Residents and tourists in Sicily last week got to witness something pretty amazing. Mount Etna, an active volcano near the city of Catania, Italy, erupted over several days, blessing onlookers with Instagram-worthy views of spewing lava, ash plumes, and even volcanic lightning.

Time lapse of Mount Etna exploding and causing volcanic lightning at night on December 3, 2015.

Mount Etna erupts regularly — 14 times in the last 20 years. But this most recent eruption was more awesome than anything the region has seen in decades.

“The lava ejected a kilometer above the crater,” Sally Sennert of the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program tells Inverse. “It was pretty spectacular. More typical is like 200 or 300 meters. So it was pretty big. The ash plume also went very, very high for Etna. It was just really spectacular. And fortunately for all the people living there, the weather was clear, so everyone got fantastic pictures. Which doesn’t always happen — sometimes there are spectacular eruptions that no one ever sees.”

A million people live within 20 miles of Etna, but it’s relatively safe. The lava doesn’t typically flow into populated areas, says Sennert. The major impacts to nearby residents are in the form of poor air quality when ash rains down, and flight delays.

Because the volcano erupts so often and is so accessible, it’s of particular interest to both scientists and amateur volcano lovers. It is incredibly well studied, and has a documented eruption history going back 3,500 years.

These days Etna is hooked up with all the fancy gadgets that modern science can buy, so a lot of data is collected on it. “And so a lot of ways to characterize eruption precursors — what kind of earthquakes are happening before an eruption happens,” says Sennert.

That’s giving scientists a better sense of what happens inside a volcano before the lava hits the ceiling. “We try to not use the word ‘predict,’ because volcanoes are not predictable,” she says. “You can forecast, just like the weather. You can get an idea of what may happen.”

Just like the weather, it’s impossible to say when Etna will light up the skies next. It could be tomorrow; it could be years from now. A wise volcano aficionado would put the private jet on standby, just in case.


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