Etna and Vulcano: A Sicilian Adventure

*N/B: Sorry for the long post – I got a little overexcited!*

The past couple of months have been quiet, with coursework taking up much of my time. This semester I have been studying igneous and volcanic processes and GIS and remote sensing. With my GIS coursework focused on volcanic hazards, I have been studying volcanoes and igneous rocks everyday, so there could be no better way to finish my third year than a volcanology field course in Sicily! I have been excited about this fieldtrip since I started Plymouth uni and it did not disappoint!

With two days of introductory lectures complete, we dragged our bags through the clear evening to the university bus stop. It took several hours to reach Luton airport from Plymouth, and only a few hours on the plane to Sicily. Another hour along a motorway out of Catania and we reached our base for the trip. Arriving in fantastic weather, Italy greeted us with stunning views of Mt Etna. We spent the evening stocking up on food and exploring our hotel – self-catering apartments with a swimming pool and views of Etna and the beautiful town of Taormina!

Day one began with a trip to Aci Trezza and Aci Castello to take our first look at lavas. We had a go at identifying and interpreting columnar jointing, pillow lavas and hyaloclastite deposits. I also made the most of our lunch break to try my first Italian ice cream! The perfect treat as the weather was much hotter than we had anticipated.

Day two, we spent the morning logging volcaniclastic deposits at Praiola. I have somehow managed to avoid logging for nearly 3 years. It’s not my favourite thing to do, but it is a key geological skill, so I gave it my best shot! After lunch, we looked at more ancient lavas, and tried to understand how the structures had formed. This ended in a surprisingly heated debate between two of our lecturers, which continued on the coach back to the hotel and into the evening. There’s no better entertainment than a bit of geological controversy! The end of the field day finished on a bit of a low, with one of our team, Kym, feeling ill. She managed to make it up an insanely steep slope while trying not being sick or pass out. She is one determined lady!

Our first modern lava flows were the topic of day 3. Sadly, after her bold effort on day 2, Kym, missed day three due to heat related illness. A reminder to us all to look after ourselves in the field! We explored the 1991-93 lava flow close to the town of Zafferana. We learnt to identify different types of lava flows (a’a’ and Pāhoehoe) their associated structures. We finished the day by climbing to a view point to see the Valle de Bove from the bottom. It also gave us the chance to see the point we would be climbing to later during the trip! We finished the day with an ice cream in Zafferana and a shopping trip – perfect opportunities to put the little Italian I’d learnt before the trip into practice!

We had an early start on day 4, but I didn’t mind! It was Vulcano time! The part of the trip I was most looking forward to! We took the ferry from Capo Milazzo to Vulcano. The crossing was a little bumpy, but Tim, Alice and I spent the entire trip on the top deck, leaning over the sides into the wind to catch beautiful glimpses of the Aeolian Islands. We arrived into the harbour to see fumaroles on the flanks of the La Fossa cone and small streams of CO2 bubbles rising through the seawater. This place was stunning! The water sparkled in the Italian sunshine and the harbour bustled with tourists, with volcano providing the backdrop to the scene. We headed through the town, to the footpath that lead to the crater. Large warning signs alerted us to the dangers of fumaroles. Our climb to the crater was broken up with some logging. I couldn’t complain. Logging ash fall, lahars and PDCs (volcanic mudflows and pyroclastic flows – for you non-geologists!) is 100% more enjoyable than sedimentary stuff! I also got my first look at Vulcano’s breadcrust bombs – the topic of my MGeol project.

We had lunch in a field of lava bombs, and Paul (my MGeol project supervisor) and I began identifying potential samples! We disused the plan for the project while climbing the last part of the path. It was difficult to concentrate on the conversation with my friends waving at me crazily from 50m away. ‘Look at this!’ Kym shouted at me. They were stood at the edge of La Fossa’s crater, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen (no judging! I’m a crazy rock lover, remember!)! My head pretty much imploded! We spent the afternoon walking around the crater. Paul and I found more lava bombs – after seeing them in the field, I cannot wait to start my project next year! We also got to walk through fumaroles! They were hot and smelly, but Tim and I still had fun walking through them. Paul told us to stick our hands into the vents to feel the heat. Crazy I know, but if a volcanologist tells you to try it….! I never wanted to walk down from the cone! Once we checked in at our hotel, I headed for the bar! A beer finished off a fantastic day perfectly!

The second say on Vulcano was spent exploring the volcanic history if the island and logging some older deposits. I was starting to enjoy logging! We finished the day with a trachyte lava flow (Tim and I were very pleased that we managed to ID it before we were given the answer, even if I had read it in a paper beforehand!) We also had a look at one of the monitoring stations. We enjoyed some free time around the harbour before starting the journey back to Giardini Naxos. We had a lunch of spaghetti and pasta and had a paddle in the sea! We also had a look at the sulphur mines and mud pools, which people still bathe in for the health benefits! Leaving Vulcano was sad. I made a vow to return the second the boat left the harbour! I think this is going to be one of those places that stick with you forever! A couple of dolphins swam alongside the boat on the way back – there could not have been a more magical end to a beautiful couple of days!

There was little time to feel sad about leaving Vulcano. We had a late start on day 6, before heading back to Catania to visit INGV’s Osservatorio Etneo. This place blew my mind! Boris Behncke gave us an enthusiastic talk on the history of Etna and the role of INGV. We also had a look at some of the displays at the institute. I got separated from the ‘team’, so ended up in the last group to visit the operations room. The control room was a mass of volcano related information, relayed from monitoring equipment on Mt Etna and the Aeolian Islands. Just wow! The rest of the day was hot and sticky, and after struggling to log a section of volcaniclastic deposits in a dirty valley, containing an area the lecturers were referring to as ‘dead dog corner’, I almost lost it! It was time for a large bottle of water and an early night!


Day 7 we began our gradual increase in altitude, which would hopefully end with a visit to the summit on the last day! We walked the Monte Nero circuit, looking at the 2001/2 lava flows and fissures. We also had a look at a few older features. Part of the walk involved snowy slopes; a dramatic contrast to the hot, humid conditions from the previous day! We also got to see more tephra. The lapilli, blocks and bombs were defiantly one of my favourite volcanic features we saw on the trip! The day ended with a hike up one of the cinder cones and a fantastic view of Etna’s New South East cone.

Switching from volcanoes to tectonics (although the two are very closely related!), we headed to a stretch of road in the middle of nowhere to begin day 8! Here we saw displacement in road markings, walls and houses caused by the Pernicana Fault. You have never seen excitement like a group of geology student being asked if we’d like to have a look inside an abandoned house with a fault line running straight though it! The house was slightly creepy, but fun to explore (yes, we adhered to the risk assessment!). Our trip leader offered to swap looking at turbidites (horrible sedimentary structures!) for an ice-cream stop – a clear yes from a bus full of mostly igneous/volcanology nerds! We finished the afternoon in the Alcantara Gorge, where I chickened out of getting the lift to the valley floor and had to be shown to the steps by a guide – awkward, but Tim and another girl who was claustrophobic joined me. We had a more beautiful view of the gorge walking down the stairs anyway!

Day 9 and we were spent the morning hiking to the southern rim of the Valle de Bove. We were joined on the path by trails of caterpillars – weird! Despite both struggling with heat and altitude, Alice and Kym both impressed us by making it the top! The views were amazing! We had a go at sketching the valley, using dykes, layering and lava flows to deduce some of the history of Etna. After lunch, we headed into the lava tubes to investigate some internal features of lava flows. I was a little nervous to climb into the tube, but once inside the lava structures were too fascinating to allow much time for worrying! In the evening, Tim and I ventured up to the historic town of Taormina on the bus (more Italian practice!). We found (more!) stunning views of Etna and found a lovely place in the town square for pizza, pasta and a glass of wine!

The last day of the fieldtrip brought a clear morning of blue sky, which meant only one thing – Mt Etna summit! We left early in the morning to reach Nicolosi Nord, where we jumped into a cable car to reach around 2450m. A slow hike up to some of the most recent lava flows seemed to require twice as much energy than other slopes, I really did not expect altitude to make such a difference. Arriving at our highest point ~2700m felt like we were on top of the world. Despite finding many of the climbs difficult, Kym also made it! That woman is a legend and a constant inspiration! The New South East crater stood just above us, steaming away. Breath-taking views of the Valle del Bove and the south of Sicily stretched out in front of us. We ate lunch watching the crater steam away, and made ‘lapilli angels’ in the recent deposits covering ground. There could have been not better way to finish this fieldtrip. All too soon it was time to descend the volcano, sliding down the loose slopes to the car park. A quick trip to shops for the obligatory Mt Etna t-shirt and it was time to leave!

The final evening was one of celebration. There was no other way to finish the trip! Our plane home was delayed on the tarmac. A test for my flying related anxiety, but I held it together! A few hours later and we were arriving back into Plymouth.

With the fieldwork follow-up coursework complete, I only have two exams left before I finish my third year! I can’t wait to start my MGeol year in a few months!

Meanwhile, I have more work to do! Once exams are done, it’s time to crack on with Geomission Uganda, as in an unexpected turn of events, I am heading back out to Uganda in July! More information to follow soon…

If you made it to the end – thanks! It’s a long one…. So probably now time for a coffee!


Thanks to Plymouth Uni Earth Science department for an awesome trip and to Kym, Tim (for a few photos!), Sean and Alice for their awesome company!

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