Tag Archives: Italy

OUGS Talk; John Murray on Etna


One of the perks of studying geoscience with the Open University is it has a very active Geological Society. Although I joined and went to the odd talk towards the start of my degree, as with many other things, life gets in the way. When I heard the speaker of April’s meeting though it was impossible to not jump at the chance to go….

Figure 1. Mount Etna with the city of Catania in the foreground

On my trip to Masaya back in February I had the privilege of working with John Murray, Visiting Research Fellow at the Open University. A geophysicist, he has worked predominantly on Mount Etna for over forty years. In that time monitoring techniques have moved on greatly, as has much else with the development of technology. This however does not mean proven techniques are not equally, and in some cases, more effective than the new. John specialises in leveling, dry tilt and more recently GPS monitoring of Etna which gives us high precision ground deformation data. For years John secured funding from NERC and many other sources to map the volcanoes deformation. In later years research has become self funded such is his drive to discover the inner workings of the Mediterranean giant.

Figure 2. A map showing the volcanoes of Italy. Etna is the only one laying of the island of Sicily.

Figure 3. John levelling on Masaya.

The other night John addressed the London branch of the Open University Geological Society (LOUGS), to tell them about his work and what he believes 45 years worth of data suggests.

Etna began to erupt roughly 300,000 years at the Val Calanna centre south-west of current activity. Subsequent activity moved on to theTrifoglietto 1 and the Trifoglietto 2 centres before its current position about 170,000 years ago which is sometimes refered to as Mongibello as depicted in figure 4.

Figure 4. Proposed migration Etna based on previous volcanic centers

The Valle Del Bovo is a prominent feature on Etna. The U-shaped depression many believe depict structural failures of the flank along the line of migration of volcanic centres. What John has suggested based on his high precision mapping is that it is not the magma source that is moving but the topography which is slipping seaward.

Also as ground deformation does not following Mogi models (a mathematical model which links changes within a magma chamber to topographical changes), it is being suggested that Etna does not have an appreciable magma chamber, rather taking its material straight from the mantle like a hot spot. This idea is chemically supported by the fact the main igneous rock produced by Etna is Hawaiite; which is compositionally similar to mantle rock.

John is yet to publish his findings in full so I won’t give away any more. It’s safe to say though it is sure to change our views of Etna’s dynamics. John’s passion in his quest to uncover Etna’s secrets is truly inspirational, especially to an aspiring volcanologist like myself. I can’t wait to work on her flanks with him next August.

Figure 5. Eruption February 23rd 2013.

Figure 1; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Etna

Figure 2; http://www.understandingitaly.com/profile-content/volcanoes.html

Figure 3; Authors own.

Figure 4; http://astrolabio.amicidellaterra.it/node/329

Figure 5; http://mountetnamaddison.weebly.com/eruptions.html

Comparing Past and Present


Over the last 12 months we have seen some amazing eruptions, felt the Earth shake on numerous occasions, and remembered some historic events. But was the active of 2014, both volcanically and seismically, more than any other year? I have read several spam articles recently, scare mongering that fracking has trebled earthquake numbers, God’s wrath has been shown by volcanic eruptions and even one drunken woman tried to tell me that Japans tectonic misfortune is due to the Pearl Harbor attack!

Lava field at Holuhraun, Iceland September 2nd 2014.

1. Lava field at Holuhraun, Iceland September 2nd 2014.

Now straight away I can assure you that karma or religious intervention has nothing to do with the science behind the mechanics of the planet beneath our feet. Fracking is up for debate and its effects on seismicity although even were proven the effects are still negligible. So has 2014 really been worse than previous?


I found quiet a nice table to demonstrate this one courtesy of Wikipedia.

Number of Earthquakes Worldwide for 2004–2014

  Magnitude Ranging


 2004  2005  2006  2007  2008  2009  2010  2011  2012  2013  2014
8.0–9.9 2 1 2 4 0 1 1 1 2 2 1
7.0–7.9 14 10 9 14 12 16 21 19 15 17 11
6.0–6.9 141 140 142 178 168 144 151 204 129 125 144
5.0–5.9 1515 1693 1712 2074 1768 1896 1963 2271 1412 1402 1577
4.0–4.9 10888 13918 12838 12080 12292 6805 10164 13303 10990 9795 14941
Total 12560 15762 14703 14350 14240 8862 12300 15798 12548 11341 16674

2014 actually had the lowest number of strong, magnitude 7 and above earthquakes then in the past 5 years. On the flip side of this we had many more lower magnitude  4-5.9 giving us the highest total of quakes in the past 10 years by about 900 earthquakes. 2009 actually is the strangest year on this list with a good 4000 less earth quakes of any magnitude than any other year. 2007 also stands out with an exceptional number of stronger earthquakes. It could be theorized that the greater release of stress and strain with in the crust during 2007 gave us a quiet period the following years. All though this is a very short time scale it does show that yearly variation is great.

625 people were killed in earthquakes last year with most of these during August 3rd’s Ludian County earthquake in China. 6 lost their lives in the strongest quake of the year in Iquique, Chile which was mg 8.2. Nicaragua and Papua New Guinea also had one fatality each. This is actually quiet low value with over 1500 loosing their lives the previous year or as high as nearly 300,000 in 2004!

Uplift caused by Mg 8.2 Chile Earthquake.

2. Uplift caused by Mg 8.2 Chile Earthquake.


2014 was a pretty explosive year with Sinabung kicking us off with a bang January 3rd as it has done this year. In February the same volcano killed 11 as people began to cross the exclusion zones to take a closer look after the pyrotechnics the month previous.

Bárðarbunga stole the show over the summer. The sleeping giant started a ‘will it, won’t it’ game months before any real activity started in August. Many feared we would see an Eyjafjallajökull 2010 style explosion that would disrupt air traffic at the height of the summer period. Earthqaukes then began to indicate magma was on the move through a dyke heading north-west from the main vent. New fears struck as experts wondered would we see devastation similar to Laki 1783. August 29th saw the start of a large fissure breaking the surface, although it has not reached the status of Laki, the eruption is still continuing today

3. San Miguel

3. San Miguel


The next lot a fatalities happened when Mount Ontake surprised all with a phreatic blast on September 27th. 57 lost their lives as hikers and tourists where making their way to a shrine on the mountains flank.

Fogo was the volcano to cause chaos in the final month of the year forcing thousands from their homes. Media coverage of this even has been so light on this event, I am unable to find precise news to if the eruption is ongoing. At December 23rd lava was still pouring from the Pico vent and destroying all in its path.

Obviously these are but a few of the hundreds of volcanoes rumbling through 2014. Others include; Colinma, Etna, Aire, Asonsan, Manam, Merapi, Popcatepetl, Shishaldin, Cleveland, Sabancaya, Zhupanovsky, Sheveluch, Santa Maria, Mayon, Dukono, Turrialba, Poas, Fuego, Ubinas, Tungurahua, Reventador, Pacaya, Karymsky, Kelut, Stromboli, San Miguel, Pavlof, Chirpoi and even all that does not cover them all!

But is this more than usual?

In terms of lava output, last year is definitely high up there as we saw several huge effusive eruptions(with Bárðarbunga probably producing more material than most others put together!). However in the grand scheme of things there were few other major events.

68 people lost their lives which is relatively high thinking that on average maybe one or two die yearly unless there are major volcanic events, but then when thinking like that 68 is actually extremely low.

If we were to pull out any year for increased volcanic activity, for me it would have to be the events of 1902. In a list compiled by Wikipedia* of the most deadly eruptions, although none of the top 5 occurred in 1902, 4 in the list of 40 that occurred did, meaning 10% of the most fatal eruptions occurred in the one year. Well over 40,000 were killed over these four eruptions.

4. Somber scene after Mount Pelee eruption May 8th 1902.

4. Somber scene after Mount Pelee eruption May 8th 1902.

Just over 30,000 of these deaths were caused by Mount Pelee, Martinque on May 8th. Just hours before, La Soufriere a few islands away on Saint Vincent killed 1680.

There will always be years there is more geologically activity than others. The Earth is like a living breathing organism; it is ever-changing and adapting, this is part of the reason predicting events can be tricky.  People always look to blame or find meaning behind tragedy, it’s a coping mechanism, but rarely leads to scientific truth.

Figure 1. http://mashable.com/2014/09/11/iceland-bardabunga-volcano-eruption-photos/

Table 1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthquakes_in_2014

Figure 2. http://www.sneakymag.com/life/the-sneakington-post-3/

Figure 3.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/10541931/El-Salvador-begins-evacuations-due-to-volcano-eruption.html

* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_volcanic_eruptions_by_death_toll

Figure 4. http://www.explorevolcanoes.com/Martinique-caribbean-volcano.html

Today in Geological History; Messina Earthquake – 28th December


On December 28th 1908 Italy saw one of its worst natural disasters killing over 80 – 120 thousand people. It is often referred to as Europe’s worst quake.

At 5.20 am earthquake estimated between 7.1 and 7.5 struck the Strait of Messina. It was felt as far north as Naples and throughout Sicily. If the quake lasting nearly minute was not destructive enough, seafloor displacement caused tsunami waves, averaging about 39 ft, crashing in to the local coastlines.

The towns of Messina and Reggio Di Calabria were completely decimated along with major damage in all coastal towns in Sicily and southern Calabria. Relief efforts where hindered by damage to roads and rail lines, slowing helps arrival to the affected areas. Being in the winters months also caused its own aggravations. As the main shock occurred in the early hours survivors fled in just their night clothes. As most buildings had been torn down people where forced to take to caves and grottoes to escape the blistering cold and rain. It is believed many simply froze to death.

It took the area several years to recover, with many relocating around Italy or immigrating to USA.

This was not first major incident in the area nor will it be the last. In 1693, 60,000 people were killed in southern Sicily by a similar earthquake, and in 1783 most of the Tyrrenian coast of Calabria was raised by a massive earthquake that killed 50,000. The saving grace is since 1908 engineering techniques have come on tenfold and the region does implement some building codes making sure they can withstand larger shocks.