The big Etna activity 1991/ 92


( Vale del Bove / Zafferana Etnea )


Searching the sun during a snowy ice trip through the Gargano and Calabria in December 1991 the message of Etna's activity let us change our way straight to the Sicily iland. Here a very impressive volcano expedition should expect us. Along the southern Calabrian coast in a distance of 100 Kilometer you could see the up to seven Kilometer long lava flow on Etna's eastern flank. (Vale del Bove). The most lucky people were the inhabitants of the little town Zafferana Etnea, because it was really a wonder that the 9 km long and mighty lava flow stopped several month later 200 m before the city limit.


  Etna's big  fissure

Two weeks before our arrival a big fissure did opened at the east flank of Mt Etna.This images were made at the 27.12.1991, showing the fissure in 2400 m altitude and the mighty lavaflows flowing down into the Vale del Bove. You can see on the photos token nearly from the same place but at different times (9:00am; 18:00pm),  that the lightning of the flows was going on more spectacular in the evening twilight. But first to the begin of our tour


25.12: The ascent over snow and ice. The strong storm lifted up small ice parts which hit our faces very painfull. Beside this we were covered softly by a 20 cm snow fall over night. But this snow layer couldn't absorb the heavy eruption noises at all.


Right: A. Heidl und U.Hochmann as silhoettes before the red cloud curtain. The view on the lava flows 400m below our observation point was getting clearer (top). Right: The place of eruption apprx.1500m distance.

In the early morning of the 26.12.99 I headed down to the lava flows in the Vale del  Bove plateau. Getting there I had to surmount 400 altimeters the steep and icy slope of  the Serra Vavalaci apprx.1 km southeast of the Montagniola summit. It was a very slippery downhill action over ten minutes and by sliding down to the lava flows to the bottom of the valley I doubtful asked myself, how I would ever come back to our tent.


First in my lifetime I made the experience with liquid / plastic lava. Until this time the real apperance of this seldom consistence which I had only seen in film documentations was a fascinating happening for me. The calm sound of the smooth runing main stream was accompanied with a clink sound like brocken glass from the loosen parts of the coulder side tongues of the flow.


An intensive snowfall was beginning. A weak rustling of the thick snowfleaks came to the clinking sound. Fire and ice, a not outbidding contrast and the contrary aggregate conditions came here together! Contrast... contrary? The stones were still liquid and the water was solid. 


Sometimes the incidental music of strong detonations from the volcano was breaking the silence.

27.12: On the next day we changed to the eastern side of the flows. The big end is coming nearer. The meanwhile 500 m broad lava flow is moving irresistible down a steep slope along the Monte Calanna into the Vale Calanna (left). 


In a distance of three kilometers the flow will reach the city limit of Zafferana Etnea. During the afternoon of the next day a industrial stone factory will get destroyed. Right: The lava is flowing in three 'selfmade channels'. Up to 8 meter deep canyons made it possible for the hot liquid to provide the end of the flow very fast with plenty of material. The speed of currency was apprx. 5 m/s.


The walk at the eastern side of the flows. A comfortable break at the warm lava toungues was always welcome at minus 10°C. But the hot air destroyed our closes pitiless wherever we rested. Nice to see when hot lava was moving over the snow without indenting deep.


Here we are in a distance of apprx. 750 m from the eruption place near of the Serra Cuvigghiuni. Standing in the middle of the inferno the hot wind from the lava flows did forced us to stop breathing for short times.


In the upper part of the fissure we made the experience of the strong heat radiation of the white lightning maglamava*. Without protection it was not possible to come closer as five meters to the canyons (left). Observing more details of the three eruption pipes from a closer range (100m) the event got more spectacular. Beside this impressive firework a real eardeafning noise was treating our tympanic membranes very bad. * maglamava =  something between magma and lava


Until this point of time nobody came closer to this place. The ejections of magma reached the height of maybe 100 meter. After I noticed that the outthrown lava bombs were ejected extremely near to my standing position, I decided not to approach further to the eruption pipes. It's now 3.30 and I'm very tired and exhausted. Meeting Ulli and Andreas 100 m below my last view point we returned to our one kilometer far situated tent very very happy..... 


This images were made nine years later at the 27.10.2000. You can see how the big flow was moving through the forest area destroying the first houses 300 m before the city limit of Zafferana Etnea


On tour: Uli Hochmann, Andreas Heidl, Thorsten Böckel


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©2000 all photos and text by Thorsten Boeckel

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