Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Etna and the Perception of Volcanic Risk *

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Etna and the Perception of Volcanic Risk *

Article excerpt

There is an old and intimate relationship between the land and the people who live and work on the land: product and producer. Territory is considered a cultural product of humans who forge and shape it according to aesthetic, economic, social, and material needs, depending on the culture at that moment. It has always been the mirror of the developmental capacity of a person and the real manifestation of their ambitions. But the inverse is also true: territory can be assumed to be a cultural producer. This should not be interpreted as trivial or simple nor as a nostalgic reference to old geographical theories, such as environmental determinism, where the psychological mindset of individuals is influenced by climate or localization. The interrelationship is more complex, especially when referring to an area that has high risks for the population and that can be changed by human activity only up to a certain point: the territory of Europe's largest active volcano, and one of the world's largest, Mount Etna. At approximately 3340 meters above sea level and spread within a perimeter of approximately 210 kilometers, it is a force of nature in constant activity.

At least one of its four central craters--the last of which is called Bocca Nuova, or New Mouth, formed in 1968--never stops spewing smoke. Over decades and centuries the volcano has changed shape, as can be seen by comparing photos of past decades with those of today. Various villages on its slopes have been struck several times by catastrophic events that marked local history, economy, and culture. Hundreds of eruptions have slowly transformed the landscape, often threatening the local communities. Etna, between the river valleys of Akantara and Simeto, and the Ionian Sea has very populated areas, its slopes dotted with large urban settlements, of located close to one of the 250 adventive craters of the volcano. These lateral craters are now silent and harmless witnesses of previous destructive lava flows that in the past swept away entire villages and towns. The magma fills the entire main duct to the central craters, but the danger is that the walls of the same duct can rupture and the magma can leak out at altitudes much lower than the peak of 3340 meters above sea level (Cucuzza Silvestri 1970; Privitera 2012).

Without doubt one of the most destructive lava eruptions was documented in 1669, when the lava reached the sea and on its way destroyed many towns, including Nicolosi and, in part, Catania (Borah 2001). This disaster is documented in a painting by Giacinto Platania (1612-1691), hanging in the Cathedral of Catania (Figure 1).

On other occasions, magma has reached the sea, covering tens of square kilometers. Much of the Ionian Sea coast is composed of volcanic rocks from prehistoric eruptions. Etna is a huge area full of diverse environments, with plant and animal species endemic to this area. Often it is possible to listen to Etna grumbling and frequently, especially during the last few years, one could admire its explosive events and the related rivers of lava, especially on the eastern side. From January 2011 to April 2012, there were as many as twenty-five paroxysmal episodes.

Any wide-ranging investigation of Etna requires recognition of its economical, environmental, and social potential, not only the impact of the volcano on the surrounding territory, but also important questions regarding the organization of society, tourism, and development. A study of the relationship between people and the volcano is difficult to carry out, because of the multitude of elements to consider. It is therefore necessary to take into account the contributions of many disciplines (Duncan, Chester and Guest 1981). Etna, like all great forces of nature, can be seen in different ways and under different profiles (Cumin 1938; Rittmann 1963; Di Blasi 1967; Cucuzza Silvestri 1970; Pecora 1974). In particular, research must conducted with older people, who preserve and pass on the "rules" for a peaceful coexistence with this volcano. …

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