The 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius is arguably the most famous, and certainly the most notorious, volcanic eruption in history. In the light of both its death toll of between 3-16,000 and its dramatic unfolding, such a reputation is probably deserved.
But Vesuvius is not the only volcano in Italy, nor is it the most active. That distinction belongs to Sicily’s currently erupting (March 2014) Mount Etna, whose largest eruption came in 1669 and, though less spectacularly apocalyptic than that of its mainland neighbour, may have killed more people – up to 20,000.
Mount Etna: Italy’s Most Active Volcano
With its summit rising to 3,330 metres above seal level, Mount Etna dominates the skyline to the north of the Sicilian city of Catania. The Global Volcanism Program (GVP) website (run by the Smithsonian Institution and National Museum of Natural History) describes it as having “one of the world’s longest documented records of historical volcanism, dating back to 1500 BC.”
An investigation of the GVP database validates this: it lists 194 confirmed eruptions since 6,000 BC; 73 of them in the last century. Several more are ‘unconfirmed’ and in all probability very many more have gone unidentified, especially in the more distant past.
Volcanic activity is associated (though not exclusively) with subduction zones, where the earth’s tectonic plates meet and the stresses force one below the other. At high temperatures and pressures, the rocks melt and, being hot and buoyant, rise to the surface where they form volcanoes. Etna is the result of the collision between Africa and Europe, and is one of ten Italian volcanoes active in the last 10,000 years.
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The 1669 Eruption
Etna, then, is no sleeping giant; though its gentle, long-lasting and effusive eruptive style – termed strombolian – is very different from the dramatic outbursts which characterise Vesuvius. And the eruption of 1669 was not large; it had a volcanic exclusivity index (VEI), or a measure of the size of the eruption, of just 3.
Although experts describe this as severe, it’s by no means the worst that a volcano can produce and eruptions of this scale occur worldwide on an annual basis, often without comment in the media. For comparison, both Mount St Helen’s in 1981 and Vesuvius in 79 AD have a rating of 5.
So, what happened in 1669? The description on History’s ‘On this day in history’ website outlines a scenario where an initial burst of volcanic gases asphyxiated 3000. While it observes that “the residents nearby ignored the warning signs of a larger eruption,” it is likely, in reality, that the ongoing rumblings of this active volcano, which had previously erupted four times in the last half century, didn’t offer any clues to the local population that this eruption would be larger than normal.
Accounts of their response suggest that there may have been no need for haste. Rather than fleeing, the residents of nearby Catania assessed the situation and realised that the lava flows from the flanks of the volcano proved a potential threat to their villages. They attempted to divert the lava flows; though by so doing they aroused the ire of their neighbours in Paterno, who felt that they, in their turn, would be threatened by the lava should the Catanians succeed in diverting it.
The diversion didn’t succeed and Catania and several surrounding villages fell victim to the extensive lava flows. Its worth noting, however, that the resourcefulness of the Catanians found an echo over three centuries later when the authorities succeeded in diverting the lava flow which resulted from an eruption in 1983.
The 1669 Death Toll
What makes eruptions newsworthy is the human stories associated with them. Vesuvius killed an estimated 16,000; the death toll from Etna in 1669 remains frustratingly unclear. ‘On This Day in History’ places the figure at 16,000 but the United States Geological Survey doesn’t include the eruption in its list of destructive volcanic events or, indeed, its list of significant eruptions.
The behaviour of local residents suggests that they saw no reason to flee until they felt they couldn’t defend their homes. Even then the characteristic behaviour of the volcano suggests that they would have had plenty of time to leave.
Etna’s 1669 Eruption: Human/Volcano Relationships
The death toll – if there was one – remains frustratingly unclear. But what the 1669 eruption shows is that the relationship between humans and volcanoes is not always one way. The force of nature is such that, in the end, we cannot overcome it. We humans still have attempted, and continue to attempt, to live with these destructive giants on their doorsteps.
Janet Cameron says
What an appalling ethical dilemma this brings about – confront the threat yourself or divert so it potentially threatens your neighbours. I wonder what most ethics philosophers would decide if forced to decide between the two. It’s almost Sophie’s Choice on a larger scale, (if not quite so personal, as Sophie had to choose between her children, whereas those involved in the diversion of lava are choosing between their families and other people’s.) Even so, an equally terrible choice.
Darla Sue Dollman says
Interesting observations on human nature. Before visiting Costa Rica for a wedding I checked a forum about the dangers from the volcanoes. Many people left sarcastic remarks about farmers and ranchers who choose to live close to the volcanoes, but that is, of course, where the best land would be for that type of work and if they had their entire lives invested in their farms and ranches I could understand why they might try to evacuate as much as possible rather than fleeing at the first sign of an eruption.
Boris Behncke says
It is haunting how stubbornly this legend of so many deaths caused by a totally non-explosive eruption of Etna is still surviving in the media and on the Internet. Just to understand how impossible such a disaster is – the lava flow started on 11 March 1669 at a distance of 15 km from the city of Catania, and finally the lava flow reached the city walls of Catania on 15 April. Can one imagine so many people waiting five weeks to get finally killed, by a rather slow-moving lava flow that would have taken days to overwhelm Catania and all the people there? It would have taken a tremendous amount of patience (and idiocy) to get killed that way! Furthermore it is well known (firstly from original eyewitness accounts, some of which are in English, secondly from modern geological studies of that eruption) that Catania was not destroyed by the lava except for a very small portion of the western part of the city. Already in 2002 I posted a detailed analysis of all known or alleged fatalities of Etna’s eruptions on a public website, which you can read here: