Under the volcano

Etna's display: Sicily's dramatic outburst poses less threat than inconvenience to residents.

August 05, 2001

FOR WEEKS, the world has watched in awe the spectacular fireworks of Mount Etna, the Italian volcano whose rumblings and eruptions have been a part of Sicily's village life for thousands of years.

The fiery fountains and rivers of molten rock provide high drama with limited danger, even to those living under the shadow of the cone.

While an army of bulldozers urgently erects 10-foot hills of earth and volcanic rock to divert the flow of magma, the main threat is to cable cars, ski lifts and other tourist attractions. The airport shut down for a few days from the rainfall of volcanic ash.

Long accustomed to this hyperthermal force of nature, residents of Mount Etna's slopes seem less frightened than inconvenienced by its current eruptions.

They have learned to adapt, to rebuild and to profit from these slow-flow outbursts, which are far less devastating than the less frequent but more powerfully explosive volcanoes such as Mount St. Helens and Vesuvius. (Last month, 50,000 people fled from the threatened explosive eruption of Mount Mayon in the Philippines.)

Dozens of volcanoes are active around the world every year; many more are erupting deep beneath the oceans. The deadliest impact is not from the molten lava itself, but from resulting ash flows and mudslides.

With an arsenal of meters and sensors and satellite monitoring, scientists can better predict volcanic action these days but not with precision. Despite a long history of data, the course of lava flows from Mount Etna this summer defied computer modeling.

Tourism is one beneficial fallout for the villages around Etna, fertile soils for crops another. "Etna is just doing its job," observed one Sicilian whose family has lived on the volcano's tourism for over a century. "And it gives us a little gift - lava."

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