Ask Dr. Boris Behncke your Etna & Italian volcanoes questions!

The first Q&A with Dr. Jonathan Castro was such a success, I'm going to try to make this a regular feature. On that note, Eruptions reader Dr. Boris Behncke has volunteered to be the second geologist to take the plunge. Here is a little about Boris and his work:

I've studied geology first in Bochum, Germany, then finished my Master's in Kiel, Germany (in 1996), before hopping south to Catania, where I did my Ph.D. in 2001. I live in Sicily since early 1997, but first visited the Italian volcanoes in 1989, and happen to be at Etna when it produced a spectacular eruption just on schedule. Since that first visit, I was hooked on Italian volcanoes, and visited at least once every year - Stromboli was my favorite for a few years, but Etna took over when it reactivated in 1995 and remained continuously active for the following 6 years. Over the years I saw a number of very varied eruptive phenomena at Etna and always wondered "how (or why) does this happen"; the most intriguing thing was the series of 66 (sixty-six) lava fountaining episodes in the year 2000 (clearly Etna greeting the new millennium), which is something never ever seen anywhere on this planet until then.

I created a web site about Italy's volcanoes in 1995, when the Internet was still something quite exotic. That web site grew mainly into an Etna information source, but I dropped it when I was given a job at the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Catania; I am now in charge of the volcanological section of the institute's web site (a new version of which will go on-line within, say, the next two weeks). My prime interest at Etna and the other Sicilian volcanoes is monitoring the eruptive activity and its products, understanding the physical processes below and within the volcanoes that lead to eruptions (which requires a lot of collaboration with our experts in volcano seismology and deformation and other geophysical disciplines); finally I believe that public outreach is the most fundamental part of the job, because there are hundreds of thousands living in areas at risk from eruptions at these volcanoes, especially at Vesuvius, Etna, and Vulcano (Aeolian Islands). So I am participating in studies of hazards, especially from lava flows at Etna, but recently we've also discovered that Etna, contrary to common belief, is a busy producer of pyroclastic density currents. I have had the "privilege" of seeing Etna's pyroclastic flows close-up twice in the past 10 years, which I basically find two times too much, but I'm alive and so a part of me appreciates the experience.

If you have a question for Dr. Behncke on his research, volcanoes in Italy or whatever you might think is interesting for him to answer, please send them to me at


. I'll field question for the next week or so and then send selected questions off to Dr. Behncke. Send me those questions!

More like this

Dr B
I have heard of several calderas in Italy, E. Fields naturally and more older inactive ones N of Rome. It seems to me the trend is oldest to the N and youngest farther SE. Is Italy "growing" towards Egypt?
Do Italian volcanoes always tend to eventually cycle themselves into caldera? Or are there old stratocones scattered into the mix?

Perry: That's a pretty interesting article. It implies that there is an UNDOCUMENTED eruption of at least VEI 6 (Pinatubo was VEI 6 and the mystery event is claimed as bigger) from about 1808/9
How come? By the 19th century there were trade routes and colonisation over a large part of the world. If it had happened in Sumatra, Java, the Sunda Islands (courtesy of the spice trade), the Philippines, or anywhere in the Western Hemisphere's tropical zone, we would surely know about it. A VEI6 is a very obvious event. People would talk.

Only candidates would seem to be the northern part of the East African Rift, or more likely, somewhere in the SW Pacific -Melanesia or the Marianas perhaps. Possibly a shallow-depth submarine vent? If the erupted material produced a temporary island and/or pumice rafts all physical evidence above sea level would have disappeared within a year or two. It sounds implausible even as I type it, but I can't think of any other option

BTW the GVP 'find eruption by date' doesn't offer any likely culprits for those years

Perry: 'varied in quality' is something of a discreet understatement. But the idea of several smaller eruptions closely spaced in time rather than one major event is intriguing, and not apparently ruled out completely. Unspectacular eruptions can -occasionally- produce surprisingly large SO2 plumes, but there wouldn't be any physical evidence left, and since taking a COSPEC back in a time machine is sadly impossible, it would be difficult to prove anything