.