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To see a gas ring is a special event, because it is also very rare, on a volcano. However, Mount Etna is not just any volcano and even in this it manages to upset every rule. And not one, but ten, fifty, a hundred gas rings are thrilling tourists and locals right now, on the hottest days of a very hot July! The gas rings can be admired from any corner of the volcano, but it is always more exciting to see them up close, going on excursions with expert guides who will accompany you as close as possible to the “dragon’s mouth”.

A new mouth in the … New Mouth

On the morning of July 20th, some volcanologists from the Catania institute INGV on an ordinary patrol on the volcano, noticed signs of new activity in the large base of the Bocca Nuova (New Mouth) crater. This crater, the fourth born of the current five on top of Etna, was called “new mouth” precisely because it was formed in recent times (1968). It broke, in fact, that three-way balance between the already existing Central, North East and Voragine craters.

Initially it was a small vent, but over time and the many eruptions it has become a gigantic crater (diameter 500 meters, depth 200) and if it appears flat and vast today it is only because lava and pyroclastic jets have partially “plugged” it over the years. It maintains a few prominent vents, from which it usually emits steam and gas. But since July 20th it has been noticed that the outermost part of the crater, on the south side, has collapsed, opening a new “small” hole. A new mouth in the New Mouth!

lord of rings 2
graphics by INGV Catania

The “Lord of Rings”

If ever this hole will become another large crater tomorrow it will be named after a high-sounding and imaginative name, or a severe and sad numerical reference. But at the moment people already call it “the lord of rings”. Because it is the one that is creating the spectacle of many gas rings in the sky. And this happens because the strong thrust of the gas tends to swirl inside such a small “tube”, being expelled in the midst of this rotation and thus forming a circle.

The technical characteristics of this new “collapse crater”, or “pit crater”, in Bocca Nuova are perfectly described by Dr. Marco Neri on the official INGV website. For us enthusiasts and for tourists, it remains a romantic show to be admired up close … but not too much. In fact, due to the danger of the crater base collapsing, it is not recommended to get too close to the new pit. Even in anticipation of a possible eruption it is good to keep your distance. However, you can go up to the points closest to the summit craters and enjoy the “show” of the rings there. Especially at midday and at sunset it is breathtaking!

Future predictions?

Difficult to make predictions with a “capricious” volcano like Mount Etna. Certainly pit craters often tend to become nice high craters themselves. This happens over time and with numerous eruptions. But in the case of Bocca Nuova, the opening of this new sinkhole could mean that the entire base of pyroclastic debris is about to collapse, thus freeing the large chasm of the crater. And once free, then yes, the Bocca Nuova could produce unique eruptions. But until then and without a certainty there is nothing left to do but enjoy the rings in the sky and photograph as many as possible.

How to approach the “lord of the rings”?

With a local guide, following the trails that he or she points out to you, and stopping where he or she tells you to stop. Even if the view will not be fully satisfactory at first, do not complain and do not despair. Trust your guides, who always know when and where Etna will offer exciting shows. Surely from the Barbagallo Craters and from Schiena dell’Asino there is much opportunity to admire these rings up close. But if the alert levels are raised and the guides decide to stop elsewhere, be understanding and confident. Without ever doing things on the basis of your own decision. (photo above the title by G.Musumeci)

Autore: Grazia Musumeci

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