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Etna Hoops Wow

By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

17th Feb 2000

Volcanoligists have witnessed dramatic rings of steam and gas being blown out of volcanic vents on the side of mighty Mount Etna in Sicily. Etna is the tallest and most active volcano in Europe, situated where the European and African geological plates are colliding.

Rings have never been seen in such detail before

Dr Jug Alean and Dr Marco Fulle have been investigating Etna's growing level of activity and in February they saw the ejection of several spectacular hoops from the Bocca Nuova region of the mountain.

"This wonderful specimen gently drifted overhead and past the Sun which was tinted orange by aerosols in the smoke," Dr Alean told BBC News Online.

It is difficult to gauge the size of what the scientists are calling "steam rings". They drift across the blue sky with no points of reference. However, the volcanoligists estimate the hoops to be about 200m across and up to 1000m above the ground.

Stable shape

Smoke rings have been seen at volcanoes before but never in such detail. This time, there was hardly any ash on Etna and the gas billowing from vents had a high steam content. It is for this reason that Drs Alean and Fulle are using the term "steam rings".

Looking like the hoops produced by smokers, the hoops can hang in the air for many minutes. Etna's rings have been seen to last as long as 10 minutes.

How they are formed is a mystery that these pictures may help solve. Dr Jurg Alean speculates: "They could be formed by rapid gas pulses emitted by narrow vents into the atmosphere. The physics seems somewhat complicated and I am trying to establish if there are sound scientific theories about them."

Drs Alean and Fulle keep a close eye on Etna, running a private seismic monitoring station as well as maintaining a photographic record of changes on the mountain. Their website, stromboli.net, contains some of the most dramatic volcano pictures ever taken.

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