Mount Etna Has Awoken Again, and the Astronauts on the Space Station Are ON IT

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March 2 2013 8:00 AM

Looking Down Mount Etna’s Throat

The tallest active volcano in Europe is at it again. Sicily’s Mount Etna, a 3300-meter (2 mile) high mountain, is always active. Well, almost always: It’s been fairly quiet for nearly a year, but on Feb. 19 decided it was time to remind folks that it’s a force with which to be reckoned. It started blowing out ash, lava, lahars (mud flows), and pyroclastic flows—avalanches of burning hot ash, rock, and gas.

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Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death from the Skies! Follow him on Twitter.

On board the International Space Station, the ash plume was easily visible as the astronauts flew just to the north of it:

Mount Etna seen from space
Mount Etna, photographed by astronaut Chris Hadfield. Click to haphaestenate.

Image credit: NASA

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You can see the ash plume flowing east (left) over the coast of Sicily. The plume looks white, which means there’s probably lots of steam there too. To give you a sense of scale, the volcano is about 15 or so kilometers (9 miles) from the coast.

That shot was taken by Chris Hadfield. His fellow astronaut Kevin Ford took the following picture, when the ISS was more directly over the volcano:

Mount Etna from space
Mount Etna, this time by astronaut Kevin Ford. Click to embiggen.

Image credit: NASA

Looks like the wind had died down a bit for this one. This series of recent eruptions have been pretty violent, with seven large paroxysms in just over a week. The first were from the New Southeast Crater (Etna has a half dozen major craters), and were followed by eruptions from the Bocca Nuova Crater. Not only that, but apparently there has been activity seen in the saddle between the two craters, so it looks like at least one new fissure has opened up.

Etna is potentially dangerous, but hasn’t hit a major population center in nearly a century (though it’s come close). Still, like any giant of its kind, it bears close watch. Size isn’t what’s critical—it’s the type of activity that makes a volcano dangerous, including the locations of the nearby populations—but bear in mind this volcano is more than twice the height of Vesuvius, and the entire cone is roughly 40 km (25 miles) across. It’s been chosen as a Decade Volcano, one that is worthy of study due to its violent nature and potential for mayhem.

I’d imagine pictures from above are helpful for just this sort of thing. As we put more and more eyes in space, ones that look down, we’ll be seeing more amazing and important observations of volcanoes. Perhaps it’s my own fascination with astronomical dangers—Sun storms and asteroids and black holes, oh my!—but I love these pictures of more terrestrial dangers, too.