Mount Etna Eruption

Mount Etna eruption in winter 2015

3 December 2015 02:00 UTC–05 December 04:00 UTC

Mount Etna Eruption
Mount Etna Eruption

On 3 December 2015, for the first time in two years Mount Etna, erupted.

Last Updated

24 August 2021

Published on

03 December 2015

By Ivan Smiljanic (DHMZ ), Martin Setvak (CHMI ), Fred Prata (NILU ) and Jochen Kerkmann (EUMETSAT)

Following an earlier 'pre-eruption' emission, at around 02:00 UTC Mount Etna, an active stratovolcano on the east coast of Sicily, Italy, erupted. It was a short, but spectacular paroxysm, which could be clearly seen in satellite imagery.

In particular, the eruption and the resulting plume can be tracked using Meteosat's Airmass and Dust RGB imagery.

 Met-10, 03 December 2015, 08:15 UTC
Figure 1: Met-10, 03 December 2015, 08:15 UTC
Dust with RGB Colour Interpretation Tool overlaid
Dust RGB animation 3 Dec 02:00–09:00 UTC
 Met-10, 03 December 2015, 08:15 UTC
Figure 2: Met-10, 03 December 2015, 08:15 UTC
Airmass RGB with RGB Colour Interpretation Tool overlaid
Airmass RGB animation 3 Dec 02:00–09:00 UTC

The Dust RGB loop starts at 02:00 UTC. In this RGB combination the SO2 plume, that the volcano has pumped all the way to the tropopause, appears in green shades. The origin of this colour can be easily depicted by the 'RGB Colour Interpretation Tool ', developed by the EUMeTrain project (Figure 1). The 'X' sign on this figure shows the sampling position of this tool.

The main contribution here comes naturally from the green beam which reveals relatively big differences between signals from SEVIRI channels IR10.8 and IR8.7, while the the other two contributions are rather small.

The Airmass RGB loop also starts at the 02:00 UTC and in the beginning of the eruption gives the strong white signal over the wider volcano area.

Normally with this RGB combination, high-reaching thick clouds appear in white shades, but only very high clouds give such a bright signal. In later moments, when the clouds gets thinner and made of only SO2, the colour changes to specific 'peach'

 Suomi-NPP VIIRS Volcanic Ash, 3 December 01:21 UTC
Figure 3: Suomi-NPP VIIRS Volcanic Ash, 3 December 01:21 UTC

The initial phase of the main eruption was not captured by polar orbiting satellite instruments due to a mismatch between the timing of the satellite passes and the onset of the eruption.

However, there was a Suomi-NPP overpass at 1:21 UTC that captured the precursor-initial (low level) plume, see the yellow-green plume on the VIIRS Ash RGB image (Figure 3).

This low level, initial plume can also be seen on the Meteoesat-9 rapid scan loops of the 24-hour Microphysics RGB , 3 December 00:00–12:50 UTC and the zoomed-in 24-hour Microphysics loop , 3 December 00:00–13:20 UTC.

The SEVIRI data suggests that in the early phase of the eruption the ice cloud masked the SO2 signature, either because the radiative effects of the ice particles prohibited to see the SO2 or because much of the SO2 gas was absorbed onto the ice particles, only to sublimate at a later stage as the ice evaporated.

The change of the character of the volcanic cloud, from ice cloud (masking the SO2) in the initial phase to a more pure SO2 cloud at a later stage (from 04:00 UTC onwards), can be seen by the change in the colour of the cloud.

In the Dust RGB imagery (Figure 1 animation), initially the volcanic cloud appears with a red colour (indicating a thick ice cloud) with dark blue borders (indicating a thin ice cloud). Later, at about 06:00 UTC on 3 December, the volcanic cloud appears like a mixed cloud: thin ice (black) and SO2 (green) mixed. After about 09:00 UTC the entire cloud becomes green (SO2), and the cloud is split into a northern branch (high level, around 10 km height) and a southern branch, travelling at a lower level (about 6.5 km).

Later analysis revealed there were least two clouds at different levels, drifting into two slightly different directions. By 4 December the leading edge of the higher plume was over Iraq.

Image comparison

Met-10 Ash RGB, 4 December 09:00 UTC compare1

Figure 4: Comparison of Met-10 RGB composite images, showing the SO2 cloud.

According to the forward trajectories from the Met Office this cloud was travelling at a height of around 10km. The other (main) part of the plume had reached Crete and was estimated to be travelling at a height of 6.5km.

 Terra MODIS True Color RGB, 4 December 09:45 UTC. Source: Andy Prata, Monash University
Figure 5: Terra MODIS True Color RGB, 4 December 09:45 UTC. Source: Andy Prata, Monash University

On 4 December, Terra MODIS perfectly captured a second major paroxysm of Etna (see Figure 5). Some local airports are plotted on the image.

A guess from the plume shadow of this MODIS image gives 12–1km as height of the volcanic cloud.

Later on the same day, between 20:00 and 24:00 UTC, Meteosat-10 observed yet another eruption of Mt Etna that sent a volcanic cloud to the upper troposphere (see animated GIF, source: Dan Lindsey, CIRA).

Over the next few days ever weakening volcanic ash signals could be detected over the Pacific towards Japan, over Canada and parts of North America, including Wisconsin. Further detailed analysis can be found in the presentation 'Comparison of observations of SO2 from the eruption of Mount Etna on 3 December 2015 with a model simulation ' (ZIP) by Dov Bensimon and Philippe Barnéoud, from the Montréal VAAC.

Image comparison

Himawari-8 AHI Airmass RGB, 5 December 04:00 UTC compare1

Figure 6: Comparison of Himawari-8 AHI RGB composite images, with the volcanic plume showing on the Airmass RGB.

Mount Etna Eruption
Figure 7: Summary plot of AIRS SO2 detections for 3-10 December 2015. Source: Fred Prata

Figure 7 is the summary plot of AIRS SO2 detections for 3–10 December 2015. About 280 AIRS granules have been processed and the data has been smoothed a little. Note that the narrow AIRS swath and the Aqua polar orbit conspire to give an incomplete picture of the ‘true’ spread of the SO2 plume, but you do get a good idea.

Related content

Volcanic Cloud Monitoring (NOAA/CIMSS)
History of Mount Etna eruptions (Volcano Live)
Toulouse VAAC