What happened on Mt Etna in 1971 was not “just an eruption“. It was part of hell that seemed to have fallen on the volcano. At the same time, it was a great show of nature. There were no safety laws, back then, so many people had the chance to get close to the lava and take photos over there. Someone also picked parts of the lava in order to make souvenirs! This was one of the longest eruptions of Etna – it lasted 2 months. The lava got seriously close to the towns.

A large eruption in two steps

On April 5th, 1971, at the end of a few seismic events, the top of Mt Etna broke in different parts, at 3050 metres height. Many vents and hornitos opened as fractures emitting large lava streams. One of them touched Mount Frumento Supino, others covered the place once called Pian del Lago.

Around April 15th, more fractures opened new vents, and more lava streams came out. The Observatory, the Torre del Filosofo site were destroyed, then the lava went down to Sapienza refuge but stopped before getting there. It seemed to be over on May 7th, but a few hours later, hell started all over again! More eruptive vents opened at lower altitude (from 2900 to 2600 metres height), this time on the north-eastern flank. Step 2 had just started, and it would be very worrying.

The eruption of 1971 towards Fornazzo

eruption 1971 2
photo by LE GUERN from the book Etna (1977)

Vents and fractures suddenly opened at Serra delle Concazze (north-western side of the Valle del Bove) and  further down, to the east, near the Citelli refuge. They were now close to the inhabited centers and the four branches of very fluid lava that came out from there were grouped further downstream. The resulting lava flow had a 11-metre wide front. As if that were not enough, yet another vent opened 100 meters below and erupted more lava.

The rivers of fire reached the road to Fornazzo, covered part of a small country chapel, and continued towards the town of Sant’Alfio. Fortunately, however, the conformation of the land pushed the lava towards a gully located between Fornazzo and Sant’Alfio. The towns were spared, but fields, woods and vineyards would go up in smoke. The eruptive energy ended at around June 10th, and it all stopped on the 12th, without causing destruction to the towns. The lava had covered a 7 and a half kilometers distance.

The South East Crater

While everyone focused on the lava flows and the course of the eruption that pointed towards the valley, a phenomenon occurred at the top of Etna that was noticed a few weeks later. The ground at the base of the Central Crater collapsed forming a chasm.The crack that it created, emitted lava fountains  that would soon form a small cone. Only a few years later that “small cone” would become the gigantic South East Crater, now surpassed by its later appendix New South East Crater.

People and lava

The eruption of 1971 was one of the most lived and told ever. The slowness with which the lava descended towards the streets and villages allowed crowds of people – local inhabitants and tourists – to approach the lava front. With only a few policemen to keep order, many took souvenir photos in front of the lava river, admired the terrible show of nature and the work of the artisans.

Some sculptors, in fact, took the molten rock with long metal sticks and worked the lava on the spot, protected by fireproof suits, before the admiring eyes of hundreds of onlookers. Those brave artists thus produced “live” wonderful ashtrays and objects -in authentic lava- that delighted tourists. (the photo in the article is taken from the book ETNA – by Orazio and Antonio Nicoloso, Haroun Tazieff, editor Plurigraf 1977; the top photo is by G.Musumeci)


Autore: Grazia Musumeci


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