GTW Side Trip Goes Inside the Volcanology of Mt. Etna

AAPG Europe’s latest Geosciences Technology Workshop (GTW), “Fractured Reservoirs: The Geological, Geophysical and Engineering Tools to Crack Them,” provided the opportunity to visit the island of Sicily, steeped both in beauty and an active geological history.

And what is a trip to Sicily without a visit to the tallest volcano in Europe?

The iconic Mount Etna resides on the island’s eastern side, boasting a height at the summit of 3,340 meters above sea level and flanks that span more than 1,260 square kilometers, although its eerie presence seems to loom over the island’s entirety – and its dangerous beauty lulling you into a false sense of security.

We were lucky enough to receive the VIP treatment, led by volcanologist and Mount Etna expert Carmelo Ferlito, from the University of Catania, who assured us we’d be taking a “unique” tour of what Etna had to offer.

Image Caption

Volcanologist Carmelo Ferlito of the University of Catania leading the tour up Mount Etna. Photos courtesy of Rachel Henderson.

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AAPG Europe’s latest Geosciences Technology Workshop (GTW), “Fractured Reservoirs: The Geological, Geophysical and Engineering Tools to Crack Them,” provided the opportunity to visit the island of Sicily, steeped both in beauty and an active geological history.

And what is a trip to Sicily without a visit to the tallest volcano in Europe?

The iconic Mount Etna resides on the island’s eastern side, boasting a height at the summit of 3,340 meters above sea level and flanks that span more than 1,260 square kilometers, although its eerie presence seems to loom over the island’s entirety – and its dangerous beauty lulling you into a false sense of security.

We were lucky enough to receive the VIP treatment, led by volcanologist and Mount Etna expert Carmelo Ferlito, from the University of Catania, who assured us we’d be taking a “unique” tour of what Etna had to offer.

And off the beaten track it was!

Our first stop was to observe the small parasitic cones on the lower flanks of the Etnean edifice, which were somewhat of a precursor for the white-topped splendor we were about to experience. From this point, we were able to experience the complex geological setting that molded Etna’s morphology with the Hyblean Plateau fold-thrust belt system in our immediate line of vision.

After a quick stop off and photo opportunity, it was back on the bus to face our ascent further up Etna’s flanks.

Eventually, the bus could take us no farther, and it was time to begin our ascent up this magnificent stratovolcano. There it was, covered in a meter of unexpected snow, and there we were, questioning if we made the right choice by looking up at the daunting challenge ahead. We decided to go for it, and not look back (or down!).

After a 10-minute climb through the deep powder, our first point of call was a large graben structure, allowing us to understand the extensional rifting that had taken place during Etna’s formation, and plunging us deeper into the complex geological context of the area.

Once we got our breath back and had an opportunity to absorb our surroundings, we continued onward and indeed, upward, sampling Etna’s complex petrology along the way. Perfect examples of basaltic and pyroclastic lava flows, heavily vesiculated and dark in color, only had me wishing I had dusted off my hand lens to sample its inner detail.

As our seemingly never-ending ascent continued, we soldiered on through the snow until we reached a prominent NNW-SSE trending dike, a prominent feature and natural stopping point in the otherwise all white blanket that surrounded us. The dike boasted large feldspathic crystals at around 50 percent of the total composition, and the presence of which could not go unnoticed within its surrounding dark basaltic matrix.

This particular dike had been the subject of some of Carmelo’s recent research, who explained his unique theory regarding magma crystallization, with the formation of crystals occurring after the magma had been extruded, and controversially at a fast cooling rate – allowing us one step closer into Etna’s complex inner workings.

Continuing the ascent up the white flanks of Etna we finally reached the breathtaking and main focus of our trip: the Valle de Bove, a collapsed caldera, eight kilometers in width, carved into the eastern flank of the Etnean edifice.

No words could describe the views from here, instantly leaving us free of the worries we faced at the beginning of our ascent. It seemed like the natural place to stop for lunch, although a constant haze of gas accompanied us from Etna’s summit – a gentle reminder of its dangerous capabilities.

It seemed lunch provided us with a new lease of life, and the energy to begin our descent. Following Carmelo, who seemed at home in the snow, we leaped, ran, slid and fell our way down to the bottom of Etna, where our guided tour ended.

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