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Mount Etna Ignites
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Mt. Etna

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By Marco Pinna Photographs by Carsten Peter

Europe’s tallest active volcano erupts in grandeur, enthralling Sicilians and intriguing scientists.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

For 24 days last summer Mount Etna gave its most dazzling show in decades. Closely watched by scientists, rivers of lava and fountains of fire renewed the awe of those who live in the shadow of Sicily’s famed volcano.

Surrounded by fire, we are cold. Altitude and sulfurous vapors make it hard to breathe. Yet standing 9,500 feet (2,900 meters) up the side of Mount Etna, we are willing captives of an apocalyptic landscape. A thousand feet (300 meters) below us, at the center of a valley of black lava called the Piano del Lago, an enormous cone that didn’t exist a week ago erupts incessantly, hurling lava bombs as big as cars hundreds of feet into the air. We hear the roar of the explosions and the thud of the incandescent rocks as they hit the ground and roll down the sides of the cone. Beside it, lava spews from another cone, smaller but just as active. The golden river of lava to our left is pouring from a fissure in a summit crater belching smoke and ash above us. I move closer to the lava until the heat is unbearable. It makes strident clicking sounds, like glass rubbing glass. But if you listen more closely, you hear a dark murmuring below.

“It’s incredible,” photographer Carsten Peter says to me. “ This cone has grown 300 feet (90 meters) in a few days.”

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Final Edit
The one that got away from our coverage of Mount Etna is this month’s Final Edit.

Nature reveals its remarkable artistry in this month’s desktop wallpaper.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Despite its look during eruptions, Mount Etna is not a killer volcano. Etna keeps its explosive eruptions rare and close to its top, and its lava moves very slowly down its flanks, giving people a chance to escape. In its entire recorded history, which goes back to 1500 B.C., only 73 confirmed deaths can be directly attributed to eruptions, according to Etna expert Boris Behncke of the University of Catania. Popular accounts sometimes attribute as many as 20,000 deaths to the destructive 1669 eruption. But, according to Behncke, no deaths are actually documented from that eruption, though property damage from lava flows was enormous. He believes that those staggering casualties occurred 24 years later, when an earthquake killed perhaps 54,000 people in eastern Sicily, including much of the population of Catania. The two deaths that occurred during the eruption of July and August 2001 were attributed to lightning—not to eruptive activity. Etna, it seems, stands up to its nickname of the “friendly giant.”

—Mary Jennings

Italy’s Volcanoes: The Cradle of Volcanology
A comprehensive site on Italy’s volcanoes including Mount Etna, maintained by volcanologist and Mount Etna expert Boris Behncke. Find information on Italy’s volcanoes and helpful links on visiting them.

Boris Behncke’s Etna Website
Linked through Behncke’s Stromboli site (above), this site gives extensive history and reports on Etna’s activity, with updates posted regularly.

European Space Agency’s “Earth Observation” site on Etna
View satellite imagery of Etna’s 2001 eruption and brief descriptions of each Landsat image.

Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program: Etna
Get a brief summary of Etna and its activity, followed by links to complete reports on activity periods from 1968 to the present.

Puff—A Volcanic Ash Tracking Model
See how ash clouds travel from a volcano; includes graphics on Etna.


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Scarth, Alwyn. Vulcan’s Fury: Man Against the Volcano. Yale University Press, 1999.

Simkin, Tom and Lee Siebert. Volcanoes of the World, 2nd ed. Smithsonian Institution, 1994.


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