Etna, Mount

Active volcano, eastern coast of Sicily, Italy.

The highest active volcano in Europe, its elevation is more than 10,000 ft (3,200 m); its base has a circumference of about 93 mi (150 km). Mount Etna has repeatedly erupted over the centuries, most violently in 1669, when the lava flow destroyed villages on the lower slope and submerged part of the town of Catania. Activity was almost continuous in the decade following 1971, and in 1983 an eruption that lasted four months prompted authorities to explode dynamite in an attempt to divert lava flows. Mount Etna also experienced violent eruptions in 2001–02, prompting the Italian government to declare a state of emergency.

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Latin  Aetna , Sicilian  Mongibello 

      active volcano on the east coast of Sicily. The name comes from the Greek Aitne, from aithō, “I burn.” Mount Etna is the highest active volcano in Europe, its topmost elevation being more than 10,000 ft (3,200 m). Like other active volcanoes, its height varies: in 1865, for example, the volcanic summit was 170 ft higher than it was in the late 20th century. Etna covers an area of 600 sq mi (1,600 sq km); its base has a circumference of about 93 mi (150 km).

      Its geological characteristics indicate that Etna has been active since the end of the Tertiary Period, somewhat more than 2,500,000 years ago. The volcano has had more than one active centre. A number of subsidiary cones have been formed on lateral fissures extending out from the centre and down the sides. The present structure of the mountain is the result of the activity of at least two main eruptive centres.

      The Greeks created legends about the volcano, saying that it was the workshop of Hephaestus and the Cyclops or that underneath it the giant Typhon lay, making the Earth tremble when he turned. The ancient poet Hesiod spoke of Etna's eruptions, and the Greeks Pindar and Aeschylus referred to a famous eruption of 475 BC. From 1500 BC to AD 1669 there are records of 71 eruptions, of which 14 occurred before the Christian Era. The most violent historical eruption was in 1669 (March 11–July 15), when about 990,000,000 cu yd (830,000,000 cu m) of lava were thrown out. The eruption took place along a fissure that opened above the town of Nicolosi, widening into a chasm from which lava flowed and solid fragments, sand, and ashes were hurled. The latter formed a double cone more than 150 ft high, named Monti Rossi. The lava flow destroyed a dozen villages on the lower slope and submerged the western part of the town of Catania. Efforts to divert the lava stream away from Catania were made by workers who dug a trench above the village. Historically, this seems to have been the first attempt to divert a lava stream. Between 1669 and 1900, 26 more eruptions were reported. During the 20th century there were eruptions in 1908, 1910, 1911, 1918, 1923, 1928, 1942, 1947, 1949, 1950, 1955, and 1971. Activity was almost continuous in the decade following 1971, and in 1983 an eruption that lasted four months prompted authorities to explode dynamite in an attempt to divert lava flows.

      Among Etna's better known ancient eruptions was that of 396 BC, which kept the Carthaginian army from reaching Catania. An eruption of 1381 sent a lava flow as far as the sea. The eruption of 1852 took many lives. That of 1928 cut off the railway that runs around the base of the mountain and buried the village of Mascali. That of 1971 threatened several villages with its lava flow and destroyed some orchards and vineyards.

      The mountain has three ecological zones, one above the other, each exhibiting its own characteristic vegetation. The lowest zone, sloping gradually upward to perhaps 3,000 feet (915 m), is fertile and rich in vineyards, olive groves, citrus plantations, and orchards. Several densely populated settlements, notably the city of Catania, are found on the lower slopes, but they become less frequent as the height increases. Above, the mountain grows steeper and is covered with forests of chestnut, beech, oak, pine, and birch. At heights of more than 6,500 feet (1,980 m), the mountain is covered with ashes, sand, and fragments of lava and slag; there are a few scattered plants such as Astragalus aetnensis (local name: spino santo), which forms typical bushes almost 1 yard (about 0.9 m) high, while some alpine plants manage to survive even near the top. Algae have been found near the steam outlets at 9,800 feet (2,990 m).

      Etna has been studied systematically since the middle of the 19th century, and three observatories have been set up on its slopes; they are located at Catania, Casa Etnea, and Cantoniera.

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Universalium. 2010.

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