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All about Etna

All about Etna Antonio Zanghi/Getty
08 Sep
Europe’s largest volcano smoulders on, but real-time monitoring might help predict the next lava flows

Last year, an eruption from Mount Etna sent lava flows down the volcano’s flank. The largest active volcano in Europe, Etna regularly produces flows and eruptions, and although there have been no recent casualties, houses have been destroyed by seismic activity and authorities occasionally have to divert the molten flows, often in dramatic fashion. In 2001, the Rifugio Sapienza, a tourist observation point, was saved when explosives were used to divert one such flow heading in its direction.

Etna’s volcanic activity can be traced in historical records as far back as 1500 BC, according to the Smithsonian Institution and it mostly produces slow-moving pyroclastic flows, meaning that while people have enough time to escape the volcano’s eruptions, the flows can still damage nearby agriculture and infrastructure.

Researchers from the University of Leeds, the Etna Observatory and Spain’s Institute of Geoscience have recently developed a system to better estimate the location and evolution of Etna’s magma.

‘The tool allows for tracking inflation and deflation sources in time, providing estimates of where a volcano might erupt, which is important in understanding an ongoing crisis,’ write the researchers. Volcanic prediction till now has usually centred on watching the volcano’s seismology, although thermal monitoring and hydrology can also provide clues to possible activity. Using GPS and a model of the magma, the researchers were able to develop estimates of where a volcano might erupt, the research simulated a period before the May 2008 eruption of Etna.

The volcano has been under observation since 1876 in efforts to determine lava flow direction and intensity. Interruptions have occurred during that time, mainly due to limited funding but also once because of the opening of a new vent in 1971 which swallowed the research station.

This article was published in the September 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

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