It’s not often that a World Heritage Site blows her roof, but not all heritage sites are more than 10,000 feet tall. Mount Etna, Europe’s most active volcano, and a major tourist draw to Sicily has been doing just that this past week, in spectacular fashion.
It’s not a new story, and it’ll continue for years, if not centuries into the future, but it is a spectacular one. Where most UNESCO World Heritage Sites are the focus of our most devote attention to preservation, Mount Etna doesn’t seem to care about her status. In fact some might argue she’s on a path of total self destruction. That, however, is the nature of a volcano, and as all volcanoes do, Mount Etna hides an interesting story beneath her fertile skirts.
It’s a story of “plate tectonics.” Picture the earth’s continents floating around at will, as though lily pads on a wind ripped pond. Each lily pad is a “plate” and the process where they move, collide, and fight each other is referred to as plate tectonics. Mount Etna lies on the Eurasian plate which sits just north of the African plate, and even though all seems peaceful on the surface there’s a battle of wills taking place below.
Considering the mass of the plates they can’t be stopped, much as a run away locomotive, they have so much mass they continue their journey long after the engineer applies the brakes. As the plates collide, the energy, or landmasses in this case, carry on their journey. As they can’t continue forward they either rise and create mountains, or are buried below. This process creates huge forces and heat which will make their way to the surface as magma. As the magma rises it forms conical volcanoes like Mount Etna, much as ants form anthills. In some cases the magma will find its way to the surface uninterrupted and spill down its sides, in others it is blocked by solidified magma left from previous eruptions in the central vent, which acts like a plug, like a plug in a punctured tire. This is what we’ll find in most dormant volcanoes, but those that remain active are still pushing the magma upward, and as the pressure builds…somethings got to give, in this instance, a World Heritage Site blows her roof off!
This latest round in Sicily only confirms Mount Etna’s desire to continue her upward journey as forces below continue their battle, and it’s not a battle without consequence. This past week she has expelled so much ash cloud that the local airport in Catania had to be closed for the skies to clear, no doubt an inconvenience for many, but it has also pumped more than a few dollars into the local’s coffers as tourists flock to see an active volcano. Imagine sitting in a bistro in the nearby coastal town and watching molten lava inching its way toward you. Not many people can say they’ve done that!
It’s not often you get to see a World Heritage Site blow her roof, and Mount Etna is undeniable evidence that though we might try to control our surroundings we are no match for Mother Nature when she wants to put on a show.
And what a show!
By Scott Wilson