Where lava flows,

Robert Nordvall
April 19, 2007

The only European nation with active volcanoes, Italy has Mount Etna in Sicily, Mount Vesuvius near Naples, and Stromboli, located on the island of the same name off the Sicilian coast. Vesusvius last erupted in 1944, causing only a few minor casualties.  Film buffs will recognize Stromboli thanks to Roberto Rossellini’s 1950s film Stromboli, starring his lover Ingrid Bergman. The sight of red hot lava flowing from Stromboli was recently featured on Italian national news and, surprisingly enough, local residents appeared quite unperturbed by its latest sputtering episode.


While Italy is not notable for its number of volcanoes, it still has a prominent place in the history of volcanic activity. Probably its most famous eruption was that of Mount Vesuvius in 79 BC, which destroyed Pompeii. It killed, among others, the famous Roman author Pliny the Elder who, before he died, wrote an accurate description of the tragedy. As a result, his name is now used to describe one of the nine types of volcanic eruptions, categorized by degree of explosiveness—the most violent variety is called ‘the Plinian’.


Volcanoes are also classified by size and shape or according to the different kinds of activities they produce under the earth’s surface. Although Italy’s are among the most studied in the world, scientists have not reached complete agreement as to why the peninsula has so many varying specimens.


For those living near an active volcano, the most important question, however, is not why this particular mountain exists, but when, if at all, it will again have a serious eruption. Can eruptions be accurately predicted?  The most obvious way to anticipate an imminent explosion is to observe a volcano’s activity on a daily basis, noting suspicious changes in the mountain’s ‘temperament’.  Special monitoring devices measure escaping gases and the tilt of the entire mountain (a potentially important indicator) or nearby earthquake activity. For centuries, observers have noted that animals often exhibit strange behavior immediately before an earthquake. Some researchers believe that animals perceive the ultrasonic wave generated by huge underground explosions or earthquake ruptures. Others think that animals may be responding to an increase in low-frequency electromagnetic signals generated by such phenomenon. Prediction of volcanic activity has become an especially important science in Italy, because active volcanoes are not far from populated areas.

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