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Articles Blog

Lipari Island, Italy

Karyn Planett

Vulcanology 101

Get ready. You’re about to learn lots about volcanoes. Why? For many volcanophiles this is the center of the universe. You’ll soon clamber ashore in Lipari, that famous volcanic Aeolian Island sitting squarely upon the archipelagic arc between Mt. Etna and Mt. Vesuvius, two other notables on most travel itineraries of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

The Aeolian Archipelago boasts seven islands in total with Lipari its largest. The name is derived from the “Greek god of winds” Aeolus but, if you’re in luck, this lad will be resting today. These islands are all volcanic in origin and formed over a period of 260,000 years, which helps account not only for their dramatic landscapes but also for some unique opportunities for exploration.

Volcanoes We’ve Known And Loved

If your study of vulcanology (also spelled volcanology) began in earnest on Mt. Etna, you’ve already learned about the area’s geologic history. You know, therefore, that Etna is a stratovolcano, the most dangerous kind made of layer upon layer of volcanic debris that erupts like a toddler who’s taken a pratfall. First, a huge gulp of air, then... hold it, hold it, hold it... until the pressure builds up and finally lets fly with explosive force. Etna is the largest active volcano in Europe and is in a state of almost constant eruption.

Vesuvius, at the other end of the chain, is the same type and equally dangerous (as citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum discovered so cruelly centuries ago). It hasn’t erupted since 1944, making it even more suspect. Note that the forces creating these two monsters—the African tectonic plate pushing against the European plate—are also responsible for our beloved Aeolian Island chain.

The Islands of Vulcano and Stromboli

Two of Lipari’s neighbors have also played important roles in the science of vulcanology. Vulcano, which obviously gave its name to the whole kit and caboodle, is the definitive form of one of the main types of eruptions. A Vulcanian eruption is characterized by a dense cloud of ash rising thousands of feet in the air like grainy news footage of early A-bomb tests. It threatens air traffic and can affect the world’s temperature and weather patterns for years after. Scientists thankfully swear Vulcano’s volcano is officially dormant, throwing off only enough bubbles from the ocean bed for a proper mud bath or thermal treatment.

Stromboli, on the other hand, is almost constantly active presenting a stunning light show nearly every evening. A Strombolian eruption occurs when rising gasses provide the propulsion behind clots of molten lava. These fiery missiles then arc through the night sky landing on the shoulders of the mountain creating huge cinder fields.

Now here’s an interesting factoid -- Stromboli is also the title of a 1950s film starring Ingrid Bergman as well as a fattening pizza sandwich resembling a whopping, two-hander calzone.

Lovely Lipari

Lipari, the name not only of the port but also the 14-square-mile island, is the largest town of the archipelago. There are several other small villages with poetic names like Pianoconte, Quattropani, and Acquacalda. A spin around the island reveals the routine of daily life in the living drama only a volcanic environment can create.

Pumice covers the island and is widely mined for export to the world’s beauty salons for pedicures and to garment factories producing stonewashed jeans. Obsidian is another product resulting from volcanic activity. You’ll find obsidian jewelry at local souvenir stands but that same jet black, glass-like stone is also sharpened to a microscopic thinness for surgical scalpels used abroad.

And, while Lipari no longer has active volcanoes, it’s not without volcanic activity. Steaming fumaroles dot the landscape and hot thermal springs offer a favorite form of relaxation for visitors and locals alike.

Long Ago Lipari

Lipari emerged from the sea somewhere around 15,000 years ago but has been inhabited for only the last 7,000 because one wouldn’t want one’s sandals to fry right off one’s feet now would one! Plus, until the 19th century, no one dared live anywhere on the island except Lipari town because of rampaging pirates. Their main protection was that massive fortress defining Lipari’s “skyline” today. Built in 1544 by Charles V of Spain on top an ancient Greek acropolis, it was the only safe haven for frightened citizens.

Rolling from that date back through the centuries, Lipari boasts a history common to most strategically important Mediterranean harbors. The 12th and 13th centuries featured an ecclesiastical dominance by the Roman Catholic Church. During most of the 11th, the island hosted the Normans who had ousted the Arabs. The Arabs had occupied the island in the 9th and 10th after the Saracens had slaughtered much of the population. And on and on with the Greeks, the Romans, the Carthaginians, the Etruscans and the Syracusans all leaving their mark. This is exactly why the recently-created archaeological museum, just up from the fortress, is worth a visit because it fills in the details.

And, following that walk down memory lane, reward yourself with a local Malvasia wine and plate of fresh figs at a harborfront cafe. The ship’s tender will arrive shortly to whisk you off to your next volcanic adventure. 

                                                                             Karyn L. Planett