A tale of a volcano - EtnaSeptember 18, 2017 in Italy
After another substantial and delicious breakfast we headed out to a designated meeting point for our “Etna Excursion”. A small minivan arrived promptly at 9am and we met Doctor Manuel Paulo – a Vulconologist and geologist from the Italian Seismic Institute along with well our 5 fellow participants (3 mates from Greece and a couple from Israel – interestingly all our age or older). Manuel proved an amazing guide. The 40 minute drive to the highest village on the north side of Etna (Milo) was simply filled with information about Volcanos in general and Etna in Particular. We learned for example that Etna is a fairly young volcano (in geological terms) having popped up out of the sea some 250,000 years ago, filling in what was a huge bay in the prehistoric Sicily. It has 4 top cones one of which is very unpredictable in its behaviour having gained 300m in altitude in the last few years. Etna erupts from the top on a regular basis – showering the local villages with ash and dust several times per year – however given that the top of the volcano is at 3,300 and the villages are not permitted above the 1000m line this is considered little more than an inconvenience. Etna also erupts laterally quite often, the last major incident being in 2002 – this can involve months (or even years) of lava flow from the lateral vent – however as lava is generally very slow moving it is, again, considered more of an inconvenience than a danger as it rarely impacts on villages as mostly these eruptions occur well above the 1000m line. However having said all this Manuel explained that unlike many other volcano’s (Vesuvius for example) Etna is generally considered a very predicable and “safe volcano” having an open vent, it is not likely to explode unexpectedly and can be (an is) easily monitored – indeed Manuel explained that when he is not living his gypsy life guiding on volcano’s all around the world – does measurements and predictions for the Italian Government.
A brief toilet and further chat stop in Milo and then we were off in to the Etna national park. Our first stop was a lava flow from the 1970’s we were able to see the beginning of regeneration of this flow with plants starting to take hold here and there. We walked on the flow and Manuel explained about the nature and behaviour of lava flows – how they are slow moving – a few metres per hour and have a crust that (in Etna’s case) means you can stand within inches of the lava and feel nothing more than a “bit warm” – indeed we were shown how a flow passed within inches of a tree and didn’t set it on fire, indeed didn’t even bother it as it was still alive and healthy. Next, we were taken to the 2002 flow so that we could contrast how sterile and dessert like the newer flow was compared to the older one. It was interesting to see how one moment you would be standing in 600year old forest (from the last time it was destroyed by lava), then suddenly you would be on a sterile black dessert, then crossing the space of 20m you were back in 600-year-old forest.
We continued on and had the opportunity to climb a series of lateral craters (the top craters require a high level of fitness and many hours trekking as the road does not extend beyond 1800m and thus the climb is a further 1500m. The craters we visited were at about 2200 m and afforded an amazing view of both Etna and the surrounding area. They were part of a “chain” or “bottle” of lateral craters extending down the side of the volcano which erupted in the 1860’s. Once the lateral vents have erupted however they seal off forever as the lava in these lateral tubes solidifies into basalt, this is in contrast to the top craters which on Etna remain open (and are hence safer as the gases cannot build up an hence risk the catastrophic explosion which is the concern for Vesuvius) due to the continued action of the magma chamber and hence the inability of the lave a to solidify.
Manuel also shared amazing local knowledge of plants and animals and how they had adapted to the local conditions – there are a number of Etna specific species – a type of Birch for example, a grasshopper that is black like the volcanic rock and sand, a type of Broom and a variant of the Jägermeister plant that grows taller and has longer flower stalks as an adaptation to the dark, rocky soil.
We were also able to visit some of the lava tube caves – these form when the lava flows slowly through a steep gully and the top of the lave crust cools and seals over, the lava then continues to flow down the slope and eventually as it stops flowing from the vent the tube which has formed empties leaving a tunnel or cave. Hundreds of years ago clever locals used these caves for ice – they would pack the caves with snow, compacting it to make ice, in the winter and the insulating properties of the volcanic rock would mean they could “harvest” and sell the ice in the summer – it was a very lucrative business apparently
Leaving the national park we ventured down to a local winery to taste some of the Etna wines made from the grapes grown in the rich volcanic soil. We tried a white which I thought was ok and then 2 very very nice reds. This was accompanied by antipasto, bread, olives, pasta and tiramisu – delicious! And certainly, more than the light lunch we were expecting. We were also shown the wine making “Cantine” including the bottling machine that can bottle around 1000 bottles per hour! Last stop on the tour (which ended up taking almost 9 hours) was a honey centre – honey is the other major industry on Etna and we were able to taste several varieties – some of which combined pistachios and hazelnuts which are also major crops of the region. With full stomachs and fuller brains we returned to Cantania – indeed we were so “overloaded” that we decided that a evening stroll to the supermarket (to buy deodorant, toothpaste and a drink) was all we needed!Read more