Mount Etna Erupts

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

Mount Etna is Europe’s most active volcano. Mount Etna is also the world’s second-most active volcano, behind Kilauea in Hawaii. The latest eruptions occurred on February 16 and again on February 18, 2021.

Also one of the world’s largest continental volcanoes, Mount Etna is located near the east coast of Italy’s province of Sicily.

About 3,350 m (10,991 feet) tall, Mount Etna’s morphology has changed over time as the active volcano’s deposits have altered summit area. The complex stratovolcano is asymmetrical in shape due to its growth from a series of volcanic openings that have collapsed over time.

Map of the location of Mount Etna in Italy.  Map: Equal Earth Physical Map, public domain.
Map of the location of Mount Etna in Italy. Map: Equal Earth Physical Map, public domain.

Mount Etna is also one of the world’s volcanoes experiencing the longest most continuous eruption.

The volcano has been erupting for the past 500,000 years and is one of the most studied volcanos in the world.

The eruptions are so dramatic, they are visible from space.

February 2021 Eruption of Mount Etna

When Mount Etna erupted on February 16, 2021, large fountains of lava reached up to 700 meters into the air. Large lava flows descended the volcano eastwards into the Valle del Bove for about four kilometers.

The second eruption on February 18, 2021 sent lava down the volcano’s southern side for about 1.3 kilometers.

Imagery from the Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission captured lava flow from Mount Etna on February 18, 2021 at 09:40 GMT.

Processing Sentinel-2's shortwave-infrared band shows the bright red lava flow on Mount Etna's southern flank on February 18, 2021.
Processing Sentinel-2’s shortwave-infrared band shows the bright red lava flow on Mount Etna’s southern flank on February 18, 2021. Image: contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2021), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

The latest eruptions have also sent ash over the neighboring  city of Catania and authorities are monitoring the base towns of Linguaglossa, Fornazzo and Milo. The latest volcanic activity has also forced the closure of  Sicily’s Catania Airport.

Dark ash from Mt. Etna covering runways at Catania's international airport. Ash fall from Mt. Etna, 30 km from Catania, caused repeated closures at the airport over a 3-month period beginning late October 2002. Photo: Mauro Coltelli . Public domain via USGS.
Dark ash from Mt. Etna covering runways at Catania’s international airport. Ash fall from Mt. Etna, 30 km from Catania, caused repeated closures at the airport over a 3-month period beginning late October 2002. Photo: Mauro Coltelli . Public domain via USGS.

Strombolian Eruptions in September 2019 on Mount Etna

In September of 2019, Mount Etna was tracked spewing “lava bombs”, known as “strombolian” eruptions starting on September 9. NOAA-20, an environmental satellite captured imagery of steam from the intense eruptions of ash and red-hot chunks of lava on September 13, 2019

NOAA2 satellite imagery of Mount Etna on September 13, 2019.  Source: NOAA
NOAA2 satellite imagery of Mount Etna on September 13, 2019. Source: NOAA

December 2018 Eruption of Mount Etna

Prior to the February 16 and 18, 2021 eruptions, Mount Etna last erupted on December 24, 2018. That eruption was a flank eruption, with volcanic activity emerging from the Mount Etna’s side instead of the summit. 130 earthquakes followed the eruption over a three hour period.

 Landsat 8 satellite captured imagery of the 2018 eruption which shows the active vent and thermal infrared signature from lava flows on the southeastern side of Mount Etna.

Landsat 8 imagery of Mount Etna acquired on Mount Etna on December 28, 2018. Source: NASA.
Landsat 8 imagery of Mount Etna acquired on Mount Etna on December 28, 2018. Source: NASA.

March 2017 Eruption of Mount Etna

Tthe Copernicus Sentinel-2A satellite captured Mt. Etna erupting on March 16, 2017.  In the image, the red hot lava flowing from the volcano is clearly visible.  

The image has been processed and the snow cover Mt. Etna has been colored blue to distinguish it from clouds.

Mt. Etna eruption. Image: modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2017), processed by ESA.
Mt. Etna eruption. Image: modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2017), processed by ESA.

December 2015 Eruption of Mount Etna

The December 3, 2015 eruption of Mount Etna marked sent fountains of lava into the air and jetted material as high up as three kilometers above the summit. This Suomi NPP satellite image captured on December 9, 2015 shows Mount Etna still glowing from the eruption.

Suomi NPP satellite image of Mount Etna, December 9, 2015. Source: NOAA National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS).
Suomi NPP satellite image of Mount Etna, December 9, 2015. Source: NOAA National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS).

2002 eruption of Mount Etna

This image of Mount Etna erupting was taken from the International Space Station (ISS) by Commander Leroy Chiao of Expedition 10 on October 30, 2002.  A series of earthquakes in Italy on October 27, 2002 triggered eruptions from the volcano.  

The image shows higher altitude winds carrying the ash plume south toward Africa.  Ash from the eruption was reported in Libya, 350 miles away.

Mt. Enta erupting on October 30, 2002. Photo: Commander Leroy Chiao of Expedition 10, ISS.
Mt. Enta erupting on October 30, 2002. Photo: Commander Leroy Chiao of Expedition 10, ISS.

Ground movement map of Mount Etna using SAR data

Radar interferometry on the European Space Agency’s ERS-1 and ERS-2 satellites can detect ground movement to the millimeter.   Using remote sensing technique called ‘persistent scatterer interferometry’, data collected from the satellites was processed to measure changes in height over time.  

Researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) developed an animation of Mt. Etna using this data.  The animation shows ground deformation for the volcano between 1992 and 2001.  Yellow (moderate activity) and red (strong activity) indicated periods of eruptions.  

The colored bars on the timeline as the animation progresses also highlight periods of eruptions.

Current View of Mount Etna

Interested viewers can see real-time views of Mount Etna via these webcams.

References

Etna erupts. (2021, February 19). European Space Agency. https://www.esa.int/ESA_Multimedia/Images/2021/02/Etna_erupts

Neri, M., Mazzarini, F., Tarquini, S., Bisson, M., Isola, I., Behncke, B., & Pareschi, M. T. (2008). The changing face of Mount Etna’s summit area documented with Lidar technology. Geophysical Research Letters35(9). https://doi.org/10.1029/2008GL033740

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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