Mount Etna in Sicily, Europe’s biggest active volcano, is slipping eastwards into the sea, and scientists fear that it could trigger a catastrophic tsunami.
Scientists are concerned the slow movements that have been measured on Mount Etna’s southeastern flank could escalate and result in part of it collapsing into the water.
Such an event would put Sicily and the Ionian Sea at risk as debris enters the surrounding ocean, possibly causing devastating waves.
However, researchers monitoring the site say all they can do for now is “keep an eye” on the active volcano as there is no way of telling whether this acceleration will come within years or centuries.
Past work has only focused on Etna’s above-ground component, but gathering the new underwater measurements confirmed the movement is due to gravity acting on its growing, and unstable, flank.
“You can think of a slow landslide at the moment – we had 4cm in 15 months, so it moves really slowly, but there is a danger that it could accelerate and form a landslide that moves really fast into the sea,” Dr Morelia Urlaub from Geomar Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research told British daily the Independent.
“We have been monitoring Etna on shore for around 30 years now, but 30 years is nothing compared to the age of Etna, which is 500,000 years old,” she said.
“It could happen in 10 or 100 or 100,000 years – we can’t tell.”
With this in mind, she said for now it is very important to keep monitoring the volcano and try to get an idea of what level of movement could indicate an imminent collapse.