Red hot lava, ominous grumbles and the occasional temper tantrum – Mount Etna rising imperiously over Sicily’s eastern shoreline is one of Earth’s most active volcanoes, and the inspiration of many Greek legends.
Even though Sicily’s volcano has a tempestuous reputation, there are incredible opportunities to experience the majesty of nature at its most powerful. Volcanologist Boris Behncke has been studying Mount Etna for 20 years and he shares some of his thoughts on the volcano’s rumblings and how best to safely explore it, before relaxing over a glass of wine produced on its slopes.
Introducing Volcanologist Boris Behncke
Boris has been fascinated by volcanoes ever since he was a young boy, when he watched news coverage of Mt Eldfell erupting on the Icelandic island of Heimaey in 1973. Today, he lives just 20km from Mount Etna, writing scientific papers, leading excursions and monitoring how the volcano changes in height, shape and character. “In the past few decades, activity has become much more intense – more frequent, voluminous and explosive,” he explains.
“In the past few decades, activity has become much more intense – more frequent, voluminous and explosive,”
Explore Mount Etna, if you dare
There is something so viscerally powerful about nature’s most explosive product, the volcano. Like Boris, they have fascinated people throughout human existence, and taking the opportunity to get up close and personal with one is not to be missed. So, pack a picnic, pull on your hiking boots and check Mount Etna isn’t simmering too much.
Forecasting a volcanic eruption depends less on technology and more on signals emitted by the volcano. “Some volcanoes produce signals that we interpret as eruption precursors, then make a tiny eruption or no eruption at all,” Boris explains. “Other volcanoes accelerate fast and warning times are short.” So how much warning does Mount Etna give? “Eruptions from vents on the flanks of the mountain are generally preceded by clear signals weeks or months in advance, which hint that something important will happen,” Boris says. So, don’t worry about getting caught out on the day, there will be plenty of warning if something major is about to happen!
Keeping an Eye on Etna
Just like a furious child, when Mount Etna is angry, it lets us know – by letting off steam. It’s Boris’s job to monitor its signals. “If we see an increase in seismic activity, that means something is happening within the volcano. We measure the way a volcano swells when magma pushes towards the surface and monitor gas emissions, as various types of gas are emitted as magma rises toward the surface from different depths. We also monitor heat emission and take rock samples from recent eruptions.”
Experience the Other Side of Mount Etna
Less athletic visitors can explore the volcano by riding a cable car up its south ascent or by boarding a four-wheel-drive bus on its northern side to the summit craters.
Make time to see the area on foot, too, suggests Boris. “Go hiking and experience the moon-like landscapes of the mountain’s higher slopes. My most precious memories are the first hikes that I did with my then future wife on Etna 20 years ago, not at the summit, but in the forest on the flanks of the mountain, between older and newer cones and craters and lava flows. I also recommend sampling the spectacular wine that is made on it.” For those visiting in winter, they can also ski or snowshoe across the mountain for a truly unique experience.
Boris’ favourite insight into the object of his passion is that: “One surprising detail I tell people is that each year Etna emits 700 kilograms of gold. This is in molecular form, so no nuggets, unfortunately, and nothing that can be captured. Just a little gift to the universe that vanishes in the atmosphere.”
But you never know – if you see a rainbow in Sicily, keep an eye out for a pot of gold at the end of it.
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