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The BBC's Jane Goddard
"People still live and ski on its slopes"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 15 March, 2000, 17:31 GMT
Living with a volcano
Mount Etna: The Big Lady
By Jane Goddard in Sicily

Mount Etna, Europe's tallest and most active volcano, has been treating skiers in the area to a show of pyrotechnics.

At 3,274 metres (10,741 feet), this famous volcano stands on the point where, in geological terms, Africa meets Europe.

Catania: Close to Mount Etna
Catania: Close to Mount Etna
Its slopes are scattered with villages. Catania lies just 26 kilometres (16 miles) away.

Recently, Etna has been erupting every two or three days.

People still live and ski on its slopes which are covered in snow and ash.

However, vulcanologists studying earth movement in the area say it is becoming more active with more voluminous eruptions of lava.

Violent episodes

It is full of molten magma and could pose a real threat to thousands of people.

Dr Boris Behncke is a vulcanologist from Catania University and says that the cone of the south-east crater has grown by some 80-90m since late 1998.

Mount Etna in Sicily
Mount Etna in Sicily
"During the last month, we've seen 35 very brief, very violent episodes," he said, noting that lava fountains had reached 800m.

"A very powerful jet of incandescent lava occurred at the southernmost vent in the summit area of the south-east crater cone.

"Observers at the Torre del Filosofo mountain hut saw the top of the fountain rise high above their heads, and soon a downpour of bombs and scoriae forced them to search shelter at the building from where they were able to watch the awesome spectacle in relative safety."

Concrete blocks

Our first stop was the site of the last major eruption in 1992.

The scene resembled the images of news footage from the last time lava flowed eight years ago.

Abandonned building ruined by the eruption of 1992
Abandoned building ruined by the eruption of 1992
A few buildings stand abandoned near the location where the lava flow stopped.

On this site, the locals have erected a statue of the Madonna.

At the time of the eruption, Sicilians prayed while vulcanologists threw concrete blocks in the path of the lava.

One of the two methods must have worked as the village still stands.

As it was not destroyed, people still live there where they are building more homes.

Lava flow

Dr Behncke said that the locals understood Etna.

"Many have evacuated at least once in their lives. But they are all hoping it won't happen again. Or if it does, it will be the other side of the volcano."

Farmer Giuseppe: Uses volcanic ash as fertiliser
Farmer Giuseppe: Uses volcanic ash as fertiliser
If an eruption does occur, Sicily might not be ready for it.

"I think in the next few years there will be a major eruption and when it does happen, depending on the force of the eruption and the amount of lava flow it could be a very dangerous thing," Dr Behncke said.

Giuseppe, who has lived in this area all of his life, is ploughing the latest showering of ash into his terraced land.

The volcano constantly rains ash on his asparagus crop.

The Big Lady

To Giuseppe, the ash represents a welcome source of fertiliser that has helped to make the slopes around Etna a successful farming area.

It's like a family member - we call her the Big Lady

Giuseppe, Etna resident
"It's like a family member - we call her the Big Lady," he enthuses.

"She's always there and she talks to us so we treat her like a member of the family."

The activity of the past few years has been at the summit and largely harmless.

However, Dr Behncke has found trends in Etna's activity which show that this type of volcanic behaviour is followed by lava bursting out of the sides as happened in 1992.

Tourist attraction

With a few smoke signals, Etna let us know that she was alive and well - but we were not treated to any fireworks.

Etna is also a major tourist attraction. If you fancy skiing on a live volcano, Etna is the place to do it

Mount Etna: Ski holidays
Mount Etna: Ski holidays
There are two ski resorts on the mountain, though one was closed due to a covering of ash - not the sort of black run you really want.

In the view of our guide, Etna is due to erupt from the sides.

As I wound my way back down the volcano by car, the south-east crater could be seen menacingly but quietly glowing red in the darkness

On my return to London, Dr Behncke advised me by e-mail that the crater had erupted early on the previous Sunday.

With the Big Lady it seems, there is no room for complacency.

"A downpour of bombs and scoriae"
Since our visit, she has gone off again. In Boris Behncke's words: "8 March 2000. After another period of relative calm of slightly more than 4 days, the south-east crater erupted again sometime around 0900," he wrote.

"The eruptive episode was preceded by increased lava outflow on the northern flank of the cone.

"Slow effusion of lava from vents on the southern base of the south-east crater cone continued for about two days."

Let us just hope that the Big Lady does not really sing.

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20 Feb 99 | Europe
Etna threatens eruption
13 Feb 00 | Europe
In pictures: Etna erupts
02 Jul 98 | Europe
Mount Etna's surprise eruption
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