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Our excursions “to the summit craters” of Etna for two years now have to deal with the angry reactions of the new landlord: the South East Crater, better known by the English acronym SEC. What was once a tiring but fascinating trip, always within safe limits, has now become a rare event. Because it is almost always forbidden to climb over 2900 meters and reach the area of the five great craters of Etna. And this is because only one of them, the “youngest”, dictates the law on everyone!

The South East Crater has always been the “small and spoiled son” of the great Sicilian volcano, as the volcanologists from Catania jokingly said. But it is also the evident and disconcerting manifestation of how Etna is a constantly changing volcano. And especially in the last century this transformation has become unpredictable. Suffice it to say that for millennia the volcano had a single crater. Then in the 20th century an extraordinary “revolution” began.

How the South East Crater was born

Mount Etna has always had a single summit crater, the so-called Central Cone. To this added, in 1911, a new cone called North East due to its position with respect to the central emission point. Between 1945 and 1970, however, the Central crater doubled, hosting two new craters: Voragine (1945) and Bocca Nuova (1968). The 20th century therefore suddenly saw the activity of four craters, with sporadic but decisive eruptions that created spectacle and sometimes some damage.

sud est story (2)
the SEC in 2013 (above) and today

In 1971, unexpectedly, the part at the foot of the Central crater collapsed, forming a hole that emitted gas and lava. After a start of fire, this mysterious “hole” went out for years. It was almost forgotten when, in April 1978, a violent eruption started the activity again. Cracks opened, large quantities of lava were emitted and through the continuous explosions around that valley a crater began to grow. Within twenty years that “little cone” became a real crater. Low, “young”, but lively and very dynamic. From its inception, the SEC proved it wasn’t just passing through … but it was there to make history. And we are living that story today.

Evolution of the South East

Ever since the SEC started its business, it’s as if it has sucked the lifeblood out of the “big brothers”. With the exception of some sporadic eruptions from the Voragine, and some improvised spectacle of the North East, since 1978 it is the South East that summarizes in itself the main volcanic activity of Etna. And despite this, it seems to have not yet found … peace!

In 2007 a further eruptive vent opens on the body of the SEC and in a short time it becomes even higher than the parent cone. It is called the New South East (NSEC) and has dominated the Etna eruption scene for four years. Then everything suddenly falls silent and it seems that Etna has entered a long pause. A pause that instead ends unexpectedly in 2013. The NSEC itself is once again the protagonist with an extraordinary energy that lets us imagine its absolute predominance. But the earth is still restless on this incredible peak. We are only at the beginning!

The South East and its “children”

After so many violent eruptions, the two cones of SEC and NSEC had almost merged together, forming a double hump in appearance unitary. In fact, under the ashes – it must be said so! – was already brewing yet another radical change. A brand new mouth opens in 2014 between the two humps … on the “saddle” of the two craters. It is in fact called Bocca della Sella crater and for five years it itself becomes the protagonist.

From 2018 to today, however, the changes have never stopped. It can be said without fear of making a mistake that the apparatus of the South East Crater reserves a surprise every month! The vents inside (and outside!) are no longer counted. Before the paroxysmal events of 2020-21 there were about 14! Some  have recently opened on the north-eastern flank, others on the south side. During the paroxysm of 9 August morning, part of the structure collapsed and therefore further news is expected in the coming months.

The South East is no longer “Mama Etna’s little son”. Today it is a ferocious, powerful adult, and has taken the ultimate command. Its numerous “children” are nothing more than the expression of a land in motion. Today the SEC is the highest peak of Etna, it has almost certainly surpassed the record (3340 meters asl) held for years by the North East. Below its cone, the volcano’s activity seems to push westward on a delicate platform and affected by a large fracture that in fact “divides” the mountain. The SEC could crumble to pieces at any moment, then. Or it could be the “new Etna”. Certainly a unique show. And admiring its power, even if you cannot climb to the top, is a privilege. (photos by G Musumeci)

Autore: Grazia Musumeci

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