Mount Etna hits its tallest ever peak after months of volcanic activity

11 Aug 2021

Mount Etna and Catania city. Image: © Alberto Masnovo/Stock.adobe.com

The volcano Mount Etna has been demonstrating extreme activity since early this year, causing it to reach new, taller-than-ever heights.

Mount Etna has surpassed all of its previous peak heights after months of tumultuous volcanic outpourings. Its tallest ever point now clocks in at 3,357 metres (give or take three metres) above sea level, according to Italian research body the National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV).

The volcano’s south-east crater has been spewing lava and pyroclastic material since February of this year, leading to a “conspicuous transformation of the shape of the volcano”, according to INGV. Mount Etna, which is one of Europe’s tallest volcanoes, has four craters. But this crater is the youngest and most active of them.

The summit of Mount Etna had previously been considered its north-east crater, which achieved peak status in the 1980s. While it measured 3,350 metres at its greatest height, it was measured again in 2018 at 3,326 metres.

The height of volcanoes change as more material is spewed from the Earth and the edges collapse, making it difficult to record a single height. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, the plumes of gas from the crater combined with cloud cover can make the imaging of the mountain difficult.

In this case, scientists recorded two groups of satellite images of the crater, once on 13 July and once on 25 July. These were then aligned with each other and compared to a 2015 digital surface model that was used as a reference.

INGV has been releasing regular updates and videos of Etna since it began spewing lava at the start of 2021. Since 16 February, there have been more than 50 such paroxysmal (lava fountain) episodes affecting the crater, it said.

Boris Behncke, an INGV volcanologist, recently described the volcano’s activity in this period as “particularly intense”. He also said that Etna is a very complex volcano and that “its shape is extremely asymmetrical because it has had a history where growth, collapse and landslides have alternated”.

Behncke compared the two Silician volcanos, Stromboli and Etna, and described Etna as “a sort of great Sicilian mother”.

“A little grumpy but who also gives so many good things, which is why she must be loved and respected,” he added.

“The tendency to personify the two volcanoes makes it very easy even when it comes to describing their characteristics. An example above all: the Sicilian mother who cooks a lot but never wants to say what she is preparing. A bit like Etna, it is not easy to understand what she is about to do.”

Sam Cox is a journalist at Silicon Republic covering sci-tech news

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