Italy's Mount Etna lights up night skies

FILE PHOTO: Large streams of red hot lava shoot into the night sky as Mount Etna, Europe's most active volcano, continues to erupt, as seen from the village of Fornazzo, Italy February 22, 2021. Picture taken February 22, 2021. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello/File Photo

ROME (Reuters) - Europe's tallest active volcano, Italy's Mount Etna, has been lighting up the night sky with explosions, lava fountains and ash plumes, dazzling onlookers and viewers on social media.

"We are observing stronger than ordinary activity, with more magma rising from the pipes and richer in gas," Stefano Branca, head of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) in Catania, at the foot of the volcano, told Reuters.

Lava descending along the western flank of the 3,300-metre-high mountain has been visible from much of the eastern coast of Sicily, with Twitter, Instagram and Facebook flooded with photographs and videos.

From Siracusa in southern Sicily and the Eolian islands off the northern coast, images showed massive ash columns and red fountains of fire hitting Etna's snow-covered slopes.

The southeastern crater is at the epicentre of the activity that started on Feb. 16 and has lit up the volcano six times in the past eight days. Ash and rock fragments have covered roads and buildings in nearby towns.

Late on Wednesday the lava fountain reached a height of around 400 metres, the INGV said. It described the activity as "Strombolian" referring to the small but highly active Stromboli volcano off Sicily, known for its frequent magma explosions.

Branca said overall Etna's activity was similar to the more than 200 eruptions seen since 1998 and there was no risk for the people and cities around the mountain.

"Every episode lasts around one hour," Branca said.

The lava is heading towards the Valle del Bove, a desert-like valley covered in black lava stone where many previous flows have ended their journey.

(Editing by Gavin Jones and Janet Lawrence)

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