"We are very used to this kind of eruption"
Boris Behncke is a vulcanologist at the Italian Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology in Catania. He shot the above footage of the January 13 eruption.
I live in the town of Trecastagni, which is on the south-east flank of Mount Etna, about 15km away from the mouth of the volcano. The town is home to 10,000 people, but the larger potential “risk” zone around the Volcano counts a total of one million residents.
By “risk”, we mean the probability of the area being directly hit in the event of a full, major eruption, like that of Mt. Krakatoa in Indonesia, in 2008. Such a scenario is highly unlikely, given that Etna is not a young volcano and has passed the peak of its activity.
“I feel privileged to be able to witness such a beautiful sight from my home”
Residents are much more likely to experience at least one low to moderate-level eruption in their lifetime. About 200 of these so-called “strombolian” eruptions have occurred over the past 15 years. There were 60 such eruptions in the year 2000 alone: it seems the volcano wanted to celebrate the new millennium!
So we are very used to eruptions like the one that happened last week. In fact, we kind of like them. Eruptions are certainly a very beautiful sight. Personally I love watching and filming them, and feel privileged to be able to witness such beautiful sights from my home. The low rumbling sound Mt. Etna emits before it spurts out ash or lava is very familiar to long-term residents. Nobody plans on leaving, because the consequences of these eruptions are usually not very serious.
“Lateral eruptions are more dangerous, but also more rare”
Potentially more dangerous – but also much more rare – are lateral eruptions. These do not come from one of Etna’s top four craters, but happen when volcanic activity builds up enough to tear one of the mountain’s flanks, spouting lava and ash in an unpredictable way. Over 300 years ago, in 1669, a lateral eruption wiped out 14 towns and village. The lava flow reached the city of Catania five weeks later, giving its citizens time to flee. The material damage was huge, but there is no historical evidence that the erruption made human victims.
The last such eruption occurred in 1981 – the lava flow came just one kilometre away from the medieval town of Randazzo. This time as well, no-one was hurt. In fact, in its 2,500-year history, Mount Etna has claimed less than 100 lives. That's why people here nickname it the "gentle volcano".
Our job at the vulcanology centre is to try to plan for these worst-case scenarios. We create digital simulations of where lava would flow in different cases, and work with the Italian civil protection service
to plan the most efficient evacuation routes. The idea is to avoid unnecessary evacuations while maximising the population’s safety.
One of the more controversial measures we propose is the construction of dams and walls to deviate possible lava flows from the most populated areas. The problem is that this can imply destroying someone’s home or passing over a farm or property. Understandably, most people don’t like the idea of giving up their house for a hypothetical lava flow.”