Miguela Xuereb

While slight changes in volcanoes’ positions are frightening at face value, one must remember the sheer size of the concerned topography before jumping to conclusions about potential dangers of natural movements according to Seismologist Mr Matthew Agius. Moreover, although Malta is at risk of a large wave triggered in the case of Etna’s collapse into the sea, he also emphasised that this is a very rare event.

Following news that Mount Etna Volcano’s western and eastern slopes moved 30cm and 50cm respectively, Neswbook.com.mt contacted Mr Agius from the University of Malta’s Department of Geosciences to better understand the implications of these shifts.

Mr Matthew Agius

Right off the bat, Mr Agius pointed out that what is really significant in the case of the shifts is the fact that science has evolved so much that it has made it possible to monitor volcanoes and their movements in real-time. This in comparison to having to wait years in the past to have data which is less accurate than what we are being presented now in days.

When discussing the current shifts over the Fiandaca fault in Sicily after the devastating magnitude 4.8 earthquake on the 26th December, the seismologist said that this is basically a natural process for volcanoes. “The topography of the volcano itself is larger than Malta, so we’re talking about a few centimetres on a massive scale,” he explained.

“We also have to keep in mind that when the volcano is erupting, the magma itself is moving for hundreds of metres, so there’s a flow from the chamber to the surface.” Mr Agius continued that, once it erupts, it magma will pill over to the side until it cools and then also turns into rock which leads to “these tubes inside the volcano” ending up “dry and empty”.

In many regards, it seems as though a volcano is a living entity, explained Mr Agius, saying that one can liken any active volcano’s movements as though it were breathing. “Sometimes expanding, sometimes shrinking, sometimes you get cavities making their own movement so it’s like the volcano is actually alive with it’s own dynamic processes,” he added.

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Are there any potential risks to Malta?

The seismologist explained that the only risk to Malta would be in the “very rare event” of a large part of the volcano falling into the sea thus creating a tsunami of sorts. “Such a wave would reach Southern Italy, cross the Ionian Sea reaching Greece, and of course it will reach Malta as well,” he explained.

That being said, however, Mr Agius repeated time and time again that despite the inherent possibility of this kind of wave that would have a large impact on the Mediterranean, “the reality of having a tsunami as a result of a collapse of the volcano is a very rare event. Of course saying it’s rare means that it could happen, but it’s very rare.”

Miguela Xuereb

Questions sent by Newsbook.com.mt to the Civil Protection Department regarding the risks of tsunamis or earthquakes hitting Malta due to Etna’s eruption garnered a similar response, “very remote”.

When asked whether tectonic movements will be of any risk to the potential tunnel build between Malta and Gozo, he replied that the area basically too far away to be affected. That being said, the particular depth in the ground which the tunnel is being planned for is more the work of Geologists who study the first 5kms into the Earth’s crust, than a Seismologist who’s main concern is roughly double that depth.

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Is the area around Etna safe in general?

The Mount Etna Volcano is constantly monitored by the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia who always take the necessary precautions if they deem the active volcano a higher risk than the norm. Mr Agius added that one has to always keep in mind that “this volcano is one of the most active in Europe and the world,” and that the current risk levels are practically normal for Catania.

“Catania are very familiar with these activities and these would be considered normal. If it increases,” he added, “the Italian authorities will make their own risk assessment and do their routine and take the necessary precautions.”

As advice to anyone thinking of backpacking up the active volcano, the seismologist insisted that people must be vigilant of warnings and alerts from Italian authorities. This means the regional authorities, or the Etna observatory to get the correct and most up-to-date safety indications.