Mount Etna eruption: May 2023 volcano explained, where is it - and last eruption as Sicily covered in ash

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The Mount Etna erupted has left Catania Fontanarossa Airport under a blanket of ash

Mount Etna, the most active volcano in Europe, erupted on Sunday (22 May), spewing ash onto Catania, the largest city in eastern Sicily, and forcing the suspension of flights at Catania Fontanarossa Airport.

The National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) of Italy noted that cloud cover on a rainy day was obstructing views of the eruption, which frequently serves up a spectacular display of flaming lava during the volcano's not infrequent eruptions. INGV closely monitors Etna with instruments on its slopes.

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The institute said that ash had falled on Catania and at least one town on Mount Etna's inhabited slopes, though there were no reported injuries. The Italian news agency ANSA reported that on Sunday, residents of the towns of Adrano and Biancavilla heard loud booms coming from the volcano.

The eruption of Mount Etna can have implications for air travel and the operation of nearby airports due to the release of gases, and volcanic ash, which consists of tiny particles of pulverised rock and glass. This ash can cause severe damage to aircraft engines, as the particles can melt within the engine and cause engine failure.

Additionally, the ash can impair visibility, interfere with aircraft systems and damage surfaces, such as windows and sensors. Nearby airports can also be directly impacted by volcanic ash fallout, which can accumulate on runways, taxiways and other airport infrastructure, requiring thorough cleaning and safety inspections before normal operations can resume.

The INGV reported that recent days had seen an increase in tremor activity, according to monitoring data. Italy's national Civil Protection Agency had warned on Thursday that "sudden" variations in Etna's activity could occur due to increased volcanic activity.

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Where is Mount Etna?

The Mount Etna volcano spewing smoke in March 2021 (Photo: GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP via Getty Images)The Mount Etna volcano spewing smoke in March 2021 (Photo: GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP via Getty Images)
The Mount Etna volcano spewing smoke in March 2021 (Photo: GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP via Getty Images) | Getty Images

Mount Etna is located on the east coast of the island of Sicily, Italy, and is one of the most well-known and active volcanoes in the world. It has a long history of frequent eruptions that date back thousands of years and have been documented since ancient times.

Eruptions of Mount Etna can vary in intensity, ranging from relatively mild emissions of ash and steam to more explosive eruptions with the release of lava flows. Eruptions at Mount Etna can occur multiple times in a year or even multiple times in a month.

The volcanic activity of Mount Etna is closely monitored by scientists, and it has been designated as a Decade Volcano - one of 16 that are considered to be worthy of particular study and research due to their active and potentially hazardous nature - by the United Nations.

The volcanic activity of Mount Etna has shaped the surrounding landscape and has influenced the culture and history of the region. The fertile volcanic soils have supported agriculture, particularly vineyards and orchards, and the volcanic ash has contributed to the fertility of the land.

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Mount Etna's eruptions also attract tourists seeking a unique and awe-inspiring experience. While this can have positive economic impacts, it also brings challenges in terms of managing the influx of visitors and ensuring their safety during eruptions.

When did Mount Etna last erupt?

The volcano's last significant eruption came in early 2021, and lasted several weeks. This eruption was notable for its intensity and the creation of a lava fountain and a volcanic plume that reached several kilometres in height. The eruption also generated lava flows that travelled down the southeastern flank of the volcano. Fortunately, it did not result in any fatalities or serious injuries.

One of the most destructive and significant eruptions of Mount Etna in recent history occurred in 1669. This eruption, known as the "Eruption of 1669," lasted for several months and resulted in significant damage to the surrounding areas. During the eruption, lava flows reached the city of Catania, destroying numerous towns and villages along their path.

Nowadays, Mount Etna is closely monitored by volcanologists, and authorities typically take measures to ensure the safety of residents and visitors in the surrounding areas when eruptions occur. Volcanic monitoring systems and early warning mechanisms are in place to detect signs of volcanic activity and alert the relevant authorities and communities.

Efforts are made to keep the public informed about the ongoing volcanic activity, and local authorities work closely with volcanologists to assess the situation and take necessary precautions.

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