While driving through the countryside on our way to Gangi, Sicily, Paolo and I saw what I thought were clouds floating above Mt. Etna. Naturally I soon realized those clouds meant this Sicilian volcano was active, and thankfully far away.
Dominating the horizon, ‘Mama’ Etna stood with a layer of snow on her cap.
“It almost looks like you could ski on Mt. Etna,” I said.
“You can. I was going to take us on one of those jeep tours so we could hike around a bit, but it’s too cold.” Paolo said.
Wait, what?! I thought. You can hike Mt. Etna too?
That is to say, it was time for me to learn about volcanos in Italy, the country I now call home. What I discover is so surprising I couldn’t help but share!
For this purpose what follows are the most surprising facts I discovered about Sicilian volcanos.
Sicilian Volcano Facts
Because there are many types and categories of volcanos, I wanted to set parameters for the list. Without getting too geeking this list focuses only on Holocene volcanos (volcanos that have been active in the last 11,700 years).
Moreover, according to the Smithsonian Institution Global Volcanism Program Italy has thirteen Holocene volcanos. Can you guess where most of those volcanos are in Italy? Naturally in Sicily!
1. Of Italy’s 13 Volcanos 9 are in Sicily
Of the 13 volcanos in Italy, 9 are Sicilian volcanos on the island, in the Straight of Sicily, or the Aeolian Islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea. In other words, Sicily is Italy’s hotbed of volcanic activity. Here’s the list!
- Mt. Etna
- Campi Flegrei del Mar a Sicilian
2. The Largest Volcano in Europe is a Sicilian Volcano
Looming over the city of Catania is Sicily’s most impressive natural attraction Mt. Etna, a stratovolcano volcano of epic proportions. At 10,900 feet in elevation, Mt. Etna is the highest active volcano in Europe.
3. The Three Largest Sicilian Volcanos Are Stratovolcanos
Mt. Etna, Stromboli, and Vulcano are all Stratovolcanos. Stratovolcanos are above-ground cone-shaped volcanos built layer by layer of hardened lava and tephra.
4. Active Sicilian Volcano Height is Ever Changing
Because the three largest Sicilian volcanos are Stratovolcano their height varies as eruptions deposit new layers, but crater rims collapse.
To illustrate, according to Britannica, the volcanic summit of Mt. Etna was about 170 feet higher than in the early 21st century.
5. Sicilian Volcano Mt. Etna Used to Be Under Water
It’s hard to imagine Europe’s highest active volcano below sea level. Still, that’s where scientists believe Mt. Etna first started erupting. Why? Because some of the oldest layers near the lower flanks of Mt. Etna are pillow lava. This indicates Mt. Etna started out underwater as a submarine volcano. Submarine volcanos are vents or fissures on the ocean floor that erupt magma. Thus Mt. Etna was born underwater.
6. The Word Volcano Came from a Sicilian Volcano Named Vulcano on Vulcan Island
Vulcan is the Roman and Greek god of fire and the mythical inventor of smithing and metalworking.
Vulcano is the third largest Volcano of The Aeolian Islands archipelago.
What’s more, Vulcano is also a spectacular yet sparsely populated island. The people living on Vulcano believed that their volcano was the chimney of the forge of Vulcan.
Here’s where it gets fun.
Since Vulcano means volcano in Italian, the word “volcano” comes from a volcano named Vulcano on a small volcanic island called Vulcano. What a mouthful!
Historically, volatile volcanic activity prevented life on the island. It was not until the last major eruption of 1888 that Vulcano stopped erupting. Only then did farmers cultivate the surrounding land.
While Vulcano is still an active volcano, the only thing happening now is fumarolic emissions making it a tourist-friendly stop in the Aeolian Islands… for now!
7. Sicilian Volcanos Are All UNESCO World Heritage Sites
In 2000 the seven volcanic islands of the Aeolian Islands were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. In 2013 Mt. Etna joined them on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Why?
8. Mt Etna Has Been Documented for 2,700 Years
A near-continuous state of eruptive activity means Mt. Etna is the perfect place for scientific attention and documentation. In fact, humans have been documenting Mt. Etna’s for at least 2,700 years, making it one of the world’s longest-documented volcanism records. Its notoriety, scientific importance, and cultural and educational value are of global significance, thus its UNESCO status.
9. Mt. Etna is One of the Most Active Volcanos on Earth
Volcano tourism is inherently a risky business. That doesn’t stop millions of people from visiting them each year. Despite being one of the most active volcanos in the world, Mt. Etna is no exception. * Warning the video below includes footage of tourists and journalists being caught and hit by debris on Mt. Etna during an eruption.
10. Mt. Etna Eruptions Have Killed Thousands, But the Exact Number is Murky
The stats seem to be a bit unreliable when it comes to deaths attributed to Mt Etna eruptions.
According to NASA, an eruption in 1169 killed 15,000 people and in 1669 Mt. Etna’s most destructive eruption killed 20,000 people. By my count that is 35,000 people.
History.com however has different numbers. Their article details 15,000 people dying in 1169 due to a pre-eruption earthquake with another 20,000 dying from lava flows and 3,000 from asphyxiation. Their count of the 20,000 in the 1669 eruption is equal. In other words more like 55,000 deaths.
So what gives? Perhaps NASA explains it best by stating “During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Etna’s clear dangers left many scholars content to rely on the observations of ancient authors rather than risk roasting in a close look for themselves.”
11. 2022 Was an Explosive Year For Sicilian Volcanos
Two of Sicily’s biggest volcanos Stromboli and Mt. Etna erupted this year. Mt. Etna reported five eruptions, including lava flowing down the slopes of the craters. Stromboli one of the active Aeolian Islands fire giants was even more active with six eruptions.
12. Stromboli Volcano is Nicknamed the “Lighthouse of the Mediterranean”
Having erupted for nearly 2,500 years continuously, Stromboli is also one of the world’s most active volcanos. Can you imagine living beneath a steady glow of lava in the night sky on an island? I guess it would make getting home by ship at night easier! No wonder the people of Stromboli call their volcano the “Lighthouse of the Mediterranean.”
13. Stromboli Eruptions are Named After a Sicilian Volcano
The “Lighthouse of the Mediterranean” is not just throwing light. It also tosses out glowing cinders and molten rock into the air. These projectile eruptions have since been named Strombolian eruptions after the volcano. A Strombolian eruption is a relatively mild, often sporadic volcanic eruption of glowing cinders. Sort of like little glowing lava bombs.
14. Sicilian Volcano Stromboli is a Tsunamis Machine
Islands with coastal volcanos are prone to a wide range of environmental hazards. Besides lava, that is. Volcanic gases, landslides, and tsunamis are among them.
Stromboli, a stratovolcano in the Southern Tyrrhenian Sea just north of Sicily, has triggered six significant tsunamis. 1916, 1919, 1930, 1944, 1954, and 2002. Landslides in the 2002 eruption dethroned ten million cubic meters from the volcano’s slope into the sea. The result? 32-foot tsunami waves came crashing back onto the island.
Which makes the following nickname for Stromboli a little ironic.
15. Tourists Can Explore Mt. Etna Without a Guide
Up to 2,900 m or 9,514 feet, tourists are free to visit Mt. Etna without a guide pending safety conditions controlled by the Department of Civil Protection. Although given Mt. Etna’s lethal capacity tour guides are highly recommended.
16. You Can Ski on Mt. Etna
It’s true! Despite all the risks, the adventurous can also ski on Mt. Etna. There are two ski resorts on Mt. Etna. Piano Provenzana in the north and Nicolosi to the south. Both resorts have scenic alpine and downhill slopes. However, the northern slope provides views of Mt. Etna’s smoke.
17. You Can Hike Mt. Etna in One and a Half Hours
At 3,328 meters (10,912 ft), the rim of Mt. Etna’s crater is just under a two-mile hike. If you have strong legs and good luck with the weather, the ascent takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes. Like all volcano hikes, loose rocky terrain can be hard to navigate. So be sure to wear proper hiking boots!
18. Mt. Etna’s Name Means “I Burn”
The name Mt. Etna can be traced back to ancient Greece. We all know the Greeks loved to create legends. How could they resist Mt. Etna as a protagonist!
The ancient Greeks believed Mt. Etna was the workshop of Hephaestus (the god of fire). The Greek word Aitne comes from aithō, meaning “I burn.” Rather appropriate for a Sicilian volcano if you ask me.
19. Mt. Etna Has Two Nicknames Mama & Montebello
Locals refer to Mt. Etna as “Montebello” meaning “beautiful mountain” in Italian. In the Sicilian Dialect, however, Montebello sounds more like Mungibeddu. Another endearing term for the ever-present cone-shaped volcano also known locally as “Mamma Etna” or “Mama” for short.
20. Mt. Etna Inspired the First Printed Work on Volcanos
After witnessing Mt. Etna erupt in 1630, Athanasius Kircher voluntarily lowered himself into the volcanic cone for an inspection.
Why? Good question!
Chiefly because Kircher was a German Jesuit scholar and polymath. As a result he published roughly 40 works in scientific fields. From religion and medicine to geology. Of course his works on geology included studies of volcanos and fossils.
Consequently after his Mt. Etna dip, Kircher published “Mundus Subterraneus,” now thought to be the first engraving of the volcano ever published.
21. Sicilian Volcano Wine is Delicious
To be sure ALOR followers know we can’t not talk about Italian wine!
To that end in Sicily there are 142 wine contrade (meaning single vineyard in Sicily) surrounding Mt. Etna. Indeed a sign that there is a hot market for these wines.
Around Mt. Etna older lava flows have turned into fertile soil. What’s more is that this area of Sicily is hot and sunny during the day, and cold and dry at night. In other words the slopes of Mt. Etna are a wine growing paradise.
Why else would nearly two hundred wineries forge their future on the world’s most active volcano!
Okay, maybe this one is more an opinion than a fact. Still, try a bright, aromatic bottle of Etna Rosso Tornatore before trying to debunk it.
In brief volcano tourism is risky business. Nevertheless Sicily as a region remains one of our favorite destinations in Italy because the hospitality is as genuine and warm as the climate.
To illustrate our love for Sicily we’ve included several Sicilian towns in our guide to the Italian countryside. Don’t miss our images of Gangi and Scicli, Sicily. Finally our latest pictures of Italy photo gallery full of beautiful images Sicily.
Without a doubt Etna’s regional DOC wines, pistachios, and blood oranges are imported worldwide for a reason. Because they are delicious!
Consequently we hope you’ll subscribe to ALOR Italy below as we continue to share road trip discoveries and destination tips in Sicily!
To be sure after everything I learned compiling our list of 21 surprising Sicilian volcano facts, you’ll never see me step foot on an active volcano slope. Most importantly what about you?
Have you or will you dare to tempt the wrath of the Greek and Roman Gods of Fire? Let us know in the comments below!