Mount Etna, Sicily's Gentle Giant That Nourishes Olive Trees

Despite a recent eruptive episode, Mount Etna's effusive activity was never a threat for people living on its slopes and contributed over the ages to the development of olive tree cultivation.

Apr. 13, 2017
By Ylenia Granitto

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Mount Etna, Europe’s high­est and most active vol­cano, recently put on a show with an erup­tive episode which took place in the area between the Southeast Crater (SEC) and the New Southeast Crater (NSEC), as reported by the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology — Osservatorio Etneo (INGV-OE).

The vol­canic soil gives great vigor to olive trees, from whose fruits we obtain a high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive with notes of tomato, arti­choke, almond and herbs.- Giusi Russo, Oleificio Russo

On March 16, one day after the start of the erup­tive activ­ity, a group of peo­ple includ­ing tourists, vol­ca­nol­o­gists and a BBC crew, were caught off guard by a phreatic-mag­matic explo­sion, due to con­tact of lava with snow. Fortunately, they suf­fered only minor injuries and a big fright.

Violent explo­sion at the con­tact between flow­ing lava and thick snow on Etna about one hour ago. A few peo­ple injured, I received a bruise on my head but am gen­er­ally fine and hav­ing a good, well-deserved beer at this moment!” a researcher at INGV-OE, Boris Behncke, posted on his Facebook page.

With rare excep­tions, the effu­sive activ­ity of Etna, char­ac­ter­ized mostly by the emis­sion of lava flows, does not rep­re­sent a threat to the lives of the roughly 900,000 peo­ple liv­ing on its slopes, the INGV-OE noted.

The vol­cano has mean­while cre­ated favor­able con­di­tions for agri­cul­tural activ­i­ties: the cul­ti­var Nocellara Etnea thrives at the foot of the vol­cano.

Over the cen­turies, the pres­ence of Mount Etna has influ­enced lives and the envi­ron­ment,” said Giusi Russo, who man­ages the Oleificio Russo with her hus­band, Alessandro Roccella. Lava and lapilli degraded into a black, dusty and fer­tile soil, due to high min­eral con­tent,” she explained.

Lava and other pyro­clas­tic prod­ucts such as lapilli, ashes and slags enrich the ground where the olive trees’ roots are embed­ded. According to the Geological Map of Italy, abun­dant min­er­als such as pla­gio­clase, augite and olivine, which are rich in sil­ica, sodium, cal­cium, alu­minum, iron and mag­ne­sium, encour­age the rich devel­op­ment of plants.

In this con­text, the Nocellara Etnea con­sti­tutes 95 – 96 per­cent of the olive trees grown along the slopes of Mount Etna,” Roccella pointed out. The vol­canic soil gives great vigor to olive trees, from whose fruits we obtain a high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive with notes of tomato, arti­choke, almond and herbs.”

Their 900 olive trees are located at 600 meters above sea level, in the town of Belpasso, which was destroyed by an erup­tive event in 1669. In the same area, their mill has been con­structed on the ancient lava flow.

In our mill, we also crush olives from other man­u­fac­tur­ers of the area,” said Roccella. Our work is arti­sanal and har­vest­ing is car­ried out by hand, since the ter­rain is often rough and spaces are lim­ited; despite the ter­ri­tory rugged­ness, olives are crushed in a few hours from har­vest to guar­an­tee the qual­ity of prod­uct.”

Olive trees grow here on small ter­races retained by sin­gu­lar and enchant­ing rub­ble walls made of black lava stones. Over mil­len­nia, the peo­ple of Mount Etna have built these fas­ci­nat­ing struc­tures to make work and life eas­ier at the foot of the gen­tle giant.


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