Student abroad in Italy explores volcano Mt. Etna

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Mount. Etna is famous for being Europe’s highest volcano as well as its most active one. In the past, Etna has been both a destructive volcano as well as a popular tourist attraction for those visiting the Province of Catania on the eastern side of Sicily. Mt. Etna is classified as an active stratovolcano or conical volcano. This classification means that over time numerous eruptions have caused overlaying of strata to build up over time, eventually leading to its cone shape. Conical volcanic eruptions are not as severe and damaging as other eruptions such as Vesuvius or Mt. Saint Helens due to the fact that the lava is incredibly viscous, or it moves very slowly due to friction.

In fact, the lava moves so slowly that it actually cools and hardens before it is able to cause damage. However, the ash cloud that it produces is still devastating as it can threaten crop growth and livestock as well as cause serious lung damage to those who breathe in the ash filled air. Geologically, Etna first experienced volcanic activity roughly half a million years ago, where roughly 200,000 years ago volcanic activity which had started in the Southeastern peak moved and found its current position at the central peak.

Between 35,000 and 15,000 years ago Etna is theorized to have experienced extremely violent explosions, causing heavy ash fall as far away as Rome. Etna is also widely known for being thought to have caused a mega-tsunami about 8000 years ago that impacted the coastlines of most of the Mediterranean sea.

In recent years, Mt. Etna has been a popular tourist attraction for those visiting the island of Sicily. Tour buses and guides have been able to take people up to the higher points of the mountain in order to see rocks left over from previous eruptions, learn about the history of Mt. Etna and enjoy a breathtaking view of the sea and island. Tourism has spiked in the past few years after activity restarted in 2001 and increased in 2008, to the point that tourists today are even able to view lava flows.

Though heavy amounts of activity have started occurring earlier in the year, starting around December of last year and January of this year. Such activity has not been seen in a number of years, and thus is noteworthy and stirring the news. With such activity, lab sites have been monitoring the area recording low level tremors and earthquakes. Luckily none of these tremors have been so large as to cause much damage, and no one has been hurt. Lately the volcanic activity has started generating pyroclastic flows on the volcano. Pyroclastic flows are when ash that had been thrown into the air descends onto the ground.

This flow consists of small stones and very high temperature ash that can move very rapidly. Depending on the size of the ash cloud, the distance of the movement of flow can change, though the flows on Etna have been relatively small and have only been recorded for about two to three weeks. As volcanic and geological activity continues, scientists will continue to monitor the area, trying to better understand the volcano, its structure, its activity and what it might hold for the future.

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