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Secrets in the Cinders   |   Earth Explorer   |   The Story in the Stone   |   Battle on Mt. Etna
Battle on Mt. Etna
A war against lava in 2001

This article originally appeared in the New Bedford Standard-Times, August 12, 2001.

On Tuesday, July 31, I was watching a war. On one side was an army of more than four hundred men, fighting with bulldozers, backhoes, dump trucks, and all the strength and spirit they could muster. On the other side was Sicily's Etna volcano, armed with marching lava, red hot bombs, and the energy of the earth itself. Mt. Etna is almost two miles high. In its shadow, the human army seemed puny, its efforts futile, its logic naive.  
At one o'clock, Francesco Barberi, head of the Italian Civil Protection Agency, held an impromptu news conference in the parking lot at Refugio Sapienza, a ski and tourist center high on Etna's slopes. Behind him, a mere mile away, a thundering black volcanic cone belched flaming boulders and slabs of molten rock. Higher up the mountain's slopes, four more angry cones sent dense plumes of gray ash soaring miles into the sky. Thirty yards away, firefighters, their backs to threatened buildings, sprayed a creeping wall of lava with water, hoping to freeze it in its tracks.
“The flow rate has dramatically increased,” Barberi said wearily of the volcano's lava flood. “There is a huge quantity of lava coming down.” In the next four hours, volcanologists would survey the mountain by helicopter. Evacuation plans were in preparation. “We are not very confident,” Barberi said. There would be an announcement at six that evening concerning the possibility of retreat.
This was my fourth trip to Etna, and I have visited other volcanoes in Italy, Hawaii, Mexico, and Iceland. But never had I seen anything like this. I had watched the eruption's fireworks for hours, felt its explosions echo in my chest, brushed its rain of sandy ash from my hair, eyes, and ears, and sweated in its heat.
Etna had been erupting for two weeks. It began on July 17, when the mountain shook with more than two thousand tremors. Rock was breaking deep within it, cracked and cloven by scalding gas and climbing magma. Within a week five vents had burst open on Etna's top and sides, spewing lava at 1,000 cubic feet a second.
The lava edged downhill. It swept through the middle of Refugio Sapienza, smothered a road, destroyed a warehouse, a restaurant, and a shop. It attacked the cable car lift that ran from Sapienza to the top of the mountain, melting its cables and gobbling up three of its pylons.  
Etna pumped enough ash into the sky to force the intermittent closure of the airport at Catania, a city of 100,000 people 16 miles to the southeast. Flights were cancelled, travelers were stranded, the summer beach season was in chaos.
The lava wound toward Nicolosi, a mountain resort town six miles away. The Italian government declared a state of emergency and called in the troops.  
Hundreds of Army, civil defense, fire fighters, and construction workers set to work, busting up old lava flows with backhoes and bulldozers, erecting long twenty-foot high barriers to channel the lava away from Sapienza's cable car station and remaining hotels, restaurants, and shops.  
But Etna was insatiable. The night before Barberi's announcement, Etna had been alive with orange violence, gushing red-hot lava, shaking buildings with its explosions, and showering glowing boulders. A 500-foot wide flood of lava had snaked down the mountain, setting the upper cable car station afire and filling, in just a few hours, the channel that the army had been building for days.
Etna's eruptions are nothing new. Lava first flowed here half a million years ago, spilling and cooling into successive stone layers that have grown into a massive 600 square mile mountain. Its slopes are dotted with over two hundred cinder cones that have erupted through the ages.
The ancient Greeks believed that Zeus had imprisoned the giant Typhon beneath Etna, under the watchful eye of Hephaestus, blacksmith to the gods. Typhon's struggles to escape caused earthquakes and eruptions, and Etna shook whenever Haephastus hammered swords and armor on his anvil.
Geologists now know that Etna's eruptions share the same source as those of the other 50 volcanoes that erupt yearly on land - heat from deep within the earth. But Etna is different than its murderous cousin Vesuvius in Naples, whose eruptions have killed untold thousands, including its famous victims at Pompeii. Vesuvius's lava is stiff and sticky with silica; it plugs the volcano's throat until it ruptures in gigantic explosions that send avalanches of scalding ash rushing down hill at hurricane speed. Etna's lava, however, flows relatively freely. It forms rivers of fiery stone that travel slowly, and its conduit is open, leading to a train of near constant small explosions, jets of hot gas, small lava flows, and vapor plumes at its summit. Etna regularly dusts its slopes and surroundings with a rain of fine black ash, and the first morning chore for many is to sweep this black grit from the front steps, sidewalk, and car.
But every eight to ten years, Etna becomes so full of magma that its flanks crack open and lava spills out. Most of these eruptions take place well away from human settlement, but roads are often cut, fields destroyed, and, from time to time, villages are flattened.
In 1669, an 8-mile fissure dumped lava for five months. The lava destroyed ten villages and swept nineteen miles into Catania. The flow was only halted after priests confronted it with the veil of Sicily's patron saint, Saint Agatha. During the eruption, a band of men from Catania tried to save the city in the first recorded attempt to divert lava. Protected from the heat in water-soaked cowhides, they punctured the congealing stony side of the flow with iron pikes, bleeding off a lava stream that flowed away from the city. This lava, however, was now headed toward the village of Paterno - 500 citizens swarmed from the town and attacked the men from Catania. The new hole sealed up, and the lava continued on toward the city. A short time later a new law declared that anyone who manipulated a lava flow was financially responsible for any resulting damage. This halted any attempts to channel lava, until the regulation was suspended in 1983, when a lava flow thundered through Sapienza, destroying the ski lift, hotels, and restaurants despite bulldozed walls and dynamite blasts meant to stop it. Barberi, himself a volcanologist, had worked as an advisor during this eruption.
But Etna can be generous. The Sicilians quarry its stone for buildings, sidewalks, and streets. Its fertile soil supports citrus, fruit orchards, vineyards, and olive groves. And it lures tourists by the thousands, who come to see its volcanic action or, in winter, to ski its snowbound slopes.  
Now all that had changed. The archbishop of Catania led thousands in an outdoor mass in sight and sound of the booming craters to pray for deliverance from disaster. Viewers around the world watched the angry mountain on TV. Crowds of local residents, barred from the summit by police checkpoints, prowled foothill roads each night in search of the best viewpoint to see the distant fire.
It is nearly impossible for anyone in the vicinity of an active volcano to resist its lure. I, myself, was high on the slopes until well past midnight every night, mesmerized by its glow and thunder. It was a constantly changing spectacle, a vision of immense, primal power that leaves you stupefied, oblivious to yourself and to passing time.
The most accessible show was at a cinder cone 6,800 feet up the mountain. Its vent was continuously exploding, fountaining golden sparks hundreds of feet in the air. Immediately behind it another vent roared like a jet engine, bursting now and then with ashy, scarlet explosions that were inconceivably loud. Lava bubbled from a crack in the cone just below the vents, cascading in a ceaseless stream that glistened like golden chain mail. At the cone's base the lava slowed, cooled, darkened, and slid on toward Nicolosi. Now black and orange, it looked almost comically like a conveyor belt of charcoal briquettes. I could feel its heat from 200 yards away, and as this stony stream passed by it clinked and clanked in a chorus of improbable delicacy. A wall of smoke and steam rose from this orange river, often wind-whipped into slender twisters that spun toward the white half moon and the fierce plume of churning ash that soared from Etna's summit.
At 6 PM Barberi held his news conference. At a Sapienza restaurant that now catered only emergency workers and journalists, flanked by scientists, military officers, firefighters, and aides, he announced the news was good. Two large lava streams atop the mountain had turned away from Sapienza and were flowing harmlessly into a valley on Etna's east side. For the foreseeable future, work on the protective dams would continue. There was hope that what was left of Sapienza would survive.
Copyright © 2001 Tom Gidwitz